Swale Borough Council is about to embark on possibly the most absurd and ludicrous consultation they have ever concocted in order to support their case for a new garden town in Swale. In a couple of weeks’ time, you will be asked for your opinion.
Whilst the Council is keen to stress that absolutely no decisions have been made on either the general concept of adopting a garden town/village approach to planning the future of our borough or the potential locations of such an enterprise, I believe the councils own actions have severely undermined their objectivity and prejudiced any decision that will ultimately be made.
Let me explain why.
Firstly, whilst the borough council might talk about “innovative thinking” and “locally led garden communities”, ask anyone at the Council why we need yet more housing and you likely to be met with a response along the lines of “we’re doing this because the government is likely to force more housing on us and we are trying to get ahead of the game.”
Council leader, Andrew Bowles said at a council meeting in February “I really do get fed up with having to repeat myself, I don’t want any more houses in Swale I personally feel the current figure in our local plan is too high, so I don’t want that figure and I certainly don’t want a higher figure. But if it does happen its no good waiting until after it is imposed on us, we have to look at all the opportunities. We have previously taken the stance rightly or wrongly that we would spread the housing across the borough, so we’ve managed to upset 47 councillors, 37 parish councils and every community, I have no intention of going down that line again. I would rather we go for one or two or at the very most three settlements if we are forced to take more housing.”
So, let’s put this to the test, we know that on 14th September 2017 the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP announced his statement on fixing the housing market and the “Planning for the right homes in the right places” consultation commenced. This is the consultation which the borough council cites as the reason why they now need to look again at housing numbers and potential locations to accommodate them.
However, predating this announcement just over a year, Andrew Bowles wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government on 9th September 2016 to submit evidence for Swale’s plan to create a series of “garden” communities with interlinked access and communication. This would see a new M2 junction 5a, with a southern relief road connecting to the A2, opening up Kent Science Park and the surrounding area and enabling a new cluster of community villages.”
Evidently then, even back in 2016, the Council was actively seeking to build significantly more houses that were then in the local plan, significantly more than the figure that were apparently then subsequently forced upon the council and was also already expressing a serious interest towards adopting the garden town style of planning and its potential location.
Then there is the question of the Housing & Infrastructure Forward Funding Fund announced in July 2017 where the council has put forward a bid to incorporate opening up 1,000 acres of previously inaccessible land for 12,500 houses in a “garden village” design, along with a new M2 junction 5 and Southern Relief Road and also to explore the potential link to the existing Northern Relief Road.
This bid submitted by KCC was endorsed and approved by Swale Borough Council and appears to have the full support of our elected KCC representatives Cllrs Andrew Bowles, Mike Whiting and John Wright.
However, Cllr Bowles among others is keen to downplay the significance of this element of the Housing Infrastructure bid stating “The intention of it is very clear, most of the funding for that is for improvements to the Grovehurst junction and the mill roundabout and to finish off the Northern Relief Road. Out of the grand total, I can’t remember off the top of my head, it’s something like £40k for exploratory work south of the A2. So, although it may be part of the scheme that grant money will only just pay for the other works. I’m giving you the facts.”
Ok, well here are some more facts for you to consider, the bid comprised of three elements totalling £40 million, as suggested the Grovehurst Junction is where most of the money is destined coming in at £31 million, then another £6 million for the Keycol interchange and finally £3 million for feasibility work around completing the Northern Relief Road and Southern Relief Road.
Therefore, I think Cllr Andrew Bowles is being somewhat disingenuous in his attempt to downplay the significance of this element of the funding which I’m told by Kent County Council, only partially contributes to the modelling work with the majority contributing towards associated development costs such as topographical surveys, design costs and consultation fees etc. So, whilst Quinn Estates may have a commitment to fund a 66% share of the model costs, it will be the taxpayer who foots the bill for all the supporting development work around the Quinn Estates/Kent Science Park scheme.
On the subject of the contract for the transport model Cllr Lewin stated at full council “it was my understanding that the other party to this was, in fact, another major scheme promotor or developer in Faversham. So, there is more than one party involved.” However, the council’s legal representatives have confirmed that Quinn Estates are the only other party involved besides the borough and county councils.
Cllr Bowles would appear to imply that the work on the Grovehurst junction is the most important aspect of the bid. But if we consider which delivers the most housing, after all this is a bid for funding infrastructure to deliver housing, then by some significant margin the £3 million for the feasibility work wins hands down. Sure, the Grovehurst junction is critical to delivering the housing we already have in the local plan, but this in itself would be unlikely to be enough to satisfy a sizeable increase in housing in the Sittingbourne area and honestly in my opinion that is a foregone conclusion.
Not convinced, well don’t take my word for it, in a presentation to the Kent & Medway Economic Partnership on 7th September, a week before the government ‘s announcement on potentially increasing housing, the Housing Infrastructure Fund was introduced by Katie Stewart - Director of Environment, Planning and Enforcement at KCC, Mary Gillett - Major Projects Manager at KCC and Joe Ratcliffe - Transport Strategy Manager at KCC described the Swale portion of the bid as the “Swale Transport Infrastructure Junction 5a Plus” project.
Cllr Andrew Bowles then spoke about the Junction 5a Plus project, which would help deliver key transport infrastructure across Sittingbourne and about this project’s connection to the local plan.
Surely the project has absolutely no connection to the local plan, the inclusion of the potential expansion of Kent Science Park and Southern Relief Road were both rejected by a government inspector just a few months prior this meeting.
Kent County Council has assessed the impact of the governments objectively assessed needs methodology and concluded that the impact for Kent as a whole would be some 23,600 new homes. However, our borough council seems to determine to take on most of the load all by itself.
More interestingly, however, is the commentary from the county council in relation to the three forward funding expressions of interest, where they talk about the county’s embracement of the Government’s Garden Town Programme with an emerging new plan led settlement in Swale named Highsted Park. And for those that don’t know that is the name of the Quinn Estates / Kent Science Park proposal.
If there is any doubt left, then surely the fact that the Strategic Transport Model funded by the Housing Infrastructure Fund will only model one potential location for the Garden Town, the one promoted by Quinn Estates and Kent Science Park must prejudice the outcome.
After all are we really supposed to believe that should the council be successful in winning the funding bid, both Swale Borough Council and Kent County Council would be prepared to go back to the government and say sorry we wasted £3million on an infrastructure project that isn’t going to delivery any housing because the public voted to locate the Garden Town in Faversham, Upchurch or whatever other so-called options they dream up.
Th consultation named ‘Looking Ahead’ is set to commence on or around 27th of April 2018