There has been some encouraging news this past week about our attempts to save a crucial site for nightingales, Lodge Hill. My colleague Adrian Thomas has all the details...
Image credit: John Bridges (rspb-images.com)
Many of you will know of – and have taken active part in – the long running campaign to #SaveLodgeHill, the UK's number one site for nightingales, which is in Medway, Kent. The shadow of major development proposals has hung over it for many years, in which several thousand new houses would have destroyed this stronghold of one of our most threatened birds.
However, at last some good news: last Thursday (13 December 2018), Homes England, the 'government's housing accelerator' and owner of Lodge Hill, announced that it was reducing its proposals down to 500 houses. Also, these houses would be entirely outside the boundary of the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), with no 'land take' from within the protected area.
What is even more encouraging is the reason Homes England's gave for the change of heart: 'environmental sensitivities'.
I strongly believe that it is your combined voices calling for Lodge Hill to be saved that helped make this difference. More than 10,000 of you responded in each of the three rounds of campaigning in 2014, 2017 and again this year, showing that the nightingales really matter.
Your 10,000 voices weren't simple names on a list, either. You took the time to get your head around what are complex planning issues. Under the National Planning Policy Framework, the guidebook that all local authorities should follow in England, it explains that development that will have an impact on protected wildlife sites should be avoided.
This first principle of 'avoid' is key: there was never any justification why Lodge Hill had to be developed. If it had gone ahead, it would have set an appalling precedent for protected sites around the country. If Lodge Hill wasn't safe, nowhere would be safe.
Before we get too carried away, there is still a strong risk that Homes England will propose that their 500 houses go right next to the SSSI. Breeding nightingales are shy, ground-nesting birds and so are extremely vulnerable to disturbance whether that be by dogs, cats, people, lighting, noise etc. Development right next to the SSSI could be just as much a calamity as building on the SSSI itself.
So the fight to save Lodge Hill isn't yet won.
But Homes England has nevertheless taken an important step, so our thanks to everyone who has helped us get this far. Thanks to all the thousands of you who have taken part in the campaign; and thanks to all our partner organisations – Kent Wildlife Trust, The Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation, The Woodland Trust, Buglife, Medway Countryside Forum, and The Friends of the North Kent Marshes.
We also commend Homes England. We urge them to continue to do the right thing and ensure that whatever housing proposals they come up with truly protects the nightingales. The country needs new housing, but it needs to be the right houses in the right places. As it stands, we believe that Lodge Hill is Homes England's only site in the whole country that is a nationally protected wildlife site. This is a special one-off, that deserves special one-off treatment.
I hope to be writing a blog in six months' time talking about how Homes England is the saviour of the nightingale. Given that the nightingale has declined in England by 90% in the last 50 years, with a probably now fewer than 5,000 singing males, it needs all the help it can get.
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