Uproar in garden of England at homes plan that could ‘swallow up’ villages

There are 17 MPs in Kent – 16 Conservative and Labour’s Rosie Duffield in Canterbury. And there is nothing like housing developments on greenfield sites to provoke a backlash from Tory heartland voters.

Gareth Rubin www.theguardian.com 

The copper-coloured afternoon light turns a deep blue as it streams through the stained-glass windows of All Saints’ church in Tudeley, near Tonbridge, Kent. Visitors come from all over the world to see these colours falling to the floor because All Saints’ is the only church in the world where all the windows are by the modernist artist Marc Chagall. But those heavy, aquatic blues sliced through by white figures could soon shine a little less if a new nearby “garden village” – a mile-long estate of 6,500 houses – gets the go-ahead.

“I’m devastated. I’m appalled,” says campaigner Dave Lovell as he stands outside the church door and looks across the unspoilt countryside where the Tunbridge Wells garden village is proposed. “It’s a beautiful part of the countryside and to lose this historic landscape is a tragedy.”

Tudeley is far from alone. A series of garden villages and towns – and one “garden city” at Ebbsfleet – is being proposed on greenfield sites and protected areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) across Kent. In a county known as the garden of England, this has caused uproar.

Garden developments attract special funding from the government so developers often attach the label to projects. But Lovell, a former officer with the National Crime Agency who lives in the nearby village of Capel, dismisses the bucolic moniker. “There’s nothing organic about them,” he says. “They’re artificial and imposed on us. And I’m not sure how they can evolve a sense of community.”

There are at least seven more garden developments proposed. If the housebuilders get their way, Otterpool Park near Folkestone, will have 10,000 homes, Highstead Park near Sittingbourne will have 9,250, five schools and a health centre, and Borough Green near Tonbridge, will have 3,000 homes built on green belt land and an AONB.

Planning authorities say their hands are being forced by the government’s target of building 300,000 homes a year.

The Tunbridge Wells project is split into three parts and Lovell’s village of Capel will be subsumed by the largest section. “There are 950 houses in the parish at the moment and that will be swallowed up by nearly 5,000,” he says. “Local life will completely change. It’s really an existential threat.”

Protest groups have sprung up across the county. Lovell’s idea was to bring them together under an umbrella group: Save Kent’s Green Spaces, which organised a “day of action” on 28 November last year, when the activists marched and rallied. “As far as we can see, there’s no official count on how much land is even being lost,” says Lovell. “We have an estimate but it’s only based on what the 30-odd campaign groups that became involved in the day of action have told us, and what we’ve picked up through newspaper reports. So we’re looking at over 18,000 acres at the moment.” He says they estimate 7.5 houses per acre, though some of that will go on schools and other social infrastructure.

Like much of Britain, Kent has a shortage of housing and social housing. In Tunbridge Wells there were 897 families on the waiting list in 2021. According to Paul Cheshire, professor of economic geography at the LSE, “It’s almost impossible to provide land for new homes [around Tunbridge Wells] without releasing some green belt land. So much of the area is either green belt or AONB.”

There are 17 MPs in Kent – 16 Conservative and Labour’s Rosie Duffield in Canterbury. And there is nothing like housing developments on greenfield sites to provoke a backlash from Tory heartland voters.

In last June’s Chesham and Amersham byelection, for instance, the Liberal Democrats overturned a 16,000 majority in a Buckinghamshire seat that has always voted Conservative, with a 25.2% swing, largely on the back of local opposition to HS2 and housing development. With an identical swing, all 16 of Kent’s Tory MPs would be looking for new jobs.

Tom Tugendhat, Tory MP for Tonbridge and Malling, says that developments such as Tunbridge Wells garden village undermine some of the most important policies of the government. “Of course we need new homes for young people in our community and to give people somewhere for their families,” he says. “But the government’s climate change commitments make some of these decisions pretty strange. We can’t go around bulldozing fields when we need to maintain our green spaces to meet our climate commitments.”

Local protests against the garden villages have made some strange bedfellows. In Faversham, for example, those addressing the marches against the developments on the day of action included local resident Bob Geldof from one end of the political spectrum, and the local Tory MPs Helen Whately and Rehman Chishti from the other.

Geldof, who lives in the 12th-century Davington Priory on the edge of the town, told the rally: “I have lived in Kent for 40-odd years and to see what amounts to a full-scale attack on the county and its people by the central government planners gives a lie to … Boris Johnson’s promise that they would not build on green fields.”

Vicky Castle, content editor for news site Kent Live, says the issue is turning previously quiescent people into activists. “These are angry, knowledgeable people and they’re quite loud,” she explains. “The local Tory MPs are saying, ‘We don’t want this’. And central government turns around and says, ‘Tough, you’re having it’.”

“It’s radicalising local people because they care about these things. You drive around the county for one day and it looks completely different to how it did five years ago. People notice that and they’re worried.”

Duffield wants a new approach. “It’s really disappointing because it’s so unimaginative,” she says. “There are brownfield sites, there are loads of other places. It seems like a developer just has their eye on a lovely area of land. And we’re not going to get it back if it’s full of houses.”

An hour’s drive across Kent from All Saints’ church to Faversham, and the light has faded, turning a field of winter-bare blackberry bushes into dark fingers. They lie on farmland owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles’s business empire, but the duchy has applied for planning permission to build 2,500 homes on 320 acres of countryside.

A duchy spokesman said: “Swale council identified the Duchy of Cornwall’s land as a highly sustainable location for an urban extension of the town, providing 2,500 homes and around 2,500 jobs. Since the initial allocation, the duchy has been engaging with the Faversham community to help shape a vision for a mixed use community that meets local housing needs.

“The plan is being designed from the ground up to improve soils, increase biodiversity, and achieve water neutrality on site with its own waste water treatment plant.”

As evening birds chatter, Carol Goatham walks beside the silhouetted fruit bushes and points out a line of yellow markers that show the path of proposed gas lines to the houses that will replace them. “The pears for the Queen’s wedding breakfast came from this farm,” says Goatham, a retired occupational therapist who founded a group to oppose the development. “And my father worked here when I was young. We are only self-sufficient for 16% of the fruit we eat in this country and this is the highest grade of agricultural land. If we lose these fields, we lose food security.

“I’ve always been a royalist and I’m really pleased about Prince Charles’s green credentials but now I feel that if he sanctions this, then … ” She shakes her head.

She looks from the lines of skeletal blackberry bushes to rows of spring greens pushing through the soil nearby. That soil will also soon be covered if the duchy’s application is granted. “We’re only a small rural town and they’re going to obliterate our beautiful green fields,” she says. “Kent’s supposed to be the Garden of England and we’re going to become a concrete county.”

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “Making the most of previously developed land is a government priority to protect our cherished countryside. Councils are ultimately responsible for setting housing targets in their area.”