|Photograph of orchards at Highland Court Farm by Mike Sole|
This is somewhat different content to what I've been posting in recent months, detailing some of the activist work I've been doing alongside my academic and artistic projects. For the past year I've been a committee member of Barham Downs Action Group, a campaign local to where I live in Kent against the proposed development of land around Highland Court Farm, which lies within the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The proposed development by Quinn Estates would build over existing high-quality farmland and orchards by constructing 175 luxury holiday homes, an expanded business park, a 'food and drink' hub and sports facilities for Canterbury City Football Club and Canterbury Rugby Club. The planning application for this development was finally submitted in September, which gave local people the opportunity to submit comments on the plans to the Planning Department at Canterbury City Council. The Planning team then makes a recommendation to the council as to whether the plans should be approved or rejected. Here I'm posting the objection to the proposed development that I submitted to the Planning Department.
I wish to object absolutely to the proposed development at Highland Court, as a resident in the neighbouring parish of Adisham. My objection is founded on the proposed development’s incompatibility with the site’s status as being located in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and outside the scope of the recently-adopted Local Plan, alongside concerns about transport sustainability, impact on culture and heritage, agriculture and wildlife.
Local Plan and AONB
The Local Plan adopted by Canterbury City Council only a short time ago in July 2017, which identifies the council’s strategic areas for development – of which Highland Court is not one – aims to “provide certainty for local people, developers and others about planning decisions for the area.” Under ‘What are we trying to achieve’, the plan states it is aiming to “[p]rotect sensitive landscape and wildlife areas, and other key environmental assets such as the World Heritage Site, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas.” By these standards alone, this development could reasonably be rejected outright by CCC.
AONBs themselves rightly have some of the most stringent restrictions for major developments, which according to the National Planning Policy Framework should only be considered if the proposals raise issues of ‘national significance’. Considerations must include the need for the development, the cost and scope for developing elsewhere outside the designated area, and the detrimental effect on environment and landscape.
The Highland Court proposals fall short at every stage of these checks. The proposed development is not of national significance. There is little demand nationally for self-build holiday homes located in countryside several miles away from Canterbury city centre, as evidenced by the Destination Management Plan commissioned this year by Canterbury Connected Business Improvement District, which emphasised that the city centre – and in particular its UNESCO World Heritage Site – are the locations most in need of accommodation in order to add value to Canterbury’s visitor economy. As for the sports facilities, Canterbury City Football Club plays in Tier 5 of the National League (tier 9 of the English football system), and only one of their home games this season has seen an attendance above 100 people. Canterbury City Rugby Football Club fares somewhat better in the fourth tier of English rugby (National League 2 South), however unlike the football club, they already benefit from spacious grounds in Canterbury and have 16 more years on their lease. Given this context, a development that would house these clubs cannot be deemed ‘nationally significant’.
The development is not needed in this location. Highland Court consists of agricultural land which does not form part of an existing settlement, which would contradict Policy TV8 of the Local Plan, which states: “Where tourism attractions and facilities are proposed in new buildings, the Council will ensure that the new development is related to an existing settlement and is not isolated in the open countryside so as to have an adverse impact upon its character and appearance. This should also improve the proposal in sustainability terms and reduce the need for travelling by car.” The nearest villages of Bridge, Patrixbourne, Bishopsbourne are not convenient to access from the site without a short car trip; and as has already been established, Canterbury city centre is several miles away. If the developers are claiming to serve the needs of Canterbury’s sportspeople, residents and visitor economy, this cannot be considered an appropriate location for such a development.
As for the detrimental effect on the environment and landscape of the locality, these considerations will now be discussed by focusing in turn on the specific issues of traffic and sustainability, pollution, cultural heritage, agriculture and wildlife.
Sustainability of transport
The positioning of the development close to the A2, detached from any existing settlement, and without easy access to adequate public transport facilities (the nearest bus stop is located at least a 15-minute walk from the vast majority of the development site, along a road which inclines towards Highland Court) means that, realistically, the vast majority of users of the site will be accessing this development using personal motor vehicles. For households such as mine, which are based in nearby rural areas but do not own cars, the siting of this development would effectively exclude us from easily accessing the site’s proposed facilities on a regular basis.
Additionally, The Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE)’s ‘Sustainability Scorecard’ associated with this planning application, which indicates the development’s conformity to the NPPF’s definition of sustainable development, marks ‘Disagree’ for Statement 7: “The proposals provide the opportunity for users/occupiers to walk to essential facilities either within or outside of the site.” This is a worrying independent assessment, considering the Local Plan’s emphasis in Policy T1 on “[p]roviding alternative modes of transport to the car by extending provision for pedestrians, cyclists and the use of public transport.” The argument in the Environmental Non-Technical Summary associated with this application that the proposed development ‘doesn’t worsen existing public rights of way’ and will have a ‘neutral’ effect on non-vehicular access is therefore unacceptable, as currently the vast majority of users of the site access it by car.
The developers themselves acknowledge the necessity of car travel to the site in their emphasis on the claim that the nearby junction off the A2 is ‘underused’, and hence could apparently cope with a higher volume of motor vehicles; and also through the number of car parking spaces they propose to have on the site – 1430 (compared to 157 cycle spaces). Yet this ‘underused junction’ argument is itself dubious, considering that Highways England, in their comment on this application, have suggested the junction will be “operating above operating capacity and very close to theoretical capacity,” and could therefore impact on queueing traffic on the A2 mainline.
One element of the traffic argument that has not often been remarked upon is the quantity of vehicles that will be required to maintain the site’s essential functions, not just those used to transport users of the site. This would include large lorries and vans for deliveries every day, as well as those needed to remove waste from the site. It cannot be considered safe or appropriate for these vehicles to share the narrow roads surrounding the site with cyclists, walkers crossing the roads between footpaths (or braving the journey along the road to the nearest bus stop), horse riders and the other motor vehicles travelling to and from the site.
Safety would also be compromised by the volume of vehicular traffic. It has been projected by Quinn Estates’ consultants that, on a Saturday morning, a vehicle would arrive or leave the Highland Court site every 3 seconds. In the Development Summary submitted as part of this application, it is stated in paragraph 4.6 that “[t]he primary route for vehicular, pedestrian and cycle access into the site for both the detailed and outline components of the application will be via Coldharbour Lane.” This means that, on a Saturday morning, a cyclist cycling for three minutes down Coldharbour Lane could expect to encounter 60 vehicles, or a pedestrian walking for 15 minutes (e.g. from the nearest bus stop) would encounter 300 vehicles on the road. Given that improving road safety is one of the five key aims of the Canterbury District Transport Action Plan, and Policies EMP14 and TV8 of the Local Plan highlight that new development can only be permitted if “the use does not significantly increase traffic to the detriment of the [rural] area or highway safety”, this development’s impact on the use of the local transport infrastructure could not be deemed acceptable.
At a meeting at Adisham Village Hall on 1st October 2018, Mark Quinn of Quinn Estates acknowledged that there would be an overall increase in the light that would be emitted from the Highland Court site, if the proposed development were to go ahead.
Given the existing, well-documented problems with unnecessarily bright lights shining across the downs from the current farm/business park buildings, the addition of floodlights extending 15 metres into the air from the sports pitches will add another source of visible artificial light that would be seen for miles around, disturbing both the nearby human and animal populations (migration, foraging, feeding and breeding patterns). Furthermore, for astronomers in the vicinity (stargazing is a factor people frequently consider when deciding to live in a rural locale such as ours) this light pollution would significantly hinder opportunities to take part in their practice. No amount of buffering from trees can prevent artificial light from radiating upwards, minimising the dark sky conditions necessary to view many stars. Entran’s Non-Technical Environmental Summary for this application acknowledges this as an adverse impact of the development: “The major residual visual effects of the presence of new lighting is the increase in night time sky glow when viewed beyond the Site boundary and the sport pitch lighting when in operation.” All this would occur in a site that lies within an E1 ‘Intrinsically dark area’ under the Institute of Lighting Engineers’ ‘Guidance Notes for the Reduction of Light Pollution, 2000’.
Noise pollution is an issue that residents local to Highland Court and recreational users of the site are already acutely aware of. There have recently been numerous complaints made to Canterbury City Council by nearby residents about the noise emanating from The Night Yard business on the site, past the hours dictated in their licence conditions. With the vast expansion in the activities taking place and people using the Highland Court site, this pollution would be compounded by sounds created by the increase in car and HGV traffic that would accompany the running of the site, the vehicles and machinery used while it is under construction, the activities of the businesses opening in the food and drink hub and extended business park, and the already ever-present background noise of the nearby A2 motorway. Undoubtedly this cacophony would be fundamentally detrimental to the tranquil character of this segment of the AONB.
Culture and heritage
The NPPF outlines the importance of planning decisions considering the impact of development on the significance of heritage assets. Paragraph 132 states “[w]hen considering the impact of a proposed development on the significance of a designated heritage asset, great weight should be given to the asset’s conservation. The more important the asset, the greater the weight should be. Significance can be harmed or lost through alteration or destruction of the heritage asset or development within its setting. As heritage assets are irreplaceable, any harm or loss should require clear and convincing justification. Substantial harm to or loss of a grade II listed building, park or garden should be exceptional” (my emphases).
Even a cursory glance at the Heritage Maps for the Highland Court area on the KCC website with all the layers turned on indicates the rich historic importance of the site, and this is remarked upon in the archaeology report produced by Canterbury Archaeological Trust, appended to this planning application. Within the designated conservation area of ‘Highland Court’, the orchards that the developers would seek to replace have a historic landscape characterisation of type 3.1, and the open fields with straight boundaries (parliamentary-type enclosure), which would also be altered beyond recognition, have a historic landscape characterisation of type 1.10. Additionally, the site is home to a 2* listed building, marked on the Heritage Maps as ‘Highland Court Hospital’, but formerly (and locally) known as Higham House. The proposed development would markedly impact on the building’s tranquil rural setting, as not only would it be lit up when it is dark by the 15-metre floodlights, but it would also be surrounded by noise from vehicle traffic, sports training and matches, and other activities on-site. Under paragraph 123 of the NPPF, planning decisions should aim to “identify and protect areas of tranquillity which have remained relatively undisturbed by noise and are prized for their recreational and amenity value for this reason.” Higham House, and public rights of way within the Highland Court conservation area, are locations to which this applies.
The area within the boundaries of the proposed development site is rich with archaeological features of protected status: ring ditches parallel to the original Roman road; a Bronze Age barrow; Iron Age pits and ditches; and a prehistoric settlement, suggested to date back to the Iron Age but containing evidence of worked flints from the late Neolithic and early Bronze Ages. The potential significance of this site to heritage is underlined by the fact that, in 2011, Canterbury Archaeological Trust carried out a watching brief over it. In addition, there are significant archaeological interests that remain uninvestigated on the site (through desk-based or field-based research) such as potential remains of the medieval settlement of Higham. As the archaeological report produced by CAT for this planning application concludes, “archaeological remains of at least regional and perhaps national significance may be extant within the proposed development area.” Paragraph 9.35 of the Local Plan makes clear that archaeological sites as well as listed buildings and landscape features “often contribute to the special character of conservation areas.” With Higham House, the regionally/nationally significant archaeological remains and historic landscape characterisations, the detrimental, irrevocable impacts this development would have on Highland Court’s physical heritage are an important reason why this planning application should be rejected.
Paragraph 137 of the NPPF explains that proposals which “preserve those elements of the setting that make a positive contribution to or better reveal the significance of the asset should be treated favourably,” yet the developers have not outlined how they will achieve this for the Grade II listed Higham House, nor the archaeological remains present in the land. Yet clearly the proposed development will at least harm these assets through the alteration of their setting, and even lead to complete loss in the case of the archaeological remains. Indeed, Entran’s Non-Technical Environmental Statement considers the residual effect on archaeological heritage assets to be adverse even after mitigation, which would purely consist of “preservation by record and appropriate publication of the results” – wholly inadequate for remains of regional and potentially national significance.
The North Downs Way that crosses the development site is an ancient pilgrimage route, which forms part of the Via Francigena linking with Rome and a wider network of historic pilgrimage routes across Europe (used by Archbishop Segeric as far back as 990 AD). If travelling from the Dover direction, the development site is very close to the first point at which users of the path enter the Kent Downs AONB. So the first impression we would be giving visitors from the UK and abroad is that our concept of maintaining ‘natural beauty’ is to irrevocably alter the character and appearance of a protected landscape that is designated as a conservation area and ‘nationally significant’.
One tactic used by the developers in an attempt to mitigate the concerns of those who use the local public rights of way is to plant lines of ‘tree buffers’ around the business park, innovation centre, and sports grounds. Aside from the fact that these trees would take decades to grow fully and obscure the buildings, this practice would ultimately entail a drastic change in the appearance of the AONB land when the trees are fully grown. Users of the North Downs Way, as well as the public rights of way that cross over the proposed development sites, enjoy the appearance of this land because its character is rooted in the natural beauty of rolling chalk downs. It would be unacceptable for this character to be spoilt by obstacles placed artificially, whether they’re buildings or neatly-planted trees.
Entran’s Non-Technical Environmental Summary also acknowledges that there will be “some significant adverse landscape and visual effects during construction and on completion”, and names the public bridleway within and adjacent to the development site – widely used by myself and other local residents for recreational walking and horse-riding – as one location where the development will result in these adverse impacts on landscape and visual amenity.
Consideration should also be made of the fact that Highland Court and its surroundings are a site of literary heritage. Writing shortly after World War 2, Jocelyn Brooke from neighbouring Bishopsbourne wrote a series of highly-acclaimed semi-autobiographical novels which describe his childhood spent exploring Barham Downs and the Elham Valley. Of particular significance in his works are stories of his walks from Bishopsbourne to what he calls ‘Coldharbour Farm’ until he reached the ‘watertower’ in Adisham woods. Walking along the footpaths Brooke used today, there is very little visible change to the character of the land since the time Brooke was writing about in his work (around WW1), apart from the expansion of the existing farming activities. The continuing popularity and cultural relevance of Brooke’s novels was emphasised recently by their re-publication by Bello in October 2017. The arrival of 175 incongruously large holiday homes, an expanded business park, food and drink hub and sports facilities would severely threaten the character of the very landscape that provides such an enchanting bucolic backdrop to this literary heritage.
Perhaps the most significant indictment of this development’s approach to culture and heritage lies with the CSE’s independent ‘Sustainability Scorecard’ for the development, which marks ‘Strongly Disagree’ for Statement 17: “The proposals conserve the landscape and scenic beauty of nationally designated landscapes”; Statement 20: “The proposals will sustain and enhance the significance of the identified heritage assets”; and Statement 37: “The proposals protect existing rights of way across or adjacent to the site, and enhance these, either through improvements or by the provision of additional links to the networks.” This development therefore cannot be deemed sustainable on culture and heritage grounds.
Agriculture and wildlife
Under paragraph 112 of the NPPF, local planning authorities “should take into account the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land. Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, local planning authorities should seek to use areas of poorer quality land in preference to that of higher quality.” Given that 70% of the agricultural land in this proposed development site is classified as excellent, very good or good, this land should not be deemed appropriate for development, particularly for a scheme that, as already evidenced, is not needed in this location.
Within the development site are the habitats of numerous protected species. In their comments on this application, Kent Wildlife Trust, despite being listed as a ‘partner’ of Quinn Estates, do not consider that there has been enough specific consideration of the breeding habitats for priority species on the site. Policy LB9 of the Local Plan states the following: “All development should avoid a net loss of biodiversity/nature conservation value and actively pursue opportunities to achieve a new gain, particularly where there are wildlife habitats/species identified as Species or Habitats of Principal Importance.” The Outline Ecological and Landscape Management Plan produced for this development has identified several bird species of principle importance, including the internationally vulnerable turtle dove, as well as the Spotted Flycatcher, Yellowhammer, Skylark and Linnet. Yet despite their importance, the measures outlined for mitigation, compensation and enhancement of their habitats do not consider the specific needs of each of these species, frequently referring to ‘birds’ in general, as well as the behaviours of foraging, feeding and breeding in vague terms; which – as Kent Wildlife Trust suggests – hinders attempts to pursue the level of biodiversity gain that the Local Plan demands.
Despite claims within the application that the development will result overall gains in biodiversity and existing ecological interest, under CSE’s independent ‘Sustainability Scorecard’, they have marked ‘Disagree’ for Statement 42: “The proposals create or significantly enhance locally-identified priority habitats / species and avoid damage to national / internationally designated wildlife sites.” The fact that two independent organisations consulted by the developers for this application evidently do not agree with the ecological assessment produced for this application, under Policy LB9 of the Local Plan, Highland Court should not be deemed an appropriate location for this type of development.
The outcome of this application will ultimately come down to the application of planning law, and I hope in this statement to have comprehensively outlined the multifarious reasons why this proposed development cannot be deemed appropriate or necessary under local and national planning policy. For local land as significant as AONBs, Areas of High Landscape Value and conservation areas, we cannot afford to set a precedent in planning applications for inappropriately large and disruptive developments being approved. This concerns the fundamental reasoning behind the planning process – to decide where (and what) development is necessary and appropriate, and to preserve lands of existing social, cultural, economic and historic value from artificial changes that would diminish this value. Proposed development of this scale in our slice of the Kent Downs AONB at Highland Court without doubt falls under the latter.