Amazon is at the centre of a row about a warehouse development in Kent that is set to benefit from almost £50m of government funding and threatens the future of a listed medieval church.
Councillors and local residents have expressed concerns about Amazon opening a new 1m sq ft warehouse at the site in Sevington, claiming it would bring low-paid jobs and the “worst kind of corporate citizenship” to the area.
The GMB trade union claims the online retailer is involved in the project and council documents suggest it is connected to the proposed development. However, Amazon and the Ashford borough council deny the claims, while the developer that submitted the planning application says it is yet to sign up a tenant.
The row highlights how the Amazon brand has become an emotive topic in local communities and has echoes of Tesco’s regular clashes with towns and villages as it tried to expand a decade ago. Tesco filed planning applications under different company names so they had a better chance of succeeding and avoiding local opposition.
The proposed development would be built on boggy greenfields located next to the picturesque villages of Sevington and Mersham in Kent, which are locked between the A2070 and the M20, two of the main travel arteries in the south east.
The developers, backed by local and national government, want a new junction on the M20 to be built to help the businesses that will occupy the site. Highways England has estimated the cost of the new junction will be £70m, with the Department for Transport providing £27m, the South East Local Enterprise Partnership £20m, and the developer and occupiers of the new buildings the rest.
That means the businesses which will use the site are set to benefit from tens of millions of pounds of government funding.
The GMB trade union is convinced Amazon is involved in the project after seeing leaked council documents, and it is furious that the online retailer could be in line for financial support despite the small amount of tax it pays and the way it treats staff.
Frank Macklin, GMB regional officer, said the council needs to “come clean” about the project.
“There is so much secrecy. No one in Ashford borough council will say anything,” he said. “We are not opposed to Amazon opening a site here, we are opposed to their business practices, they do not treat their staff very well.”
The Guardian has seen Ashford borough council budget documents that shows it is expecting income from a project labelled simply as “Amazon”.
However, the council denied that Amazon will occupy the site and in a statement the company itself said: “Amazon has no plans to open a fulfilment centre in Ashford.”
A spokesman for the council leadership said the reference to Amazon in the leaked document was because the company was “being used internally as a proxy for the type of occupier for the site”.
They added: “We have repeatedly said that we do not know who the potential occupiers of the planned site will be – and that still remains the position. We can confirm however that it is not Amazon nor has it ever been. Amazon has also confirmed several times that the company has no interest in the site. It is regrettable that the GMB continue to ignore this fact.”
There are other factors that have fuelled speculation of an Amazon link to the site. First, in submissions to the council about their proposals, the developers – Axa – named Amazon as one of the small group of companies that could occupy the warehouse. The others were Hermes, Royal Mail, Gist, Tesco, Sainbury’s and Morrisons.
Second, a report by property agent Jones Lang LaSalle in 2012 about the local area says that Amazon is on the hunt for a 1m sq ft site in the south east of England.
A glance at a map of Amazon’s 11 customer fulfilment centres, including its newly announced site at Leicestershire, shows that there is a gap in its reach in the south east. The company has no fulfilment centres south of Hemel Hempstead, meaning a base in Sevington, which is near Ashford, would offer access to Kent, Essex, Sussex, south London, and potentially France.
It is extremely rare for a property developer to build a project of this size without a tenant lined up. There has only been one speculative scheme in Kent in the last decade.
The council’s website shows there have been dozens of complaints about the planning application, which proposes a collection of warehouses covering almost 1.7m sq ft, the equivalent of 31 football pitches.
These include complaints about the damage to the local scenery from the buildings and the traffic they will create, including from the Diocese of Canterbury and the archaeological advisers to Ashford council and Kent county council, who are concerned about the future of St Mary’s Church and a footpath that could be a “pilgrim’s route”. But there are also concerns about the jobs that the development will create.
Linda Arthur, a local resident and member of the Village Alliance, which is campaigning against the project, said: “We are not objecting because it’s in our vicinity, it’s for all sorts of reasons. It is not a good place for a warehouse development, it’s right next to a listed medieval church. They will be overpowering this beautiful building which will be destroyed forever.
“We also feel it won’t bring the quality of jobs that Ashford requires. It is not the right thing to be doing.”
Councillors also have concerns. Paul Bartlett, councillor for Weald East, which covers Mersham, fears Amazon is connected to the project.
He said was concerned about the possibility of the company bringing the “worst kind of corporate citizenship” to Kent by taking advantage of government subsidies and then avoiding tax and using zero-hours contracts and agency workers.
“The problem is they don’t embed themselves into community, there is no loyalty,” he said.
The Tory councillor also expressed concerns about the pollution that could be caused by dozens of lorries arriving at the warehouse every day.
“The UK hasn’t kept pace with what is needed for developments such as these.”
However, Matthew Balfour, the cabinet member for environment and transport for Kent county council, said: “I would have thought that we would welcome any big employer to Kent, though I could not possibly comment on what the trade unions say about them as employers.”
Consultation on the project closed last month and consultation about the new motorway junction closes next month, meaning a decision will be made in the next few weeks. The warehouse development is forecast to create 3,750 jobs, a powerful fact that councillors could find persuasive when considering the planning application.
Salvatore Zappala, the project manager for Highways England, said: “The new junction on the M20 will provide additional capacity for the Ashford area and reduce the congestion at the existing junction 10, which is already at its design capacity. A new junction will unlock the potential for future growth in the Ashford area.”
But Andrew Wickham, who represents Ashford Rural East in Kent county council, said it was important that the development created the right jobs.
He said: “There is no guarantee that it will be Amazon, it is just speculation, that is one thing. But we want it to create the right sort of jobs for Ashford. We don’t want to have people who are not local coming to take low-paid jobs, that would not be good for Ashford. Ashford has pretty high levels of employment and I think we should want highly skilled jobs.”
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