Housing secretary refuses 164-home scheme in Kent against planning inspector’s advice

The housing secretary has refused permission for a 165-home Berkeley Homes scheme in Kent despite a planning inspector recommending it be given a green light.

The scheme, designed by Kent-based practice OSP Architecture, would have seen 165 homes built in an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) in the Crane Valley, near Tunbridge Wells, along with car parking and landscaping.

They would have been a mix of one and two bedroom apartments, and houses ranging from two to five bedrooms, in mainly two storey buildings. A range of terraced, semi-detached and detached forms were proposed.

Also on the project team is landscape consultant LDA Design, transport consultant Milestone, planning consultant DHA Planning and civil engineer Withers Design Associates.

Housing secretary Michael Gove called in the scheme in April 2021, and following a public inquiry in September 2021, a planning inspector recommended the scheme go ahead.

The design of the homes included brick-faced lower storeys, timber boarded upper storeys in a mixture of white and black beneath gable ended roofs.

OSP said in planning documents the scheme had taken design cues from a range of traditional Kent settlements and typologies.

The practice said the proposed buildings would be “appropriate and sympathetic in scale, design and materials to the existing surroundings” and provide “varied and distinctive character areas appropriate to the site’s setting”.

The inspector said the scheme would deliver a “package of exceptional benefits” including 40% affordable housing, landscape enhancements with limited associated harm, and biodiversity enhancements.

However, a decision notice issued by the government said the secretary of state disagrees that there are exceptional circumstances to justify major development in an AONB.

The decision letter pointed out that the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty management plan and the High Weald Housing Design Guide both emphasise housing should be “landscape-led”.

It said: “While he [the secretary of state] agrees with the inspector that the proposed development would deliver landscape enhancements he does not find the proposal to be of a high standard which has evolved through thoughtful regard to its context.

“Overall, he does not find that the scheme is sensitively designed having regard to its setting. He finds that the design of the proposal does not reflect the expectations of the High Weald Housing Design Guide, being of a generic suburban nature which does not reproduce the constituent elements of local settlements. He also considers that the layout of the scheme does not respond to its AONB setting”

The notice also said that the housing secretary disagrees that the case made for development of this type in Cranbrook is “very compelling” saying that the local authority’s housing shortfall is “very slight” with the council’s housing land amounting to 4.89 years.

The letter said the secretary of state has concluded that there are no exceptional circumstances which justify the development and that there are no factors which suggest granting permission is in the public interest.

The decision was technically made by housing minister Rachel McLean on behalf of Gove. Berkeley Homes declined to comment on the decision.