By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News, in Kent
Any discussion about the future of Kent and the preservation of its character tends to boil down to one central issue: housing.
New developments are springing up all over the county
The subject inevitably polarizes opinion and often pits business interests against community ideals.
One man caught in the middle of the debate is Nick Sharp, site director of Kent Science Park.
The company wants to expand its operation by creating a new access road, but the only way it can finance that project is by building 5,000 new homes near Sittingbourne, a move that is opposed by many locals.
"It is a very British problem," argues Mr Sharp, who says the plans will create 5,000 new jobs in the area.
"The local people want to preserve the countryside which is very commendable," he explains. "But we are trying to create something very important here."
The arguments are likely to get more heated as Kent tries to deliver on some ambitious targets for new homes over the next twenty years.
In its latest housing blueprint, the South East of England Regional Assembly said Kent district councils should make provision for more than 120,000 new homes by 2026.
The scale of house building envisaged - to be finally agreed in 2008 - differs dramatically across the county.
The unspoilt countryside is what attracts many people to Kent
More than 20,000 new homes are proposed for the Ashford area and for the southern tip of the Thames Gateway near Dartford and Gravesend.
At the other end of spectrum, just 3,000 new homes are planned in Sevenoaks.
Few dispute the need for new housing across the county.
The South East is the UK economy's main engine of growth and new jobs inevitably require new houses.
Spiralling house prices in London, meanwhile, are forcing more and more people out of the capital. Many are eyeing up Kent as an affordable but still convenient location, particularly as faster rail links are due to start running to London by 2009.
Housing is also accepted to have a key role to play in the regeneration of deprived areas along the Thames Gateway, Medway and Thanet.
But many people are questioning whether the amount of new homes on the agenda are justifiable and what kind of impact they will have on the environment and Kent's already creaking infrastructure.
"Nobody denies there is a crisis in affordable housing in the South East," says Dr Hilary Newport of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.
"But there is so much more that can be done to balance the worst excesses of green field developments. We are barely scratching the surface on that."
Michael Ward is chief executive of the Kent Thameside Delivery Board, the agency charged with overseeing the building of 25,000 new houses around Dartford and Gravesend.
He argues that the right formula, and the one that has been adopted by the South East, is to require developers to build at least 60% of new housing on previously developed land.
Chatham residents have access to schools and medical facilities
"The way to avoid taking too much green land is to develop the brown field sites effectively," he explained. "That's what we have got here."
Despite this, the area's flagship housing project - a 20-year plan to build up to 12,000 new homes on the site of an old quarry and cement works owned by Land Securities - has run into potentially serious problems.
The Highways Agency has major concerns about it, arguing the road system will not cope with the increased volume of traffic despite a planned £250m investment in widening the A2.
Thameside's response is a radical one - proposing a massive shift towards public transport use.
It believes incentives such as dedicated bus routes, bus stops less than five minutes walk from the development and even pre-payment of bus fares through property charges can entice people out of their cars.
"The development is based on the biggest shift from private to public transport anyone has managed to get outside London," Mr Ward says.
"The challenge is to make the public transport so good that people will choose to use it."
But critics say not enough thought has been given to the impact that thousands of new houses will have on the transport system and other essential public services.
"Our fear is that we are racing ahead to build these homes regardless of the consequences," says the CPRE's Dr Newport.
She says admirable statements of policy on protecting rural areas are in danger of being sacrificed in the pursuit of essentially economic targets.
Converting commercial premises into flats is popular
"If we are going to go ahead with this level of house building, we have to know what the implications will be," she says, highlighting water supplies as a critical issue.
"Water is under extreme pressure in Kent. We know there is not enough water in Kent in an average year, let alone a drought year. We could find ourselves with all these new homes without the water to fill the taps."
It is clear that Kent is going to have to reconcile multiple tensions if it is going to manage its housing needs effectively.
Yet, examples of forward-looking, popular developments certainly exist.
The regeneration of the former naval dockyard at Chatham, a mixed-use residential and commercial scheme, counts Tony Blair and John Prescott among its fans.
The 5,000 residents of St Mary's Island - where 1,000 homes have been built and another 1,000 are planned - have a nursery, junior school, doctor's surgery and a university all on their doorstep.
"It really is a truly sustainable environment," says Elwyn Nicol, project manager of the Chatham Maritime development, managed by the South East England Development Agency.
"You can live, work and play here."
But ultimately, it is the standard of housing which will attract people to a place, Mr Nicol says.
"We have set a benchmark for quality here in terms of design for the rest of Kent to aspire to. People will not accept drab boxes to live in."