A landmark planning appeal case for the UK wine industry was dismissed on 24 July. The appeal was against the decision of Medway Council to grant planning permission for a new winery complex. 

The Kentish Wine Vault could have been built near Cuxton by Vineyard Farms and produced five million bottles of wine a year in a £30 million investment from an experienced wine producer. 

The proposals had the gravitas of a high quality design, undertaken by the globally renowned architects, Foster + Partners. 

In March 2022, planning officers had recommended approval to councillors on the Planning Committee of Medway Council but, the Council had received 600 objection letters and a petition of objection, signed by 1,100 people. Five councillors supported approval of the scheme, but eight were swayed by the objectors and carried a refusal. 

A subsequent appeal was directed to a government inspector. 

The site is in the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), designated as Green Belt and adjacent to a Conservation Area. These are a challenging set of combined constraints. The inspector’s decision is a multi-faceted consideration of local and national planning policies set against assessment of the environmental impacts and benefits arising from the proposals. 

The inspector concluded that the scheme was not an inappropriate development in the Green Belt on the basis that wine production amounts to agricultural use. He attributed limited weight to heritage impacts. 

He found that significant harm to the AONB landscape would result. Critically, the scheme was accepted as being major development in the AONB. This was a determinative issue as it triggered the application of rigorous national policy tests. Exceptional circumstances apply to major development in the AONB. Economic benefits must outweigh identified harm. 

High level figures derived from the appellant’s growth plans showed that the economic benefits of the appeal scheme equated to
£21.3 million direct benefits and £42.6 million indirect benefits. A contribution of around £112 million by 2030, with an estimated 1,000 jobs for the Medway economy. Unfortunately for the appellant, the inspector decided that the estimated benefits weren’t sufficiently detailed to enable a thorough assessment. 

He found that the need for the scheme was not established and there was no evidence provided by the appellants that options outside of the AONB were not examined and discounted. 

Overall, the inspector opined that the “public interest” case was not sufficiently illustrated. 

What are the implications? 

The refused scheme was an incredibly ambitious proposal starring global architectural quality. Major proposals don’t always mean more risk. Big investment brings with it major benefits but in the case of the appeal, they were not regarded by the Government’s Inspector as having been sufficiently set out because of the high bar set by AONB national policy. It is a major blow for big investor confidence in the emergent wine-making industry but will have the unintended consequence of supporting smaller producers. Having achieved an officer recommendation of approval, the appellants learned that the planning system is a quasi-democratic process, ultimately deferential to, and reliant on, strong political leadership which is supportive of investment. 

An objective policy-led approach towards business planning is recommended. The scale of the development proposed in this higher value landscape was too much to meet the policy tests. Insufficient detail on the business plan and testing of alternative scenarios outside the AONB were determinative factors. Might production on the scale envisaged be deliverable in increments? The old adage, “fly low, fly far” resonates. The industry will bounce back.

For a copy of the decision and related documents visit: www.medway.gov.uk/info/200133/planning/1698/cuxton_winery_public_planning_inquiry

Brian Mullin is a planning policy specialist and Head of Marrons, a national multi-disciplinary planning and design consultancy. Marrons is a sister company of Mayo Wynne Baxter solicitors, a law firm providing a wide range of legal services to wineries, vineyards and the businesses that support and supply them. 

Contact Brian for planning, heritage, economic, land-use, architectural, biodiversity net gain, and rural diversification services relating to the UK wine industry. Contact James O’Connell for other legal queries.