Is Wye safe in Ashford council’s hands?

by Mike Copland for Wye Flood Group

Wye’s biggest housing development on the AONB for 30 years – complete with endangered newts and water voles! – comes up for a final detailed planning approval by Ashford Borough Council Planning Committee on Wednesday. But there are some strongly contested issues which the planning papers have failed to include.

oil depot photo.jpgIf Imperial get their way this is only the first of a series of developments which will change Wye forever. No – it’s not Imperial College this time but Folkestone Development Company (FDC Homes) who paid a pittance of £605,000 to the MOD for the seven-acre Oil Depot site, already designated for housing. The place is not on a College brown-field site but 400 yards away, sitting on the river flood plain on the west side of the railway station. FDC’s plan shows 57 houses which will alter the view of the North Downs from the Crown and miles around and for everyone who walks or motors down Churchfield Way to Wye station.

So it’s very interesting to see how Ashford Borough Council now views Wye. Is it still a heritage village? Or are we now just another high value, low quality offcut from the Park Farm production line? In recent times Ashford’s own publicity described Wye as ‘the jewel in Ashford’s crown’ but has Imperial changed all that? We will soon know. Will the planning committee take a responsible approach to the impact of a large development in the AONB? How do they regard the rare and protected species which live and move up and down the water courses adjacent to the development site? There are lots of important questions here and we shall soon have the answers.

This scheme is also an indicator of how the needs and views of existing residents are taken into account. How much notice is paid of the views of our parish council? Will our usually very vocal borough councillor speak out this time and represent the views of the residents? How much weight will his fellow councillors give to the site’s Development Brief, the Village Design Statement and the views of professionals in the Wye Village Design Group? Will technical advice from bodies such as the Environment Agency, the Internal Drainage Board and English Nature be noted and acted upon? Will this development be an example of best practice and good design, or will the Borough Council favour the cheapest and easiest option?

Now for the story so far. You’ll have to accept that the development of this site means building on a river flood plain. Just ignore that the development will only exacerbate the access problems across the level crossing. You might have expected an application to be thrown out for those reasons, but not these days!

If you do not know Wye, the contaminated war-time strategic oil depot behind rusty railings makes an awful approach to the village. Everyone has accepted the principle of development on the site and the remaining objections to the scheme are about quality and community benefit. There are no nimbies here and Wye people welcome the 13 much-needed affordable houses for local youngsters to rent or get a foot on the property market. However, there are still three hotly contested issues and Wednesday will be crunch day.

Flooding: Bramble Lane properties are subject to periodic deep flooding from streams and surface water which encounter a reduced size Southern Water pipe (30-50 years old) under the station car park, although this subsequently opens into an old large under railway culvert (165 years old) and deep ditch (300+ years old) to the river. The developer has persuaded Southern Water to allow surface drainage from their site to use this pipe and to reverse all road drains (and therefore flood relief water) back to the Air Ministry Dyke, a ditch with little fall that meanders for a mile to reach the river, and is quite unable to take our flood water. In summer, rain showers (when the ditch is dry) will lead to severe contamination of the ditch with road pollutants to the detriment of plants and protected species. While, in winter, this ineffective route will lead to an increased depth of periodic flooding for existing residents. The Environment Agency have written a report to Ashford council, clearly stating that the new development should ensure that all road and flood waters should use an improved railway route (reinstating the 300-year-old drainage system) and the developer should pay a contribution though an S106 agreement since the new residents will also benefit. However, so far, ABC has failed to communicate this to its Planning Committee and is recommending acceptance with no conditions. Why would they do that?

Design issues: Wye Village Design Group and the parish council have patiently worked with FDC on dozens of points over the past two and a half years. FDC have removed many of the worst features and this is a good result. Sadly, the most prominent and probably most expensive house on the whole site still ignores the guidance in the Village Design Statement. The house in question is large and what you will see first when approaching Wye along Bramble Lane is a blank end wall and a flat roof extension attached to what tries to be a ‘Queen Anne’ house. FDC have refused to make any changes to this very poor design. What will the Planning Committee do about that?

Parish Council: The council also has six objections and they strongly support the objections expressed by the Flood Group and the Village Design Group, but no mention is made of this for the committee’s information. Once again, ABC has failed to allocate any S106 money from this development to provide community facilities for Wye residents. The parish council is not short of needy projects and will contest this omission as unfair. Other places, like Tenterden and Aldington have received huge sums on the back of their large developments.

Both the parish council and the design group worked on the Development Brief for this site in 2002. The document had wide public consultation and sets out the detailed policy framework that any developer should comply with, except that they haven’t. In particular, the main issue is the size of house and density criteria across the site and the resulting impact on the landscape. No less important is the question of the detailed selection of materials and missing detailing such as bridges and street lighting. This is the toughest of all the choices on Wednesday.

These reserved items should be subject to specified conditions and for instance allow the parish council and Village Design Group to view and comment on the actual materials before council officers give their approval. However, while this approach was agreed with the relevant planning officer at a recent meeting, no mention is made in the planning papers to be laid before the committee. If FDC sell the site to another developer, or the officer retires, anything could happen when the contractors move in.

The meeting starts at 7pm in the Council Chamber at the Civic Centre (Tannery Lane, Ashford) when, in turn, Mike Copland will speak for the Wye Flood Group, John Hodder for Wye Parish Council and Ian Cooling as Wye Borough Councillor. All will become clear as to how ABC deal with large housing applications in Wye’s AONB! Please come and give us your support.

Afterwards we shall be telling you the outcome and if you should have any faith that your village is safe in Ashford Borough Council’s hands.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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One Response to Is Wye safe in Ashford council’s hands?

  1. Richard Bartley says:

    Thank you for this helpful summary of the remaining issues.

    Over the past seven years there have been two developers involved on the Oil Depot site. Given the delays and the considerable number of plans and revisions to plans circulating during this time, there may be some confusion about a key point.

    The first and second schemes from Ariel Homes both proposed to build thirty five houses. This figure was also the Local Plan target for Wye’s growth. When FDC bought the site they increased the number to forty nine houses and their current application now shows fifty seven. The increase in housing density per acre was expected, as it reflected changing government policy in PPG3. However, the way that FDC has distributed these extra houses will have detrimental effect on the external appearance of the development and its impact on this particularly sensitive AONB landscape.

    Since FDC’s first concept drawings appeared in 2003, the road and plot layout has hardly changed, but FDC now intend to squeeze an extra eight houses on the artificial island at the east end of the site. These include all of the contentious large units along the northern edge.

    As Dr Copland indicates, this application is an important test case. A full public gallery on the 28th June will show that people from Wye care about their neighbours and their environment and give moral support to the volunteers working on everyone’s behalf.

    To save petrol and the notorious Civic Centre parking charges, can I offer anyone a lift? Please let me know.

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