Driver’s accusations relate to a planning application to build 550 houses on prime agricultural land next to the Westwood Cross shopping centre in Thanet submitted by property developers East Kent Opportunities LLP (EKO), a 50:50 partnership between Thanet Council and Kent County Council
When the application was submitted in 2011 Hart issued a statement saying “none of our 26 strong Labour Group of councillors have endorsed the EKO proposal. We simply cannot understand how council officers were ever directed to make proposals which go so blatantly against TDC's own established policies …. in a time of austerity and cut-backs, officers have been allowed to carry out a substantial and extremely costly amount of work (preparing a planning application) that may well not meet the requirements of the full council”(1).
In an interview with Kent News in August 2011 Hart once again criticised the proposal saying that “drawing up plans for housing (at the EKO New Haine Road site) was incredibly foolhardy and a waste of taxpayers’ money (2)”.
In late 2011, the Labour Party seized control of Thanet Council. Hart became Council Leader and was placed on the management board of EKO along with the Council’s Chief Executive, Sue McGonigal.
Records of secret EKO meetings obtained by Driver, via a Freedom of Information request, reveal that following Hart’s appointment to the management board he threw his weight behind the planning application despite his previous statements against the development and despite Thanet Labour Party’s 2011 election manifesto promise to protect open spaces and agricultural land, by ensuring “that wherever possible only brownfield sites will be developed”(3).
When EKOs application to develop the site was rejected by Thanet’s Planning Committee in October 2013, Hart supported a proposal, at an EKO Board telephone conference on 4th November 2013, to employ a QC to advise on how to appeal against the rejection. At an EKO board meeting on 14 November 2013 Hart and his colleague board members, including Thanet Council’s Chief Executive, Sue McGonigal , “resolved unanimously to:- Progress an appeal following the refusal by the LPA to grant planning permission”(4)
The appeal is scheduled to take place later this year and will take the form of a week-long public enquiry. Said Driver “total costs for the appeal will be close to £100,000. This bill will have to be picked up by council taxpayers. But this astronomic expense was totally avoidable. EKO could have chosen to submit a second planning application which addressed the rejection reasons and which would have been free. Instead the Leader of Thanet Council and its Chief Executive voted for an eye-wateringly expensive full-blown planning appeal. In my opinion Hart’s position as Council Leader is untenable. He tore up his promises to Thanet residents to oppose the application and he placed them in a position where they will be forced to pay costs for the sickening spectacle of Thanet Council fighting itself. Hart should now do the right thing and resign”.