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Polytunnels – Controversial scheme gets the go-ahead


HUGH Lowe Farms, the soft fruit farm based at Mereworth, has been granted con- sent for the continued use of polytunnels on its land. But the campaigners who have fought to


limit the impact of polytunnels on the coun- tryside fired a broadside at the business – in particular, at its man-and-wife directors, Jon andMarion Regan. Marian Hemsted, a chartered accountant, questioned HLF’s claims about helping jobs and the local economy. She told Tonbridge andMalling Council’s planning committee that HLF’s 2004 ac- counts showed 41 permanent jobs and 449 seasonal casuals. By 2009,when polytunnel coverage had increased by half, it employed fewer people – 34 permanent and 213 casual. Mrs Hemsted claimed the ac- counts showed “large pensions for the few and peanuts for the rest”. The Regans had taken £450,000 in 2007; £400,000 in 2008; and £255,000 in 2009, a total of £1.1m. Meanwhile, they had paid out £1,508 to their staff – an average of £44 to each of the 34 perma- nent employees, claimed Mrs Hemsted. She added: “One is left with the conclu-


sion that the HLF business is more about maximising profits for the directors and shareholders rather than for the local econ- omy.”


Earlier, Mrs Hemsted’s husband Stephen


said Tonbridge and Malling Council had asked for, but not received, an evaluation


Report by Peter Erlam Benefits to local economy queried


HLF managing director Mrs Regan was “de- lighted”with the committee’s decision. She felt mem- bers had considered the importance of rural jobs, sustainable food production and environmental pro- tection. “It was clear from the debate that they understood


the way modern methods of farming can help meet those challenges, and the need to balance all of that with the concerns and rights of local residents.”


from HLF of a lower coverage of polytun- nels. He claimed the firm could scale back and still be viable with a 50% reduction. Going from 165ha to 80ha would still leave HLF in the top 10% of UK growers in terms of profit margin, he argued.


But Cllr Janet Sergison, who seconded the motion to approve the application, won- dered what right individuals had to chal- lenge how much profit farms made.


An issue ‘filled with


passion’ PRINCIPAL planning offi- cer Neil Hew- ett (right) said the application should be judged on the bal- ance of a number of issues, in particu- lar the business case as well the landscape impact and visual aspects generally. The business case was “fundamentally sound”, but there could be noticeable and significant impacts on the landscape, which could be mitigated by imposing conditions, he added. Cllr SueMurray (left), who chaired the packed public meeting atHadlow Manor Hotel, said it was an issue “filled with pas- sion”. After the meeting, West Peckham Parish Council chairman Mark Freed said both sides had reasons to celebrate. The “11th hour” concessions and planning conditions had resulted in a “more proportionate, con- siderate and sympathetic” development. But the planning process had “let everyone down – it should have taken months not years”. Cllr Freed said: “Inmany respectswe have


all lost significant time, emotional energy, sleep and money. It is the process which has unfortunately led in some quarters to a lack of trust, adversarial and inappropriate reac- tions.”


Permission vital


for future THE firm supplies strawber- ries, raspberries and black- berries toWaitrose, Marks & Spencer, and to the official Wimbledon caterers. It also supplied this year’s Open Golf Championship at Sandwich. The business has now got formal permission to use rota- tional and successional poly- tunnels on no more 165 hectares (30% of its land) in any one year, after several years of it operating without full consent. HLF ownerMarion Regan


said: “The use of polytunnels is essential if our family farm is to continue producing high- est quality fruit for our cus- tomers. “We have stressed all along


we were not applying to in- crease our use of polytunnels but merely to formalise what we already do within the planning system.”


10 Malling


FOR...  Mereworth parish councillor Dennis Styles ar- gued that growing our own food would reduce the carbon footprint and secure jobs, and he added there were farworse things to endure than a few polytunnels.


 Frances English, a relative of Marion Regan who lives at Manor Farm, Water- ingbury, said although she found polytunnels unsightly she recog- nised they are the most sustainable method of soft fruit farming.


AGAINST... West Peckham Parish Council chairman Mark Freed said the committee’s decision would set precedents not just in Tonbridge and Malling but also for the rest of Kent and UK.


Members of the audience made their statements to the planning committee


 Andrew Wells, a Mereworth resident and churchwarden of St Lawrence, said he could see polytunnels from his garden but did not con- sider the visual impact to be adverse and would not damage tourism as some had claimed.


 Gemma Rustrick had lived in Mereworth 15 years, and her husband his whole life. She said children benefit from a working farm in the area. Their own children had seen how to plant seeds, watched them grow and eaten the produce.


 Tom Pearson, an HLF employee and resident ofWest Peckham, praised the “diversity and bal- ance” of the application.


 Chris Hough, of cam- paign group Landscape Matters Kent, said polytunnels are “alien” and an “intrusion of man into the country- side – all for a luxury food”.


 Charles Kinloch, a Mereworth resident


since 1985, said borough planners had previ- ously been active protectors of the landscape but were now in danger of “acquiescing” in its de- struction.


West Peckham resident Jim Simpson said the annual acreage under polytunnels would equal the size of an Olympics complex.


 Sally Clifton, an environmentalist who did the ecological assessment for West Peckham coun- cil, said the applicant’s own methods fell short of nationally accepted standards. She said that although surveys had been done


on the application land none had been carried out on the adjacent land.


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