While Maidstone Borough Council has already been grappling with the government’s demand for a 40% increase in housing numbers in its Local Plan review (increasing from 883 per year to 1214), it is now facing a calamitous demand for an 80% increase following the release of the government's housing white paper which is out for consultation. This translates to 1569 new units per year (Maidstone’s share of the government’s plan for 337,000 housing units per year). The borough has been told that the number of town-centre office conversions, allowed under the government’s permitted development, will not be included in the new numbers. When the increased numbers will apply depends on how far the borough has reached in implementing the local plan update when the white paper becomes policy.
Faced with the need to accelerate the local housing review to maximise the chances of avoiding the increase, debate at Maidstone’s Strategic Planning and Infrastructure Committee this week centred on two main options. The first option was to reduce the Regulation 18b consultation phase to focus mainly on potential housing sites allowing the council to make revisions for a subsequent Regulation 19 consultation based on feedback received. The second option to remove the Regulation 18b consultation phase altogether.
Council Leader Cllr Martin Cox, attending as a visiting member, stressed the heightened risk of having to start the whole Local Plan update all over again, should the inspector feel insufficient consultation had been undertaken by the borough.
While many Conservative members favoured removing the Regulation 18b consultation, officers cautioned of the increased risk that the review would be deemed unsound by the government inspector, as the level of evidence could be insufficient. Councillors were informed that Tunbridge Wells had attempted to take such a “Regulation 19”-only approach and were unsuccessful with precious time and resources wasted.
Cllr Brian Clark made a proposal to keep both consultation phases in a streamlined plan, which was seconded by Cllr Paul Wilby and agreed with support across party lines. An amendment to keep “Regulation 19”-only options open was made by the chairman but was not supported.
Following the meeting, Cllr Clark said, “We are facing government plans to increase current yearly housing numbers by 80%. This comes after the council had already accepted the government's 40% increase in the local plan review. We had to try to ensure our current work at the lower figure has the best chance of progressing. Removing Regulation 18b, a major public consultation exercise, would leave us very exposed the government Inspector ruling the plan unsound at review"
Cllr Wilby commented, “Keeping a Regulation 18b public consultation will allow the council to adapt the plan for Regulation 19 based on comments from not only groups such as Kent Highways, Kent Education and the NHS but also the public and local groups. Without such consultation, the council would be sidestepping an important democratic process. Sadly, failure to respond to the housing targets can ultimately leave us exposed to government inspector choosing to approve housing applications, which have been refused by the borough, at appeal”
Cllr English, who spoke for maximising consultation, summed up with caution, “While we have acted to minimise risk to the borough, with the time scale for avoiding an 80 per cent increase in housing numbers measured in months there are few good options unless the Government can be persuaded to at least give Council's that are near to submitting Local Plans or Plan Reviews more time.”