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Campaigners ‘dismayed and horrified’ as council plans to promote controversial garden town on taxpayer-funded trip to French Riviera

PUBLISHED: 09:48 20 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:44 24 July 2017

Cannes, France, where Shepway District Council will champion the controversial Otterpool Park garden town

Cannes, France, where Shepway District Council will champion the controversial Otterpool Park garden town

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Shepway District Council has defended the visit, insisting it will bring “major benefits for minimal financial outlay”

Campaigners opposed to the development of a huge garden town say they are “dismayed and horrified” as council bosses plan to promote the controversial project on a taxpayer-funded trip to the French Riviera.

Chiefs at a Shepway District Council cabinet meeting this week endorsed the visit to an international property event across the Channel, renowned as much for its lavish parties as its housing conferences.

Representatives from the local authority - understood to be one councillor and one officer - are planning to attend MIPIM in Cannes in March to bang the drum for the Otterpool Park development, which is set to deliver up to 12,000 homes in the district.

The plans, for land close to Sellindge and Folkestone Racecourse, may see much-needed housing, but campaigners say it will devastate existing countryside and put a huge strain on roads and services.

Aerial map of Otterpool Park developmentAerial map of Otterpool Park development

Now council chiefs hope MIPIM, which pulls in thousands of property experts for “four days of networking, learning and transaction” will help shine a global spolight on its plans.

However, previous attendees have described the conference as a “glorified booze cruise” with some lavish networking events held on luxury yachts, but councils see it as a chance to showcase the best their area has to offer to business chiefs from around the globe.

David Plumstead is co-ordinator of Otterpool Newtown Coalition campaign group.

He told us this week: “I’m dismayed and horrified that they are spending all this money doing this promotion.

“What the hell it has got to do with the south of France, I don’t know.”

The cabinet has defended the trip, however, insisting it is “entirely appropriate for Otterpool Park to be given the international exposure such a project warrants”.

A spokesperson told us: “Our aim is to deliver much needed new homes and jobs at Otterpool Park in a garden town setting that will provide for future generations in our district.

“Going to the MIPIM event will give us a unique opportunity to promote Otterpool Park to significant and potential investors in the residential and commercial property markets.”

Other local authorities have been slammed for lavish spending at the popular event, with the London Borough of Haringey recently found to have splashed some £44,000 on a visit to MIPIM earlier this year.

Shepway, however, says it has “yet to finalise total costings” but suggests the figure will be some way off that mark.

The spokesperson added: “We are acutely aware of ensuring that we secure value for money from this event.

“Costs will be kept to a minimum as we will be joining with Locate in Kent as it promotes the county to international investor markets.

“Attendance at this event will, we believe, bring major benefits for minimal financial outlay.”

The trip comes as the town hall steps up its relationship with the Department for International Trade, with which it has been liaising over Otterpool Park since the start of the year.

A report presented to members this week claims the DIT can help to promote major infrastructure and development projects to an international audience, in the hunt for investment and development partners.

The department is working with the South East Local Enterprise Partnership - which champions economic growth in Kent and Medway - to identify such projects within the area, and initial submissions were sought back in May, when Shepway signalled its interest.

The projects the DIT generally supports are infrastructure or large scale developments that have planning permission and are ready to deliver, however bosses have recognised some projects, such as new garden towns, may need a longer lead in and could benefit from initial promotion at a strategic level before the details of specific investment or development opportunities are decided upon.

Therefore, the report claims, the DIT board intends to work with Shepway as a pilot on a new approach to promote garden towns and other similar scale projects that are at an early stage.

The government has asked the council to provide some further details on Otterpool Park, with a view to agreeing a package of measures for promotion of the project, including coverage on the DIT’s website.

The timescales for any activities will all be through further discussion and agreement between the two parties but council chiefs say it would give them the opportunity and advantage of being the first of the garden towns to be actively promoted by government.

While the council is supportive of the project, plans have been met with significant opposition in recent months, as campaigners organised a series of protest marches over concerns it would destroy the Shepway countryside.

However, chiefs behind the project have attempted to allay fears by insisting “it won’t be swathes of concrete” and that green space would be at the heart of the development.

Last month, fresh details of the plans were announced as drop-in consultation events were held across Folkestone, Hythe and Romney Marsh.

Mr Plumstead said he interviewed 71 attendees across the five events and reported 61 being against the development.

However, the council insists the response to the plans has largely been more positive and said some members of the public has said in feedback they found the atmosphere at the consultation drop-ins to be “intimidating”.

The report added: “A limited number of people objecting to the principle of large scale development attended each event with the stated intention of dominating the proceedings.”

Key features proposed for the garden town include a high street, where there would be shops and amenities as well as homes, while green space could be utilised for allotments, food growing areas and sports pitches.

Currently, two secondary schools and seven primary schools are proposed, while there is a heavy emphasis on business, with large investment in broadband infrastructure proposed, as well as an innovation fund to encourage companies to relocate to the area.

Furthermore, conversations are ongoing with Network Rail about upgrading the nearest train station, Westenhanger, as well attempts to extend the high speed line from central London - a proposal included in Kent County Council’s submission to the Department for Transport as part of the ongoing consultation into the new south eastern rail franchise, set to take effect next year.

Health care is also at the top of the agenda for project managers, with the aim of introducing a GP practice, primary and secondary care and social care services - particularly relevant given a Folkestone surgery announced last month it is set to close in November.

In terms of a timeline, which bosses admit is “ambitious”, the next six months will be spent responding to issues and suggestions while continuing to develop plans, before preparing and submitting a formal planning application to the local authority in the spring next year.

A pre-application consultation will also take place during this period.

By late 2019, chiefs expect an initial decision in principle by the council, which would then mean work could begin in 2020.

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