Watchdog warns about ‘dormitory town’ threat

Watchdog warns about ‘dormitory town’ threat

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Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells is in danger of turning into a ‘dormitory of over-priced flats for commuters’ according to a stark warning from the Civic Society.

In a letter to this newspaper from chairman Dr Janet Sturgis (see below), the society says the number of new homes being approved could lead to ‘widespread destruction’ of the environment.

This could damage ‘not only our architectural heritage, gardens and green spaces, but the fields and woodlands on the edge of the town and in the villages’.

The letter was sent in response to an interview published two weeks ago in the Times with Council leader David Jukes and chief executive William Benson setting out the Council’s five-year plan.

The society, which is credited with saving the former Trinity Church from being bulldozed, points to the recently approved Dairy Crest development as an example of the Council breaching its own guidelines.

“This is not simply scaremongering,” writes Dr Sturgis. “The recent decision on the Dairy Crest site in St John’s shows how these pressures are already having an effect.

“Here the Council approved a development of 58 flats on a site they had initially assessed as suitable for 31, breaching several of their own polices, overshadowing and overlooking nearby houses, and destroying the historic façade of the old Mission Hall.

“This can’t be right. The Dairy Crest development was opposed by about 150 individual residents, the Civic Society, as well as two members of the Planning Committee.”

Under the Council’s existing plan land has to be found for up to 300 homes a year until 2026, but the Civic Society says the plan is being replaced with an ‘assessment of need’ for twice as many.

The Society is calling on the Council to lobby central government for Green Belt restrictions on development in and around the town, as has already been done in a neighbouring authority in East Sussex.

Councillor Alan McDermott, planning chief for the borough council, said: “The Council has made a commitment to produce a new comprehensive Local Plan for the borough which will guide the area’s future development.

“In the case of the Dairy Crest site, the proposals were assessed against national and local planning policies which seek to optimise the potential of sites to accommodate development.

“This brownfield site is located close to local services and is on a main bus route, so is well suited to a high density development.

“Although there were many objections, it is the role of the Local Planning Authority to weigh up differing views about development proposals and assess these against the planning policy background. In this instance the Planning Committee’s judgement was that planning permission should be granted.”


We in the Civic Society support what David Jukes says are his priorities – to reinforce the economy and attract visitors while maintaining our quality of life (Plans for the Changing Face of Town, January 27). It is precisely because the Civic Society values the quality of life in Tunbridge Wells that we have serious concerns about the threat posed by the huge demand for new housing.

Under the existing plan Tunbridge Wells had to find land for 300 dwellings a year up to 2026. However, this is now being replaced with an ‘assessment of need’ for about twice as many dwellings. This could be achieved only by widespread destruction of our environment: Our architectural heritage, gardens and green spaces, and the fields and woodlands on the edge of the town and in the villages.

The new figure is only an assessment, not a target, and it is for the Council to determine whether and how it is met. National policy permits a planning authority to demonstrate that it can’t meet this need because of Green Belt or other restrictions. A neighbouring authority has already done this, and we believe that Tunbridge Wells urgently needs to do the same. Failure to do so risks reducing our special environment to a dormitory of over-priced flats for commuters, with the inevitable resulting congestion, pollution and destruction of heritage.

This is not simply scaremongering. The recent decision on the Dairy Crest site in St John’s shows how these pressures are already having an effect. Here the Council, guided by its officers, approved a development of 58 flats on a site they had initially assessed as suitable for 31, breaching several of their own policies, overshadowing and overlooking nearby houses, and destroying the historic façade of the old Mission Hall. This can’t be right. The Dairy Crest development was opposed by about 150 individual residents, the Civic Society, as well as two members of the Planning Committee.

The Civic Society supports development in the town which is compatible with protecting what we have – not just ‘heritage’ but the environment, social facilities and local employment. There are other major developments in the pipeline which could have similar effects, unless the Council uses its powers to support its stated priorities.

Dr Janet Sturgis
Chairman, Tunbridge Wells Civic Society


The Council’s response…

The Council has made a commitment to review the existing Core Strategy as soon as possible and produce a new comprehensive Local Plan for the borough which will guide the area’s future development. Work has already begun on producing the background evidence that will inform this review, including the level of housing and economic need, based on government guidance, and environmental and policy constraints, including the Green Belt, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and infrastructure constraints. These studies will be used to develop planning policies and approaches to deliver sustainable development.

In the national context it’s important to remember house building is a key part of the Government’s economic strategy and this is reflected in recent changes to the planning system and proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), including more proactive approaches to delivering additional housing.

In the case of the Dairy Crest site, where planning permission was recently granted for 58 apartments, the proposals were assessed against national and local planning policies which seek to optimise the potential of sites to accommodate development. National planning policy advises against refusing developments in sustainable locations because of concerns about compatibility with townscape. This brownfield site is located close to local services and is on a main bus route, so is well suited to a high density development. Through careful design and excavation of the site to provide basement car parking, the developer maximised this site’s potential without causing any identifiable harm to the character of the surrounding area or other harmful impacts that would have justified refusal of the application. Although there were many objections, it is the role of the Local Planning Authority to weigh up differing views about development proposals and assess these against the planning policy background. In this instance the Planning Committee’s judgement was that planning permission should be granted.

Councillor Alan McDermott,
Cabinet member with responsibility for Planning and Transportation,
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council