The new coalition-run Swale Borough Council will no longer be a soft target for developers, warns its new leader.
“The message we have got to send to developers is Swale is no longer an easy touch,” says Labour's Roger Truelove. “This council has been too keen to put massive numbers of houses in rural locations and consequently they haven't really been looking at creative alternatives. We think there are plenty of creative alternatives to basically ruining our countryside.”
Swale, now controlled by the multi-party Cooperative alliance, has promised to put the brakes on excessive building as part of a radical new approach to housing which will see more affordable homes for local people.
The new council has already suggested cutting the number of new houses in Swale by around a third.
“Remember the previous administration was looking at 14-15,000 new homes,” says Swale's new Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Planning Mike Baldock. “The Government may only ask for 9,000. It hasn't even set these targets yet. So even by meeting the Government's targets, rather than the previous administration's targets, we've cut the housing figures by 5-6,000.”
Those numbers suggest an uncertain future for the controversial 11,500-house development proposed by Quinn Estates and championed by ousted Conservative Leader Andrew Bowles. Marketed as a so-called 'garden community', the vast housing estate planned for land near Kent Science Park in Sittingbourne may not now see the light of day under Swale's 'radica;' new approach..
As leader of the Swale Independents group, Coun Baldock campaigned against overdevelopment not supported by necessary infrastructure. As planning member for the new coalition council, he says housing will cater more for existing local need.
“It means trying to get the kind of housing that isn't currently provided,” he says. “Things like bungalows. We do need more housing for disabled people. But we also need more starter homes than is currently being talked about.”
It will be an uphill struggle. Local authorities are under immense pressure from the Government to allow more housebuilding, in a market where developers often have the upper hand.
“It is ludicrous that we're put in a position by national policy that leaves us at the mercy of developers,” says councillor Baldock. “But we will be trying to deal with that in a more robust way than may have been the case in the past. I think there should be more cross-council work in arguing and pointing out the constraints that affect Kent. Although Swale is particularly bad, they are facing problems in the rest of Kent as well and I think it's time that Kent councils got together and made that point to the Government.”
Roger Truelove adds: “We intend to work much more closely with housing associations and we will be looking at land prioritised for housing associations. We want a plan to tackle homelessness and the need for affordable social housing. It's a very high priority. In the last resort we would consider borrowing and building.”
But what of Swale's Local Development Plan - the 20-year scheme drawn up by the deposed Conservative-run administration in 2017 which sets out future house-building targets?
“We wouldn't want to wait to wait four years for a review of the local plan to get acting. It will be much quicker than that,” says councillor Baldock.
Swale's new Cabinet Member for Housing, Faversham Lib Dem councillor Ben J Martin, agrees: “The LDF is not going to be the be-all and end-all of the social housing policy. We have assets and we need to look at how we can best use those. We need to be looking at how we can best work with the social housing providers that already exist and encouraging communities to go down the community land trust route. “
A Community Land Trust is a non-profit corporation that provides sustainable, community-led affordable housing schemes. CLT housing is being developed in the UK and worldwide as part of a growing international movement.
“We've also got a lot of empty dwellings,” says Councillor Martin. “We have to look very carefully at how we balance what we're doing and make sure it actually makes financial sense but also meets the social conscience element. We have got a very long waiting list for social housing and that needs to be sorted pretty pronto...”
Read our story on the growth of Faversham here, or see recent large scale planning applications either passed and and commenced
or in the planning system and yet to be decided here.