Déjà vu as 13-year-old plans for thousands of houses resurface.
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02 Jan 2018The Kent Science Park in partnership with developer Quinn Estates has put forward proposals for 11,250 houses, 120,000 sq m of commercial space, a new motorway junction and Sittingbourne Southern Relief Road connecting the M2 to the A2 in Bapchild.
To understand the full implications and scale of what is being proposed here, and to provide some context, I’m going to outline some useful facts and provide a potted history of events leading up to this proposal.
It is hard to comprehend the scale of the housing development proposed here, so if I told you that over a twenty-year period between 1994 and 2014 we only managed to build 11,253 houses across the whole of Swale, you may start to grasp just how large this really is.
It is like bolting on the population of Faversham onto Sittingbourne as an urban extension, it is practically on par with Ebbsfleet Garden City a development of 15,000 homes and so large it is its own planning authority. The Ebbsfleet development promises three times the number of jobs with less than half the commercial space, which clearly demonstrates what poor value these proposals represent. We always seem to aim low and expect even less.
We have literally only just completed a marathon series of public consultations on the Councils Local Plan which spanned several years and was only finally adopted in June of this year. The result of which saw our housing targets increased to 13,192 over a 17-year period which concludes in 2031.
No element of the above scheme including the housing is part of the Councils Local Plan, so for those who will no doubt suggest we need more housing for whatever well-motivated reasons, please understand that the council has already spent approximately 7 years agreeing how much housing we do need, and sufficient land has been allocated within the plan to deliver this target, so we do not need any more housing beyond what is already within the plan.
Whilst the Kent Science Park did try to engineer some aspirational policies around an expanded commercial base, the Sittingbourne Southern Relief Road and new motorway junction in the plan, they failed to appear before the government inspector to present their case. This resulted in all their plans being thrown out by the government inspector due to a lack of any clear proposals and even less evidence to support any of their aspirations.
Expansion of the Science Park
The scale of commercial expansion proposed here would make the Kent Science Park the largest single science park in the UK, larger than Oxford and Cambridge Science Parks combined. You have to question just how realistic that is, and the possibility that this simply becomes another industrial estate when it fails to support the magnitude of science-based companies necessary to fulfil this brief.
Over last thirteen years, the Kent Science Park has put forward countless differing proposals, with varying degrees of scale. The plans are often inconsistent, frequently in conflict with one another and can deviate from the previous plans at the drop of a hat. Just two years ago the owners of the park agreed that a significant scale of expansion was possible within the existing site and on land which they already have planning permission for. They have had planning permission for a sizeable extension for some 8 years, but nothing has come of this, even though it was based on the notion that a major company needed this capability urgently otherwise they would look elsewhere. The company concerned, who I won’t name is still on site in the same offices they purported were not capable of maintaining their business.
At times the owners of the park have wanted to build 10,000 houses then 5,000 houses and then claimed that it had no interest in building houses. It has also claimed it would create thousands of jobs, but whilst the park has enjoyed a modicum of success it has fallen woefully short of all expectations and their own forecasts for growth.
Now whilst I am critical and always have been of the greater expansion proposals and everything associated with it, I have always supported a realistic level of employment growth.
However, with plans to create 11,000 new jobs, in addition to the 1,600 or so they claimed were employed at the start of the year, in so-called high-value employment, I am more than a little sceptical. The existing 1,600 employees figure came before a series of large company departures which have resulted in over 400 job losses. It’s not been a good year for the park. Given that the park employed circa 1,000 employees back in 2004, we could be back to sub 1,200 levels now, the proposals therefore look, quite frankly, like pure fantasy.
Sittingbourne Southern Relief Road
I will be the first to admit that many people may well favour such an idea, it sounds good in theory, well at least until you read the verdict of the transport modelling that was undertaken by Swale Borough Council.
However, before we get to that, consider for one moment what the point of the road is? It’s actually quite a difficult question to answer, certainly, most people would struggle beyond some simple notion that it will make everything better.
Originally, it was actually a scheme devised to deal with problems around M2 Junction 5. The idea was that if enough traffic could be removed from the A249 corridor, we would not need to upgrade junction 5 which was also considered to be so expensive that it would never happen, so the alternative proposal was to build a new road to the M2.
There has only ever been one route considered for the road, even though its one of the longest stretches of land between the A2 and the M2, it’s the only one that would serve Kent Science Park, which is the only reason for its existence.
It must have been an incredible blow when the government unexpectedly announced funding for an upgrade of junction 5. However, I expect that the proposed M2 junction upgrade will get buried/postponed now, due to the nature of the scheme presented to us. However, this opens the possibility of resurrecting the Southern Relief Road as some kind of alternative.
There are just one or two problems with this idea, namely that M2 Junction 5 is regionally significant and that the upgrade does not just concern Sittingbourne, so an upgrade of some kind has to happen regardless.
Secondly, what about the conclusions that that traffic modelling. Well, the good news is that it did show some minor improvements in Sittingbourne Town Centre, and that’s where the good news ends. It clearly demonstrated that traffic on the M2 between this new junction (5a) and junction 5 substantially increased creating increased pressure on M2 Junction 5, the very thing it was supposed to resolve.
It also showed increased traffic on the A2 between Bapchild and Faversham and also on the rural network with Bell Road and Woodtsock Road taking a particular hammering. Oh, and if this were not enough, the study did not include for anything like the level of development proposed here, so any possible benefits would be counterbalanced by enormous additional volumes of traffic produced by this scheme and the problems highlighted would, in fact, be considerably worse.
Looking to gain support from your local politicians?
None of this has deterred our local conservative politicians who have continued to exalt the virtues of both the Sittingbourne Southern Relief Road and expanded Science Park. Our MP Gordon Henderson has continually lobbied the government to support aspects of the scheme, although he has no realistic proposals to offer with regards to how any of this might be funded and has like so many of his fellow conservative councillors have disassociated themselves from their own governments' housing policies now they have become so toxic.
Swale Borough Council leader, Andrew Bowles, has gone further than most in his undying love affair of Kent Science Park. Last October Andrew Bowles lobbied the Thames Estuary Commission to lend support to the idea of creating a series of new “community” villages in South Sittingbourne explicitly to support the development of the Kent Science Park. So, the plans were on the table long before the Local Plan was signed off.
So why didn’t Kent Science Park use this opportunity to put these forward their proposals, simple, they are wanted to avoid any degree of scrutiny, by members of the public or the government inspector because they know full well the plans simply wouldn’t hold water. It’s not even the first time they have used this tactic, they did pretty much the same thing back in 2006 when they pulled all their plans just before the public inquiry.
Andrew Bowles is also now the Kent County Councillor representative for much of the area covered by these plans, but don’t worry he is just delivering on his election promise to build all the housing in Sittingbourne instead of Faversham.
If you feel aggrieved and disenfranchised by this back-door planning process, you might want to seek out Independent councillor Monique Bonney who serves much of the area affected as the borough council’s representative. As a founder member of the Five Parishes Opposition Group a lobbying group who represent the interests of the residents of Bapchild, Bredgar, Milstead, Rodmersham and Tunstall and whom have tirelessly campaigned against the large-scale expansion proposals, she has been instrumental in providing residents with all the facts so that you can make up your own mind.