by Julie Wassmer
Come all without…come all within… join Betteshanger ‘gainst “The Mighty Quinn”
Betteshanger in East Kent has existed since the days of the Domesday Book. Close to Deal, the former mining village was once home to the largest of four Kent collieries which closed in 1989 – but not before having staged strong resistance during the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5.
After the national executive of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) voted for an end to the national strike, Betteshanger miners voted to continue their own industrial action which resulted in the colliery becoming the last pit in Britain to return to work.
Thirty-one years later, Betteshanger finds itself at the centre of another conflict – a committed fight by local people to save an important wildlife site from a controversial development by the equally controversial Kent developer, Mark Quinn, of Quinn Estates.
“We can only wonder what sort of person looks at natural and wild spaces, beautiful landscapes, acres of earth with its networks of waterways, and instead of seeing life, understanding themselves to be a part of it, sees only emptiness…. Who, rather than seeing millions of living forms…or hearing the air full of birdsong – sees only a blank space awaiting exploitation, ripe for the extractivist mentality to maximise financial value?”Frankie Green: Enemies of the Earth
According to a Kent Online news article from November 2020, the Bridge-based company of Quinn Estates is reported to employ “around 400 people, has 46 sites and is currently building on half-a-dozen plots.”
Clearly proud of personally selecting his development sites, Mark Quinn is quoted as saying: “Where it’s located is massive; it can’t just be in the middle of nowhere. It has to have a logic,” he opines. “Then you think of who’s affected by it and how you can mitigate that effect. The next is problems, and how you solve them.”
One of the “problems” Mark Quinn faced earlier this year was when Conservative Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick was alleged to have been involved in a “cash-for-favours” arrangement, prompting questions about donations from property developers to the Conservative party.
In an exclusive article for Open Democracy in July this year Peter Geoghegan reported that Jenrick “faced calls to resign for showing unlawful “apparent bias” in fast-tracking a planning application by the Conservative donor and billionaire property developer, Richard Desmond”.
Further questions were asked after Mark Quinn made major donations to the Conservative party both directly before and after Jenrick took responsibility for an appeal decision concerning Quinn’s own bid to build 675 houses in Sittingbourne, Kent.
In fact, Quinn Estates gave £11,000 to the Conservatives shortly before Jenrick became involved in this appeal decision, and less than three weeks later, the firm donated a further £26,500 to the party.
Peter Geoghegan went on: “Quinn Estates, and the company’s owner Mark Quinn, have donated around £140,000 to the Conservatives’ central party and Tory MPs across the south-east of England in recent years, including almost £10,000 to Epping Forest MP Eleanor Laing and £5,500 to Folkestone MP Damian Collins.
“Quinn companies have a number of projects in those constituencies, including a major proposed development in Epping Forest and a mix housing scheme in Folkestone that was given planning permission last year.
In March 2017, Quinn Estates had a meeting with then transport minister Chris Grayling, recorded as “road scheme discussion”.
As a Whitstable resident myself, I am aware that Mark Quinn has offered to build a “shell” hospital in our Canterbury constituency in exchange for being given planning permission for another housing scheme in the south of the city.
Beneath a story in Kent Online, Quinn commented that his offer was born of wanting “to create a legacy that we, as a company, and Canterbury can be proud of”. However, writer and NHS campaigner, Diane Langford, questioned the scheme, noting: “The offer by property speculator, Mark Quinn, to build a shell hospital involves him being gifted public land where he proposes to erect 2,000 unaffordable housing units. Please do the math. How much does it cost to build a shell hospital? How much profit will Quinn make from the sale of 2,000 units? Is Quinn Estates qualified to build a shell hospital? Is this a good deal for the NHS?”
Following a public meeting on the same subject, Langford wrote in a letter to the Kent Gazette: “As a speaker from the floor pointed out, the cost of a shell hospital would represent only 5% of the total cost of building and kitting out a hospital. Hence, Mr Quinn would net thousands of millions from the arrangement while his contribution to the building and equipping of a hospital would be relatively tiny. He would become even richer at the expense of publicly owned assets”.
Canterbury MP, Rosie Duffield, reminded constituents in a statement on July 4th 2017 that: “property developers often make promises about investing in infrastructure or community facilities which never actually ever seem to see the light of day.”
Peter Geoghegan’s article quotes Quinn on his approach to planning in 2018 as follows: “Brown envelopes? Planning is given by a democratically elected committee. All their accounts are checked. We’re not allowed to do anything to jeopardise that.”
Geoghegan also charts the details of the Sittingbourne case and how Quinn Estates had first applied for planning permission in 2017 to build in that area – on agricultural land in the parish of Bordon.
“Despite significant local opposition,” Geoghegan wrote, “the then Conservative-controlled Swale council supported the proposed development…” But in May 2019 a non-Tory coalition came into power and the following month, the new administration rejected a Section 106 agreement submitted by Quinn Estates. “In late August Swale council’s planning committee ruled that it would have rejected Quinn Estates’ application – but by then the matter was with the secretary of state.” Robert Jenrick.
Opposition to developments
If concerns about “brown envelopes” were easily shrugged off by Quinn, so too are objections from local people. Regarding a protest march in January 2017 by no fewer than 400 residents opposing the Bordon development, Quinn commented to the Kent Live newspaper:
“Getting half a per cent of people in that area to turn out is not massive. Most of those people are trying to protect their view, but you can’t own a view. All I’m trying to do is give other people the opportunity to enjoy what they already do. My favourite one is when you get people complaining on estates that are 20/30 years old because what do they think their estate was? It was a field. It’s total hypocrisy.”
Quinn also complains of being victimised:
“I’ve been called a con-man. I do get offended. It really annoys me. It shouldn’t but I’m driven and I do care. It’s because they’re so wrong that I get offended.”
He also asserts: “I don’t think what we do is bad. I’ve never taken on a scheme that I couldn’t morally justify.”
So, what is it about the current Betteshanger proposal that Mark Quinn now finds so easy to “morally justify”?
The land on which once stood the old pit head, in Betteshanger Road and Colliers Way, is where Quinn Estates now proposes to build a development comprising over two hundred houses together with commercial and retail units.
Considering its former use, the land might be viewed as a suitable brownfield site but for the fact that the area has been rewilding for many decades and is now a vital, local refuge for many species of wildlife of which the following should be carefully noted:-
- · Turtle Dove, the UK’s fastest declining bird, and at risk of extinction, makes its home here.
- · 100 bird species have been recorded here, including many Red and Amber listed such as Grey Partridge, Linnet and Cuckoo.
- · Over 180 plant species have been recorded on the site including nationally rare and endangered plants such as Grass Poly and Penny Royal.
- · 6 species of bat have been recorded using the site.
- · Slow Worm, Common Lizard, Smooth Newt and Great Crested Newt all live here.
- · Nationally rare and scarce invertebrates have been identified here.
Such is the importance of this site, Kent Wildlife Trust has given its opinion that the area would be very likely to qualify as a Local Wildlife Site, and importantly, Dover District Council (DDC) has a statutory duty to conserve biodiversity under the terms of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.
Yet, despite all this, the site remains under threat from the Quinn development.
Peter Cutler of the campaign group, Friends of Betteshanger says of the site: “It was originally being regenerated by the South East Development Agency (SEEDA) who developed, with local stakeholders, a scheme that involved partial rewilding and green start-up industrial use. Including the spoil heap part of the site (Fowlmead Park) they designed wildlife corridors and planted 130,000 trees and shrubs (containing turtle dove territories) all of which involved very large amounts of public funding and government support.”
In 2010-2012, SEEDA was abolished by the Con-Dem coalition and the site was transferred to Hadlow College who vowed to complete the scheme – but then went into administration.
Peter Cutler explains: “Dover District Council (DDC) then failed to intervene, despite the long history of public involvement, and Quinn bought the site. DDC has very clear policies in its Local Plan 2010 that any application for residential and retail was not acceptable and the site was “in locational terms not sustainable”. But in spite of all that, Quinn presented very radical plans for 210 houses, retail and commercial units.”
No ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT
Importantly, DDC decided that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of this site, (to properly assess what would be lost during such a development) was not necessary, so Quinn Estates submitted only an Ecological Appraisal which they commissioned from a company called Aspect Ecology – who, perhaps unsurprisingly to cynics, decided that most of the site had no ecological value.
“Crucially,” says Cutler, “most of Aspect Ecology’s surveys were conducted in November – outside the breeding season – but they also failed to recognise the site as an open mosaic habitat – an area comprised of multiple habitat types with ecological importance for maintaining biodiversity.”
In May this year, a petition opposing the development was begun by resident, Caroline Mason, who told Kent Online: “We consider that an Ecological “Appraisal” paid for by the interested developer Quinns, is nowhere near sufficient for a site such as this. We also note with astonishment that the “appraisal” paid for by the interested developer Quinns, was undertaken in November. Surely, the breeding season is the correct time! At a time of climate and ecological emergency, issues on which DDC has committed to taking action, it is honest, independent assessments with site visits, of the trees and habitats to be protected that are needed; it is not reasonable to make do with assessments commissioned and paid for by developers…”
Peter Cutler of Friends of Betteshanger further explains: “We contested the findings about the lack of ecological value, with our campaign group member, Sue Sullivan, completing a comprehensive analysis of the Ecological Appraisal. With support from a number of environmental NGOs we then presented independent surveys on botany and birds.”
Critically endangered species
In fact, it was only during this period that the rare plant species, Grass-Poly, lythrum hyssopifolium, was identified by Sue Buckingham, a member of the Kent Plant Recording Group, who, while conducting an independent botanical survey discovered that this critically endangered Schedule 8 plant, was growing in good numbers on one of the development platforms at Betteshanger.
Grass-poly, a plant of national importance, and protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, was featured by the BBC this year when Carl Sayer, a professor at University College London (UCL), stumbled on a specimen in Norfolk shortly after the first national lockdown ended. Sue Sullivan duly contacted Professor Sayer, notifying him about the Betteshanger discovery in the face of the Quinn development – to which Professor Sayer replied as follows:-
To celebrate the re-occurrence of Grass-Poly at one site and then destroy it at another would seem madness to me and I am in full support of your efforts to protect the site you mention and importantly this important endangered plant.
Concerns about council procedure
Aside from the important wildlife issues, a further problem with this site is that its location, far from amenities, such as shops and schools, will lead to more car journeys and greenhouse gas emissions – at odds with a number of DDC’s policies designed to reduce car journeys and create ‘sustainable communities’. The council’s Local Plan has a specific policy, ‘AS1’, which directly rules out residential development – and yet the council appears to have favoured the development.
The Head of Inward Investment wrote a letter of support and DDC planners at one point argued there was ‘extant planning permission’ which Friends of Betteshanger believe is not the case. Peter Cutler said ‘Friends of Betteshanger submitted three Freedom of Information (FOI) requests but DDC withheld most of the information we sought stating that it concerned internal communications and was also covered by Environmental Information Regulations. We thought this a misapplication of FOI rules and our complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is currently being processed.”
He continues: “DDC disclosed that there were seven pre-application meetings (held without notes having been taken) involving mostly the Head of Inward Investment, and a later meeting was attended by the Head of Planning Regeneration & Development and Cabinet member for Planning & Regulatory Services. We complained to the DDC Head of Governance who wrote back saying these were informal meetings where no decisions were taken and hence there had been no need to minute or take notes.”
He adds: “DDC is currently reviewing our appeal against their initial response which we believe raises important issues about transparency and accountability.”
The Friends of Betteshanger campaign group is far from alone in its opposition to this development: in fact, no fewer than five local parish and town councils oppose it, as do a number of NGO’s including CPRE – Kent, Kent Wildlife Trust and the RSPB.
At the time of writing, I see that over a hundred objections are lodged with DDC – and only two comments support the Quinn proposal. One of these supporters is the Betteshanger Social Welfare Scheme, based several miles away in Mill Hill, which is scheduled to receive £94,196.96 from Section 106 funding from the Quinn development, while the other supporting comment is from a trustee of the Kent Mining Museum – which Quinn Estates has promised to complete.
Talking to the people of Betteshanger I get the impression that a very unequal contest is in play – especially on the subject of news coverage. Questions are being raised by local people about whether news of their strong local opposition to this development is being side-lined in the local press due to the fact that Quinn Estates has been taking out large ads in the local papers. At a time when many local newspapers are struggling to survive and over two hundred have disappeared in this country (with half of all UK towns having no local newspaper at all), could it be that Kent newspapers might be tempted to exclude the views of those critical of Quinn Estates in order to retain advertising revenue from the company’s full-page ads?
Not in it for the money?
In recent local newspaper profiles, Mark Quinn appears keen to portray himself as the working class “boy made good” – the Hackney kid with dyslexia whose competitive skiing prowess afforded him a career as ski instructor for wealthy clients in the Alps, before using his business acumen to become chairman and CEO of a company responsible for thousands of new-builds across Kent in the last decade.
I can understand where that kind of ambition comes from: I’m from an under-privileged working class East End family myself, members of which have also been driven by the same need for achievement and who have become “successful” and reaped multi-million pound rewards in the process. But Quinn claims he’s simply “a builder” – and not interested in money. “When I show you what I’ve done, you’ll go ‘Jesus Christ, why didn’t he take the money?’ I couldn’t give a damn about being rich.”
Quinn also maintains a fair amount of victim status from his developments but says: “Do I feel bad about what I do, creating homes for someone like you to buy?” the married dad-of-two asks, his eyes unwavering. “No, I don’t. I give people their homes, their safe place.” Again, he repeats his mantra: “I want to do something I’m proud of. If I’m not proud of it, I won’t do it.”
If so, the question I’m left to ask is how on earth Mark Quinn can be “proud” of destroying such an ecologically important site as Betteshanger? Do the desires of home-buyers and property developers always have to trump the essential need for settings such as these upon which endangered wildlife and species depend?
Quinn thinks his company “will end up being bought out by the guys who work for me. I’ve got some of the brightest people in Kent working for me, so I want them to drive the business. I’d like to set up a foundation and try and do some good. That’s probably about four or five years away. I think they’ll probably try and kick me out before! Then I can spend more time with my family. The biggest thing I’ve learned in my life is not being greedy is the key to success.”
Certainly there are plenty who would like to “kick” Mark Quinn’s development out of Betteshanger – and for all the reasons stated.
Kent’s overstretched natural resources
Perhaps it’s time Mark Quinn learned a new “lesson” by actually listening to those who oppose his developments and thereby widening his viewpoint beyond creating more housing and retail units in a county that’s already overstretched in terms of its natural resources? That would certainly do “some good” in terms of our Kent environment.
I have been proud to campaign alongside the people of East Kent, as vice chair and press officer of East Kent Against Fracking, during which time I also sat on the environment committee of CPRE-Kent whose chairman, the respected hydrogeologist Graham Warren, made clear the risks to our county’s public water supply – a supply that is 80% dependent on boreholes from what is known as the Chalk aquifer.
An obsession with property development that provides neither truly “affordable” housing or a real benefit to our environment, while destroying important wildlife habitat built up over decades, will hardly leave Mark Quinn, or those who encourage his developments, with a lasting reputation for having done “some good”.
Sue Sullivan of Friends of Betteshanger says: “Given that we are in the midst of an ecological crisis with unprecedented declines in species and habitats, our view remains firmly that Dover District Council should protect a site such as this from development. While Aspect Ecology are now offering a compensation package that would involve extending and enhancing Open Mosaic Habitat at Betteshanger Country Park – on the other side of the A258 from the development site – claiming it would result in a large biodiversity net gain, they would be free to develop the pit head site and ruin its value as wildlife habitat.”
“Words fail us; euphemisms camouflage the truth. We speak of ‘the environment’ or ‘nature’ as if it were something separate from ourselves, something outside of us. The word ‘development’ also misleads, implying progress, betterment, yet ‘developers’ are often in fact destroyers.”Frankie Green: Enemies of the Earth
The important “takeaway” from this is surely that, as Sue Sullivan explains: “the whole system of mitigation and compensation…is in effect, a smokescreen for destruction and a way of facilitating the needs of developers and the needs of a government intent on development at all costs. Although there are laws, regulation and government guidance – designed to protect biodiversity – when it comes to development a form of regulatory capture seems to have been going on, whereby the protections have been skewed and ‘got round’ so that they now appear to benefit the developer rather than the wildlife they were designed to protect.”
When I first set about writing this piece, I viewed it as an appeal on behalf of the people of Betteshanger, but having learned what is at stake I now realise this is an appeal of behalf of us all, because the natural environment of this site belongs to all of us and so we share a responsibility for its survival. We are part of the landscape that developers, like Quinn, choose to eradicate – for profit. What does it benefit us to gain new residents in a county with limited resources – if important and endangered wildlife and habitat are lost forever?
While Mark Quinn may continue to regale the local press in almost philanthropic terms about his developments bringing benefits to communities, giving the impression that those who oppose his great plans are merely a bunch of NIMBYs, I will quote my friend, the writer Alistair Beaton, talking about his own play, Fracked:
“Nimbyism is an intellectually defensible position.” I am sympathetic to that…It seems to me that accusations of Nimbyism are a bit like accusations of political correctness, they’re to stop people acting at all in defence of the environment or in defence of their values and I think we have a right to protect our local area from intrusions that are going to be very unpleasant.”
Those who care about the threatened Betteshanger site are exercising their right to do precisely the same; using their voices to raise awareness of what is at stake – and what is clearly worth fighting for.
But they will need every voice to protect the site’s wildlife, species and habitat.
They have mine – please lend yours – and together we can make a difference.
Julie Wassmer is a TV drama writer, author and environmental campaigner
IMPORTANT – WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
No matter where you live, you can SHOW YOUR SUPPORT and solidarity with the people of Betteshanger by:-
- Joining the campaign Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/321800662134764
- Taking 5 minutes of your time to lodge an objection on the DDC website by pressing this link to comment on Bettshanger application: 20/00419 https://publicaccess.dover.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=makeComment&keyVal=Q93DSHFZIVA00
For your comment, feel free to use any of the bullet points in this article regarding the importance of wildlife and habitat at stake – or cite other points made in this piece by Peter Cutler.
You can also read all the comments submitted so far on this link:- https://publicaccess.dover.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=documents&keyVal=Q93DSHFZIVA00&filterType=documentType&documentType=Public%20Comment&resetFilter=false
DDC has said that comment will be accepted right up until the decision is taken.
Please comment as soon as possible, as we are not sure when the decision might be made.
You don’t have to live in the Dover District to make a comment.
Thanks to Frankie Green for permission to use the extracts from Enemies of the Earth
Like what you read? Please donate as little as £1 to help to keep this site – and independent journalism – alive.