Abbey peace overrides new housing

Outline proposals for 65 houses on agricultural land opposite a Benedictine abbey on the edge of a Kent market town were rejected by an inspector who decided the essential tranquillity of the convent grounds could not be safeguarded.

The inspector described the Abbey, founded in 1090, as having exceptional heritage interest and outstanding national significance, noting that it was a Scheduled Ancient Monument in its own right, which also included eleven listed buildings, five of which were grade I and two grade II*. She was clear that the open, undeveloped greenfield appeal site formed part of the setting of the Abbey and its precincts. She also deduced that the parts of the grounds used for prayer and quiet contemplation were an essential part of life at the convent and an important element of the significance of the heritage asset.

Despite attempts by the house builder to separate the housing development from the abbey with a buffer of green space and landscaping, the inspector was not convinced that noise and disturbance from recreational use of the buffer would not impact negatively on the Abbey, and a suitably worded condition to limit the use of the open space without intrusion into tranquillity could not be devised. She also held that the development would unacceptably erode the rural character of the setting to the town, its conservation area and the Abbey.

The inspector disagreed with Historic England that the degree of less than substantial harm to the significance of designated heritage assets would be at the lower level of harm, judging instead that it would be at the highest level. In her assessment, the public benefits of the scheme, which included market and affordable homes in the context of a housing shortfall, did not outweigh this level of harm and provided a specific national policy exception to the tilted balance in favour of sustainable development. She dismissed the appeal and refused planning permission.

Inspector: Fances Mahoney; Inquiry

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