MAJOR plans to redevelop Gravesend's Heritage Quarter have been approved by just one vote.
Councillor Jane Cribbon cast the deciding ballot as chair of an often tense three-and-three-quarter-hour Regulatory Board meeting at Gravesham Council's Civic Centre last night (April 30).
Developers Edinburgh House now have the go-ahead for a £120m scheme which the company claims will bring much needed jobs, flats and retail space to the town centre.
But campaigners, members of the public and some councillors made their opposition to the proposals known with Urban Gravesham member Jonathan Clay being ejected by security for an "unscheduled intervention" as the meeting reached its climax.
Gravesham Council leader Councillor John Burden said afterwards the right decision had been reached after what he called a “difficult” meeting.
He told News Shopper: “We heard a lot of understandable concerns from all sides as to the rights and wrongs of the thing.
But Cllr Burden added: “I think the objections weren’t based on evidence and fact.
“You have to look and see what the planning report is saying and if you look at that, suddenly you realise there are no grounds.
“To have turned it down with no reasonable grounds would have been wrong.”
Speakers against the plans claimed they include too many one bedroom flats, take away too many parking spaces, would block out sunlight for apartments in Melbourne Quay and other nearby complexes and would damage the historic aspect of Gravesend town centre.
Born-and-bred Gravesend resident Liz Howe joined head of Urban Gravesham Andy Maxted and Melbourne Quay homeowner Bob Wright in speaking against Edinburgh House’s proposals.
She said: “They would be a fiasco and people would feel aggrieved and let down if they went ahead.
“They would destroy the character of this town and it will look like so many other towns around here: faceless, grey, legoland stuff.”
Urban Gravesham member Jonathan Clay is led away by security after standing up to challenge legal advice given to council officers.
The final vote was split across party lines with Labour councillors Valerie Ashenden and Richard Smith joined by conservative Cllr Robin Theobald in abstaining while Tories Cllr Harold Craske and Cllr Michael Wenban followed Labour’s Cllr Peter Rayner in voting against.
Cllr Craske said: “I think the fact it was decided by just three of the nine members voting for it shows there was no enthusiasm for it whatsoever."
He added the changes made from the rejected 2010 application by Edinburgh House were only “minor and cosmetic” in his view.
Gravesham MP Adam Holloway circulated a letter calling on Regulatory Board members to reject the “appalling scheme” or “you will for 100 years be one of the guilty men or women who ripped the heart out of Gravesend.”
After the decision he told News Shopper: “Something went through last night that did not have the support of even half the planning committee.
“My understanding is that by convention if there is a casting vote the chairman is supposed to go with the status quo.
“The planning officer’s opinions and the legal advice that was given was more about those officers keeping their jobs than advising the planning committee.
“It is completely wrong for the town in my opinion.”
Responding to the Gravesham MP's concerns, a council spokesman said: “Mr Holloway is probably confusing the right of the chair to vote with the position of the Speaker in the House of Commons.
"There the Speaker, by convention, does not vote except to resolve a tie and then, by the same convention, will vote either to prolong discussion or to maintain the status quo.
“Local government has no such convention and in this particular instance the chair of the regulatory board merely exercised her right to vote as a member of the board resulting in four votes to three in favour of the application.
“The officers providing advice to the regulatory board were under no political pressure of any kind and their advice was impartial and based solely upon their professional opinions as is required under the codes of conduct that planning officers and solicitors are bound by.”
The proposed design for the Western Quarter.
Council leader Cllr John Burden, his deputy Cllr Lee Croxton and Conservative Cllr David Turner all voted for the Heritage Quarter development.
Edinburgh House managing director Tony Quayle said: “I’m thrilled.
“This was the right decision and we cannot wait to get the ball rolling.
“We have been confident that we have got the plans for Gravesend right for a long time and we are looking forward to the future and the opportunities the development holds for the whole town.”
The resolution will now be referred to Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles who has 21 days from receiving the papers to decide whether to support the resolution or call the scheme in and potentially block it.
Opponents may also apply to a court seeking a judicial review within three months though the court could not issue a different decision even if the appeal was successful.
In that event only legal or administrative flaws found in the original decision making process could be remedied.
See the full details of Edinburgh House's Heritage Quarter plans here.