East Kent merged council proposals ‘will not threaten’ delivery of Thanet local plan, insists Ukip leader Chris Wells as consultation launches today
PUBLISHED: 09:04 20 January 2017 | UPDATED: 09:04 20 January 2017
Proposals were revealed last year to merge the councils of Ashford, Canterbury, Dover, Shepway and Thanet into one authority
Plans to create an east Kent ‘super council’ will not threaten the delivery of a local plan for Thanet, the local authority’s leader insists.
Proposals were revealed last year to merge the councils of Ashford, Canterbury, Dover, Shepway and Thanet into one authority in a bid to improve the delivery of services to residents.
But as Thanet District Council launches a consultation into amendments to its local plan on Friday, its Ukip leader Chris Wells admitted while there would be benefits to a merged council, its creation would not mean tearing up specific plans for Thanet.
“It’s not going to affect this process, but you’re required by law to cooperate with other local authorities,” he told us.
“As part of that, having what may be an east Kent local plan as a single document rather than having five competing across the same range of territory might make the whole thing a little more coordinated and organised.
“At the moment there’s an awful lot of conversations going on between the five councils about what may go where and if that came under a merged council it would, to an extent, simplify the process.
“The councils’ local plans finish in different years from each others, so they would have to be brought together, just like everything else, if it’s going to happen.
“That would happen over a petiod of time, there’d be a detailed planning process, but I don’t consider it a serious threat to this process.”
District council chiefs across the county are understood to meet regularly to update each other on the work being done and iron out any cross-boundary issues.
The new consultation invites comments from residents about revisions to the plan which previously went out to consultation in 2015.
A local plan is a document which aims to shape the future development of a local authority area, guiding decisions on whether or not planning applications can be granted.
If a council fails to produce a local plan, central government penalises the authority and it loses a significant level of control and influence over development.
The plan details how the council needs to find 9,300 more homes between to meet the government-agreed target total of 17,140 by 2031 - 30 per cent of which will be affordable housing.
Council chief executive Madeline Homer told us: “The role of the local plan is supporting development within the district, and clearly we have ambitions for Thanet around economic development and encouraging inward investment here.
“Clearly we want good quality housing and hopefully our policies within the local plan support that as well as the appropriate allocation of sites.
“So the local plan, at the end of the day, has a critical function in enabling that vision to be delivered in a way that is acceptable to the council and the residents of Thanet.
“The challenge for us specifically in Thanet is probably around ensuring the delivery of those housing numbers and doing that in a way that ensures we retain the ability to deliver 30 per cent of affordable housing because there are some challenges from time to time about viability of some sites.”
Cllr Wells added: “The vision for Thanet has to be about encouraging economic development, encouraging the right sort of housing in the right places and encouraging the development of a place where people are comfortable to live and work and feel at home.”
However, arguably the biggest issue of contention at the heart of the plan is the council’s proposal to turn the former Manston Airport site over for mixed-use, rather than aviation only.
A planning application has been submitted by bosses at the Stone Hill Park project, which proposes to build 2,500 homes and create leisure facilities on the site.
The council is backed by a report from consultants Avia Solutions, which concluded airport operations at Manston were “very unlikely to be financially viable in the longer term and almost certainly not possible in the period to 2031”.
Campaigners fighting to save the airport have slammed the report’s integrity, but Cllr Wells has repeatedly thrown his weight behind it.
He said: “In the context of the local plan, it’s actually pretty simple and straightforward - what is required is evidence in order to justify our decisions on land use.
“At the moment that evidence for the continuation of Manston as an airport site is not forthcoming, it’s not visible, it’s not been presented to us and in that context we have to go with the evidence that we do possess.
“That evidence says that, at the moment, the mixed-use position is one the inspector will be likely to accept as we haven’t got evidence to maintain it for aviation use only.
“People can tell me all they like that they don’t like it, but until they produce evidence to the contrary that report is what we have as evidence to send to the inspector.
“If we present something that we know is unsupported, the risk is that the local plan gets rejected, and then all the other things that go with it get sacrificed because of this one particular element, and that’s not something I think we can be comfortable with.
“This plan has been deferred in terms of protection for sites across the island as a whole since 2011 and I think that’s long enough.”
Ms Homer added: “I’m hopeful we will come to some conclusion [on Manston].
“But the local plan provides the opportunity, certainly in the final consultation, for other stakeholders and interested parties to contribute their thoughts and evidence around what actually happens on that site and I think that’s a very positive part of this process.”
Cllr Wells has come under fire for alleged “broken promises” regarding Manston, and South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay called for him to resign immediately after the publication of the Avia report.
However, the leader has since repeatedly denied making a specific pre-election pledge to get planes flying again.
On whether he was looking to create some kind of legacy in the council’s local plan, Cllr Wells said: “Politicians talk about legacies when they’re coming towards the end of their careers.
“I think I’ve got a long way to go yet.”
There will be a series of public meetings to discuss the draft plan and residents can also have their say via the council’s website consult.thanet.gov.uk from today.