The hot topic at the moment is undoubtedly the Billings Group plans to build 700 houses at Corinthians and Downs Valley. An opposition group exists; they have published leaflets and posters, but it is unclear who they are. I was unable to attend the meeting held on the 7th August, so don't know what was said there.
What follows is my research on the proposals.
It is described as an extension of Hartley, although the majority of the land is actually in Fawkham parish.
700 houses would represent a significant increase over the existing number of houses which in 2011 was 2,259.
This is not an actual planning application at this stage, but rather a proposal to list the site in the district plan as one where the council would allow development. Once it is in the district plan, development would be extremely likely.
The Planning Background
The background for this is the country's urgent need for more houses, particularly affordable ones. Sevenoaks Council estimated they would need 12,400 new homes in the district in the period 2015-35, which the government has since upped to 13,960 because Sevenoaks is one of the most unaffordable housing areas in the country outside London. As part of the planning process, Sevenoaks Council are required to idenfity sites which could meet this need. They do this by asking landowners to nominate sites they want to develop, which they then consider for inclusion in the district plan.
They are allowed to make an allowance for what are called "windfall" sites - that is, those not named in the district plan, but do become available for development. Most of Hartley's recent development (with the exception of the old allotment site at Caxton Close which was a site listed in a former district plan) would be classed as windfall. However in making the allowance, authorities are not allowed to count windfalls arising from building on garden land, which would appear to rule out a lot.
Another problem facing Sevenoaks is the limited amount of land that is not green belt. 93% of the district is green belt land and 60% has the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designation too. This may make it difficult for the council to meet their obligations without removing some land from the green belt.
The current state of play is set out in the Strategic Housing and Economic Land Availability Assessment (July 2018). They have split the sites that passed the suitability test and could be developed in the next 5 years into 4 categories in descending order of desirability:
(Category 1) Within identified settlements (24 sites, 331-408 units)
(Category 2) 100% brownfield land in green belt (23 sites, 447-603 units)
(Category 3) Partial brownfield land in green belt (47 sites, 622-847 units)
(Category 4) Green belt next to identified settlements (36 sites, 2,666-3,558 units)
The problem for Sevenoaks is that they appear to need 3,500 houses in the next 5 years but brownfield will only yield about half that number. Even with an addition for windfall sites, it does seem difficult to avoid the conclusion they will have to build on the Green Belt somewhere.
The SHLAA rejected most of the Corinthians scheme, but does support an extension of the Parkfield estate to the crest of the hill. This would result in 141-188 houses being built. It also rejected proposals to build at Manor Lane, Hartley and Johnson's Farm, Ash. However it did support building 6-8 houses at Eureka Naturist Club, Fawkham. This assessent is not the end of the matter though, as the call for sites is still out and the draft district plan will need to be approved by the Planning Inspectorate.
Full details of the SHLAA site assessments are on the Sevenoaks Council website, Corinthians is a Category 3 site, Downs Valley is a Category 4 site. Probably over half of the category 4 sites will need to be developed to meet the housing target.
If Sevenoaks do not allocate enough sites to meet their housing targets, then potentially that can be used against them in determining planning appeals. If a council doesn't allocate enough land, then the minister can say the need for housing outweighs the district plan. We have an example locally of this happening - in the 1960s Kent County Council was dragging their heels in providing housing sites, so the minister Richard Crossman granted approval for the first application from Kent that came across his desk, and there we have New Ash Green!
If the council does allocate enough sites, then they are probably fireproof from developers trying to bounce them into allowing development on other green belt sites. This was the inference from a recent case in Cheshire. The minister has rejected a proposal for 900 homes on the Gorstyhill Golf Club. It is not exactly the same set of circumstances, in particular the development was bigger than the existing village, but a key point is that they might have got planning permission had Cheshire East council not been able to say there was sufficient land allocated for housing in the next 5 years. The locals and the council there spent 5 years opposing the development according to a blog.
The Corinthians Proposal
The Billings Group have issued a brochure setting out their plans called "A Community Vision for Hartley". As well as the Corinthians Sports Club, the plans also affect the fields that lead from Downs Valley to the Fawkham Valley Road, and half of the meadow by St Mary's Church, Fawkham. In all the site is 74.6 ha (184 acres) of which 34.7 ha are allocated to build 700 houses, 27.9 ha to open space and the remainder to other community and business uses.
They suggest that Hartley and Longfield should be treated as one urban area (in fact the Office for National Statistics does treat Hartley, Longfield and New Ash Green as one urban area); and that Hartley has good links to rail stations, district hospital and regional shopping centres.
They argue that special circumstances apply to this land and that it should be removed from the green belt. They say their proposals are sustainable development and should be decided on planning grounds, not local politics. They think they have met national criteria to justify releasing green belt, but acknowledge it requires the council to have exhausted all non-green belt options first.
They also claim that as part of a national trend, membership of the golf club has fallen in recent years, and that the members could be accommodated by the other Billings Group Golf Course at Redlibbets.
Other key proposals are:
- New primary school and special educational needs school (the proposals have the support of Hartley Primary School because they say the exsiting site is unsuitable and moving to Corinthians will allow them to become a 3 form entry school to meet demand).
- Retirement village of bungalows
- 40% of housing to be "affordable"
- Provision for self build housing
- Parkfield road to be extended to Fawkham Valley road to act as a relief road for Castle Hill. Additional road from Hemmesley's Yard to Fawkham Valley Road
- "Satellite" GP surgery
- Community Allotments
- Some business units
- £3.5m for local authority from new homes bonus
No development poster at entrance to (Billings!) Bramblefield Estate
Appraisal of the Proposals
(a) Green Belt Policy
The Corinthians proposal would appear to fail at this first stage. In the Government's Housing Policy Paper "Fixing the Broken Housing Market" it states that:
Maintaining existing strong protections for the Green Belt, and clarifying that Green Belt boundaries should be amended only in exceptional circumstances when local authorities can demonstrate that they have fully examined all other reasonable options for meeting their identified housing requirement
Since the Council's Strategic Land and Housing Availability Assessment document already identifies enough sites to build the 3,500 houses they are required to within the next 5 years, then Corinthians as a site is clearly not required, so it is difficult to argue that exceptional circumstances apply if all the council's approved sites go ahead.
It must be remembered though, that the limited extension of Downs Valley to the crest of the hill is one of the approved sites that they say can meet their housing target. So to avoid Corinthians being built people may have to accept green belt building elsewhere.
(b) Housing Need
Clearly the need for more houses, and in particular affordable housing, is a national priority recognised by the main political parties. The evidence is that demand will still be there, even if immigration were to fall. While most people agree with the principle, many will say they should be built "somewhere else"! And to be fair, this is what the call for sites does, it asks local people to decide which of the offered sites are most appropriate. What will not be acceptable to the government is if the council doesn't allocate enough sites to meet their target.
What are local housing needs? The implication is that the majority of the estate will be 4/5 bedroom executive types as they are most profitable for developers. Also it is common for developers to get councils to reduce low levels of affordable homes even lower through "viability assessments", where they argue that the project isn't viable unless fewer affordable homes are built. These are kept secret from the public, and by implication anyone who could test the accuracy of the claims (New Statesman "Developers are using a trick to get out of building affordable homes", 10.7.2017). In this case it would be hard for the developer to argue land acquisition costs were too high because they bought both sites as agricultural land in 1949-1950. The Downs Valley land cost about £100 an acre where as building land it will be worth nearer £1 million an acre.
It is clear that the real need in Hartley is not for large houses but for small ones. This was the finding of the Hartley Parish Plan. The age profile in the 2011 census shows a lack of people aged 20-40 living here. It is clear there is not enough affordable housing for younger people.
More housing for older people downsizing is also a clear local need, given the size of the waiting list for Bramblefield. However placing the retirement bungalows at Corinthians would be some distance away from the services they would need to use.
There is a counter argument that the problem with the housing market is property speculation, which building more homes will not solve (see e.g. "Why building more homes will not solve Britain’s housing crisis", Guardian 27.1.18), but the council cannot use that argument to not plan for more houses. However it does highlight the risk that even if low cost housing is built, it may not benefit the people it is meant to help, but be snapped up by foreign and British property buyers to become yet more buy to lets.
(c) Health Centre
The plan includes a "satellite" GP surgery but is thin on what this actually entails. Without an attached chemist, its use would be limited, because people would still have to go to Longfield or New Ash Green to collect their medicines. There is no evidence that the local GP partnership would want to use the site.
Largely out of the public gaze, health services locally are going to be reorganised by what are called "Sustainability and Transformation Plans". The driver is partly to save money, but also to meet modern health needs.
STPs propose 3 levels of GP surgeries:
- Small GP surgeries as now, some services offered by them now may in future be done by the hub surgeries.
- Extended GP surgeries serving areas of 20-40,000 people. This appears to be clusters of GP surgeries joined to offer longer hours and more services and integration with social care services.
- Hubs, larger surgeries serving 50,000 people. These would have out of hours servies, specialist GPs and offer minor injury care.
Where the proposed health facillity at Corinthians would fit into this is unclear. There would be a potential benefit to the area if it became one of the higher level surgeries with longer opening hours and more services, however Hartley's poor bus links would appear to rule it out being able to serve a wider area, which was a criteria when setting up similar clusters in West Kent.
This is probably one of the weaker points of the developer's case. Ash Road is a C class road but gets traffic levels comparable to many of the local A roads. A recent traffic survey at Hoselands Green found there were 15,000 traffic movements per day with up to 1,400 per hour at the busiest times (sum of traffic going north and south).
In the 2011 Census there were 2,672 workers in Hartley, of whom 2,028 have to commute outside Hartley. Of the commuters 304 take the train, 75 take the bus and 1,426 drive. For drivers the most popular employment destinations are Dartford/Bluewater (280), Bexley borough (150) and Gravesend/Northfleet (123).
If we assume about a third increase in this number it would suggest another 100 passengers at Longfield, and 500 extra peak hours car movements. While it is difficult to argue that this would cause significant problems at Longfield station as this would represent about 10 extra passengers per rush hour train, the effect on the roads is much more serious. With its distance from services, it is unlikely anyone on the Corinthians estate will not use their car to go to the shops etc.
The proposals are for some traffic to be directed to the Fawkham Valley Road, which has its own problems of no pavements and a width restriction at the railway arch at Longfield.
How much would the alternatives be used? You could imagine a scenario where people from New Ash Green and Hartley travelling to Dartford or Bluewater might find it quicker to cut through the Corinthians estate or Parkfield and bypass Longfield thus maybe reducing traffic on Ash Road, but not if traffic is slow because of the pinch point at the rail bridge. On the other hand, there would be additional traffic for those heading to Longfield Station, Longfield shops, Longfield School and Gravesend. The conclusion is that the amount of traffic on Ash Road will rise. However the developers do not appear to have done any traffic modelling work.
There is clearly a need for an alternative route to Ash Road to access Hartley which was strongly supported in the last Hartley Parish Plan, as Castle Hill gets jammed when there is a problem on Ash Road. However although the proposals appear to partly address this problem, they may have created another by creating a new access onto Castle Hill for a large number of houses.
The developers have floated the idea of a cycle route, which would be a very good idea for cyclists if it can by-pass Hoselands Hill.
Clearly the developers need to do a lot more research on this and come up with better proposals. Many developers provide improvements to local public transport to minimise the number of extra cars on the road.
The opposition leaflet says "there is currently a severe problem with providing water to this area". This is presumably a reference to South East water area being designated one of serious water stress, requiring compulsory metering (within the SE Water area, Hartley is an area where the water stress is serious).
However my suspicion is that this development would not be objected to by the water company. They have recently published a draft "Water Resources Management Plan 2020-2080". This plan takes account of local authority housing targets, and appears to imply they will just live with them and plan accordingly. They will shortly have a windfall of 9 million litres a day for domestic use from the former newspaper print works at Aylesford and in the much longer term believe they can get 30m litres per day from desalination works on the tidal River Medway (but acknowledge it is a very expensive process). They also forecast a fall in household average consumption.
I think Hartley's waste water goes to the Long Reach facility at Dartford. According to Kent County Council, this is already being expanded to support housing growth. Again it says development plans up to 2023 have been taken into account by South East Power Networks in their plans to meet increased gas and electricity demands.
(f) Effect on Grade 1 Listed building
The Billings Group own half of the meadow adjoining Fawkham Church, which is nearly 1,000 years old and is next to the Baldwins Green local conservation area. The original plans did not envisage building there, but have since been amended to be filled up with houses. Given the heritage value of the site, these plans in particular should be resisted.
(g) New school
The proposed new school site has the support of Hartley Primary School. This is understandable given the buildings are mostly 50 years old, and so at the age where they will need much more maintenance. The constrained nature of the site also causes difficulties with traffic. Similarly Milestone School has parking difficulties, especially given its wide catchment area. It is suggested the new site will allow the school to expand, although whether it would need to without the extra houses is uncertain.
Currently the Round Ash Way site is owned freehold by Kent County Council under a lease to the Leigh Academies Trust. Presumably (this is not entirely clear) this would revert to Kent County Council if the school were to move. The chances are then that both existing school sites would be available for further housing development.
The leaflet from those opposed says the new site would be away from the community and "unsustainable". This is less likely to be the case with Milestone School, which has a very wide catchment area. It will probably result in an increase in the numbers of pupils at Hartley being driven to school, but from the congestion around the school at the beginning and end of the day, it would appear this already occurs to a large extent.
(h) Country Park
The opposition leaflet says there is enough open space already in Hartley, which may be true for the east side, is less so for the west, especially since the landowner stopped informal access to the fields at Downs Valley, following the Parish Council's village green application at Hartley Wood.
They also say it will cost money to run, which is true. The parish council spends about a quarter of its income on maintaining the current open spaces. However the cost could well be the subject of any section 106 agreement between the developer and Sevenoaks Council. How much it costs to run very much depends on how the land is used, especially if part is retained in agriculture. The 65 acres of Northfield have cost an average of £5,500 to run in the last 4 years.
Ownership could be a key issue here. It is not clear whether ownership will be retained by the developer or transferred to the public. The title deeds of some properties in Downs Valley contain a statement that Old Downs Wood would be transferred to the community on 99 year lease, but this has not happened.
(i) Village "atmosphere"
A perceptive councillor from outside Hartley once said Hartley is the sort of place people who live there call a village, but outsiders will see something more. Certainly Hartley is not a village in the mould of say, Stansted or Fawkham. I am told some people in Fawkham refer to Hartley as "the town on the hill". In the decades I have lived in Hartley, I have seen the place become more and more urban.
While a 30% increase in population is a shock for any community, a smaller number of additional people living here is not necessarily a bad thing. It would certainly help the sustainability of many local services, as well as local clubs and societies, which seem to be constantly under threat. But of course this needs to be balanced against other factors.
Sevenoaks's appraisal of the Corinthians site in the SLAA raised a fundamental question as to whether the site would be capable of being integrated into the wider Hartley community, because of its location. However they felt this objection does not apply to the limited extension of Downs Valley option.
(j) Section 106 agreement
In big developments, the council usually gets the developer to sign an agreement under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. This allows councils to require the developers to build so many affordable homes, or pay monies to meet the effects of the development on the wider community. This might be road improvements, contributions to bus and train services, car share schemes or improvements of local amenities such as repairs to Hartley Village Hall.
For example in the old Longfield School site, the developer promised to build a proportion of affordable houses; while in the Waitrose Supermarket site, they agreed to allow free parking for 1½ hours and public access to the toilets at the shop.
Developers naturally try to minimise the amount they have to pay on viability grounds, but as mentioned in paragraph (b) above, in this case the current site owners should be able to afford a large contribution because of the low land acquisition costs.
(k) Golf Course
It is difficult to tell from the filed accounts whether Corinthian Sports Club Limited makes a profit or loss, due to the small amount of detail the government now requires and the fact it is part of group of companies which deal with each other.
They are right that nationally golf is declining in popularity. The numbers playing golf have fallen by 27% in the last 8 years. The applicant is not about to share membership statistics with the wider public though, so it is impossible to know whether Redlibbets could take over the existing Corinthian membership.
My view is that the developers have not demonstrated that the full 700 house development option will work. Sevenoaks have already identified enough houses in the Strategic Housing and Land Assessment to meet their target for the next 5 years, so additional building on the green belt is not necessary. I think they have not sufficiently explained how the Corinthian developmernt could integrate with the rest of Hartley, and how the problems of new development can be removed or mitigated.
I do believe there is an arguable case for a much more limited number of new houses in Hartley, provided they are mainly affordable housing and not snapped up by buy to let landlords. Undoubtedly the country is in urgent need for more affordable housing for young people and the elderly, and Sevenoaks is an area more in need than most. Since the land acquisition costs were minimal we have a golden opportunity to maximise the number of affordable units.