The Low Weald Zero Carbon Planning Problem

Local Planning is hard. Strategic Planning is harder. Kent is a case in point. It has two huge hard environmental constraints, the North Downs and High Weald AONBs, and one huge policy constraints – Green Belt. Squeezing strategic development to its north and south. Aside that the Greensand Ridge, with its picturesque orchards, villages and oast houses is if anything valued by locals every bit as much as the North Downs, and along the coast outside the AONBs there are numerous planning constraints.

Naturally, and given the failure of Kent Country Council over 30 years to want to provide any kind of strategic oversight, authorities with heavy constraints have sought to focus development into the small parts of their districts that are not, e.g. Maidstone, Tonbridge Wells and Shepway. That is if they have planned to meet there need at all which the East Kent Autholrities did not and all failed their DTC.

A particular focus of strategic development has been along the South Eastern Mainline, which runs to Tonbridge then East along the longest streach of straight railway in Europe to Ashford then Dover.

This, originally the route of the South Eastern Railway has an interesting history. Its stations lie away from its villages as the company competed against the first line to Dover via Rochester and Canterbury. As such there has always been a conflict between express services and ‘short hop’ commuter services. Being away from heavy centres of population privatized railway companies have sought to reduce stopping services at places like Marden and Headcorn to make space for hourly express services.

With the construction of HS1 to Ashford there is another ‘mainline’ route. East Sussex County Council and Kent County Council are also working in partnership with Network Rail and HS1 Ltd on a project to deliver a connection between HS1 and the Marshlink line, and provided that this proposal for infrastructure enhancement at Ashford is funded HS services would then be able to operate between St Pancras and Eastbourne via Hastings and Bexhill. A rail link to HS1 will be created by the new Medway Parkway Station, facilitated major Development in the Thanet Local Plan.

What is now the ‘South East Main Line’ between Tonbridge and Ashford for? At least two new settlement scale developments are proposed along it, at Marden and Tudeley (the latter requiring a new station), and major expansion at Paddock Wood. The problem being that with the line being served by heavy axel weight rail there is a limit to how fast trains can slow down and speed up. For ‘short hop’ commuter services you want very light weight trains or tram trains enabling faster acceleration/declaration, shorter headways and hence more frequent services between more closely packed stations.

This is an issue at Tudeley where apparently Network Rail (as was) objected on the basis of insufficient space between Paddock Wood and Tonbridge. The proposal is for a Garden Village of 2,500 home with future space for expansion north of the future ‘station’. I cant see how this would fund a new access road, new schools or new community facilities, which such a pinprick scale of development. It would be nothing but a large housing estate in the open countryside.

Which is why I have long called for a Garden of England Corridor Strategy. If we want to avoid overdevelopment harming North Downs, Weald, Greensand Ridge in Kent AND Surrey, and protect the Green Belt, AND avoiding piling traffic onto the M25 (as in the South Godstone fiasco) we have to focus development on a zero carbon corridor, which MUST have a short hop service pattern with new suitable trains. Changing patterns of post Covid work has freed capacity in central London and supports a more decentralised employment pattern near low carbon work hubs next to railway stations. The oldest international railway line in the world is long overdue a modernisation. This means a ‘string of pearls’ pattern of development, both employment and housing, in compact small towns and villages like you got historically in the Low Weald, such as Headcorn and Tenterden. The Heavy clay soils limited settlement size because of low agricultural activity. This requires a far more strategic approach by the new Great British Railways and a far more positive approach to local plans by Highways England.

If local Greens and Lib Dems really wanted green zero carbon development and to protect precious landscapes they would be fighting for this green development rather than no development, a short term approach that always fails because of either appeal led sprawl or central government tiring of the negative local Nimbyism and overidding local decisions and non-decisions.

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