Heritage

North Frith House, Tonbridge, Kent

Green Balance worked on a local campaign with a residents’ group to secure the future of North Frith house and park from a series of challenges over a three year period.

The South Eastern Electricity Board put up for sale its training centre at North Frith on the edge of Tonbridge in 1995.  The large Victorian house, including a winter garden, and its 26 hectares of gardens and grounds had been well maintained and little altered.

Initially Fidelity Insurance proposed to acquire the property and develop the site to complement its major centre at nearby Hildenborough. Their planning application involved demolishing the house and replacing it with a large office block of 11,700m2 plus parking for 585 cars.

Despite its location in a Conservation Area based on the house and in the Green Belt, the project’s employment prospects gained Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council’s support. In the absence of any local opportunity to protect the house, Green Balance saved North Frith by securing a Parliamentary Written Question from the Liberal Democrat heritage spokesman followed by spot-listing by the Heritage Secretary of State. The extremely rare Gentlemen's and Ladies' bathing boxes beside the outdoor swimming pool were listed separately.

Tonbridge & Malling BC responded by identifying North Frith as a ‘major developed site’ in the Green Belt, i.e. suitable for redevelopment, in its Local Plan deposit draft in 1996. Green Balance appeared at the Local Plan Inquiry in 1997 as both expert witness and advocate. As a result the Inspector was critical of the intention to allow residential or business development at North Frith and rejected the policy proposal: “To encourage private housing would be likely to seriously compromise the integrity of the house and historic gardens and the privacy and security of the site which would be a significant benefit to one organisation and could prejudice the most appropriate use of the main buildings.”

Meanwhile, in February 1997 Berkeley Homes proposed to convert the house and stable block to flats, fill the walled garden with luxury homes and erect a courtyard housing development on the edge of the gardens. Officers recommended approval but Green Balance was able to persuade Councillors to refuse the planning application. Berkeley Homes appealed. They also submitted a revised planning application without the courtyard block. This too was recommended for approval and this time accepted by the Councillors. Nonetheless, Green Balance persuaded the Secretary of State to ‘call-in’ this application for his own decision.

A public inquiry took place in 1998 into the appeal and the called-in application, with Green Balance appearing again as expert witness and advocate, in opposition to both the Council and Berkeley Homes. In a close decision the courtyard was refused but the conversions and walled garden element permitted. After a three year struggle with developers and the local authority this partly achieved the objectives of the residents’ group, though not their full aspiration for the site shared by the Local Plan Inspector.

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