6th May 2020
We have to learn lessons from the Coronavirus pandemic. There are many, but one is that we are going to have to be more self-sufficient when it comes to food supplies. Our farmers, locally and nationally, are doing a good job of trying to keep us fed but it is clear that for the foreseeable future we are not going to be able to rely so heavily on imported jobs. That means that we need more local labour to help harvest everything from soft fruits and cherries through salads to potatoes and brassicas and, of course apples and pears.
We also need the land upon which to grow these crops and that leads me to the point of this article. We need to take another long hard look before we rush to hand over still more agricultural land to housing developers.
We are blessed, in East Kent, with some of the finest crop-producing land in the Country. I have said long and often, formally, in public and in private to Ministers – and I shall be doing so again very shortly – that however unpalatable it may be to property companies who want to build on nice, open, easy to develop greenfield sites we should, first, be using all of our brownfield sites and lower quality land before we touch one more blade of Grade One and Grade Two farmland. We also need to get a cast-iron guarantee that all of the necessary infrastructure – roads, healthcare and education provisions – are put in place following proper consultation with Highways and the existing schools and doctors surgeries before the housebuilding starts. We need to learn the lessons of the past. We know that developers are reluctant to put money into services before they get a return on their investment and we know from bitter experience with the proposed Herne by-pass and with the Local Government Department that if developer contributions are not nailed down before work starts then developer contributions may be slow in forthcoming if at all.
Canterbury`s local plan is on the books and we now have a rearguard action on our hands to try to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is properly funded and that satisfactory road systems are agreed.
Thanet must learn from the Canterbury experience. The local plan, as amended by the Inspector, will shortly go before the Overview and Scrutiny Committee and then to full Council in July. The Plan must not pass unless the houses that the Inspector has agreed that we do not need are removed from the equation, unless there is full agreement on the infrastructure and unless there is a clearly-phased programme of development that determines that our agricultural land is used, if at all, last and not first.
There is every likelihood , for example, that the RAF fire-fighting school site and very possibly the whole barracks site as well will, in the not too distant future, be released by the MoD for development. It would be a tragedy if with this on the horizon we were to allow developers, already snapping at the land behind Birchington, Westgate and Garlinge, to build here before all of the opportunities – including sites that already have planning consent but are `less desirable` - are utilised.
I am sadly old enough to remember Joni Mitchell`s song: “Take paradise – put up a parking lot”. East Kent may not be the promised land but it has a great deal going for it and we have to rember that once it`s gone we will never get it back again. Time for our local authorities – and indeed the Department for Local Government – to learn the lessons of past and the now very recent and raw