Lodge Hill is a place made special by nightingales (pictured, below), dozens of them return each spring making Lodge Hill one of the most important places in the UK for them.

The former military training school in north Kent was earmarked for a 5,000 home development by Medway Council in their development plan known as their ‘core strategy’. This important document has to be approved following an independent Examination. Here’s Martin Harper’s blog on that subject.

But to cut to the bottom line, an independent Planning Inspector has written to say that the Council’s plan is unsound because of the Lodge Hill allocation for housing, lack of contingencies and shortcomings in the Council’s justification for housing need.   

This is a major problem for Medway Council and we are really disappointed at their reaction to the news suggesting that the problems with the plan are all about the nightingales and that we have acted unreasonably, saying that “the RSPB waited until the summer of 2012 – an astonishing 17 years after consultations began - to oppose the scheme”.  You could wade through the many documents on the Council’s own web site to find out whether this is true, but I’d like to set out clearly why this suggestion is absolutely false.

Check your facts

The Council first consulted on the Outline Planning Application for Lodge Hill in October 2011.  The current Medway Core Strategy was first consulted upon in October 2010.  The RSPB was first consulted on the developer’s bird surveys in October 2011.  We considered (and explained to the developer and the Council more than once) that a potentially nationally important number of nightingales were present on the site and that the nightingale numbers recorded were likely to be an underestimate.  

Nightingale surveys had been conducted from outside the secure military area (likely to miss any birds in the middle) and bird surveys undertaken within the secure military area by the developer’s consultants were not conducted specifically for nightingales (i.e. at the wrong time of year and at the wrong time of day and therefore unlikely to detect the true nightingale population). 

We raised serious concerns in October and December 2011, February, April and May 2012 and formally objected to both the Outline Planning Application and the Core Strategy on the basis of concerns over nightingales at Lodge Hill well before June 2012.  The Council’s own Lodge Hill Development Brief, adopted in December 2011 says that “The nightingale population has been raised as a concern in many of the consultation events to date.”

Because of the security arrangements at Lodge Hill, no one but the Ministry of Defence and their development partners were in a position to know exactly what lay behind that fence. 

The new information

That is why, in early 2012, Medway Council Officers facilitated access to the secure military area, for an independent surveyor from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to carry out a full nightingale survey as part of the National Nightingale Survey. 

This would settle once and for all how many nightingales were present and whether the site was in fact nationally important.  The RSPB understands that in order to facilitate that survey, the surveyor’s expenses were paid by Medway Council.

It was always clear that it would be a struggle to have the results of that survey ready in time for the Core Strategy Examination hearings.  Nightingales are present and singing in the UK from April until June and the Lodge Hill hearing was to take place on 14 June.  The RSPB and the Council were aware that the results of the survey were likely to come late in the day, but the BTO were doing their best to expedite the information. 

The results were received on the evening of 12 June and were handed to the Council the next morning.  What happened next is set out in the 3rd paragraph of a letter from the Inspector to the Council on 27 July 2012: “At the hearing the RSPB requested that the new BTO survey be accepted and, as a matter of courtesy, I asked for your view on the matter. You did not seek to resist the submission of this new information.  I accepted the new evidence on the grounds that it was not available before my deadline for the submission of statements and was clearly relevant to my consideration of the Lodge Hill Strategic Allocation”.

The Council’s assertion that our objection was sprung on the Council at the last moment, is simply factually incorrect. 

What next?

In his blog on Monday, Martin Harper said that now is the time to draw a line under the Lodge Hill proposal.  Medway Council, developer Land Securities and the land owner Ministry of Defence spent two days in late May setting out their arguments to an independent Planning Inspector.  Each party also submitted their views in writing both before and after the hearings.  The Inspector carefully considered all of the points made and has concluded that Medway Council’s plan is unsound.

The RSPB understands how disappointing this must be for Medway Council.  It has taken around 5 years to get the plan to this stage, after a previous plan had to be withdrawn for entirely separate reasons, which were nothing to do with birds. 

Rather than lashing out at those who make independent decisions, or those who have participated in good faith during countless rounds of public consultation, the Council’s energy (and taxpayer’s money) would be better directed to getting in place a new plan, which will provide homes and jobs for the people of the Medway, whilst protecting the environment for those people and for future generations. 

We are more than happy and willing to work with Medway Council to achieve that aim.

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