Faversham Creek Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group, 15 October 2013
Faversham Creek inched closer to becoming a housing estate last night, thanks to a meeting guaranteed to delight the town’s property speculators.
Around 80 people squeezed into an over-capacity Guildhall for the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group meeting but few were smiling. The anger and frustration was palpable, and sometimes audible, as a report backing yet more creekside housebuilding was steamrollered through before their eyes. By the end, many had left in disgust, myself included.
The Steering Group met to approve its own report on the threatened waterway’s future. I say report but it is actually more like a 15-page treatise on why it’s imperative that developers should be allowed to build new houses on parts of Faversham Creek not already lined with similar houses. These include Standard Quay and Ordnance Wharf, both the subject of popular public campaigns to save the creek’s maritime heritage. Not so much a report then, as a massive, flashing green light with golden pound signs on top. Completely at odds, in other words, with Faversham’s loud and clear response to the recent consultation: an even bigger red light to more housing and strong demand for traditional maritime use.
The low point of a consistently depressing evening of surreal machinations and barely-hidden agendas came when Professor Chris Wright, Chairman of the Faversham Creek Trust, was banished from the room.
Why? A “conflict of interests”, according to Andrew Osborne, Mike Cosgrove and chairman Nigel Kay – the usual suspects from Swale Council’s moribund ‘Creek Consortium’ – who demanded Prof Wright leave while Ordnance Wharf was under discussion.
Yes, you did read that correctly: They banned Faversham Creek Trust’s representative from the meeting because he represented Faversham Creek Trust.
Bizarre as it seems, Cosgrove, Kay, Osborne and Co were able to get away with this because their Steering Group is officially an offshoot of Faversham Town Council. It was set up that way, so the council’s arcane rules and regulations can be deployed to control and limit discussion. Community representatives are not allowed to vote, for example, and the public are only permitted 15 minutes to ask questions at the beginning of the meeting…before they know what’s going to be said.
Controversial plans to build a block of flats on Ordnance Wharf, a small island of industrial land in the creek basin, are strongly opposed by Faversham Creek Trust which is based in the adjacent Purifier Building. Instead, the Trust proposes a maritime use as a community boatyard. Yet its invited representative was blocked from listening to the conversation about Ordnance Wharf, let alone participating. (There is, of course, no personal conflict of interest because FCT is a charitable trust, not a business, so board members including Prof Wright cannot profit in any way from its activities.)
For reasons that were never quite made clear, Osborne also argued vociferously that the Purifier Building – the Trust’s headquarters and maritime skills workshop – should be officially recorded as having ‘nil’ use, despite Prof Wright politely explaining that the building was, in fact, very much in use.
Although clearly useful when attempting to enable deeply unpopular construction schemes in the face of overwhelming public opposition, bureaucratic wheezes and semantic smoke and mirrors tend to suggest a contempt for genuine democracy. In this case, I suspect they feed a growing conviction that those at the wheel of this steering group are pulling every lever within their grasp to serve an agenda which will finish the creek as a working waterway. They also entrench the kind of Them vs Us attitude demonstrated by Osborne when he referred to the public present as “that lot”, only to be told quietly, but firmly: “You’re supposed to represent us”.
Councillor Cosgrove, as usual, championed creekside housebuilding, arguing for 100 new homes along the historic waterway: a stance which impressed the assembled public about as much as his assertion that Ordnance Wharf remained unused because housing was the only possible viable use. This provoked a shout of “Absolute rubbish! We all know it’s empty because the owner wants to make money from building houses on it!” accompanied by cheers of agreement and an indignant little flurry of gavel-tapping from Chairman Kay.
Interestingly, in response to questions from a member of the public, both Cosgrove and Anne Salmon, another Creek Consortium cohort and an author of the report, denied they had ever been employed by creekside landowners to advise on planning matters.
Out in the corridor, I spoke to Faversham Creek Trust’s Chris Wright as he was waiting to be allowed back into the meeting and this is what he said:
“I do think there’s a major issue, not about my exclusion but about the way all these meetings are run by the council’s standing orders. We’re trying to have a constructive debate and it’s between people who are councillors and people who are not. And if it’s done under standing orders, this has a stultifying effect on the discussion.
“How can you collaborate, cooperate and adjust in that sort of atmosphere? It puts peoples’ backs up unnecessarily and it makes it extremely difficult to gain an understanding of where the crunch points are. It’s just not the right way to run a process where you’re trying to bring people together and smooth over what could be a lot of discord. The potential here is that if we don’t get this right it’s going to crash when it comes to the referendum.”
Conducted properly, public consultation should not feel like window-dressing for something predetermined, secretive and deeply undemocratic. Talk to people around Faversham about planning and the same word crops up with disturbing frequency. It begins with C. I’m not going to spell it out. But what I witnessed last night sounded like it, looked like it and smelled an awful lot like it.