I said that this would be a big week for wildlife and I am delighted to report some good news. 

Followers of this blog might remember that earlier in the year I wrote about Lodge Hill, a former military training school in north Kent, which is home to 85 singing nightingales and which was notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) back in March (see here and here).

The RSPB has been actively involved for over a year in the Examination of the Medway Core Strategy.  The Core Strategy sets out the plan for Medway for the next 15 years and it proposes Lodge Hill as the site for 5,000 houses and employment land.  In late May 2013, the RSPB attended a hearing, where those involved in the proposal had their chance to put the case for why planning for houses on the SSSI was, or was not a good idea.

I’m really pleased to report that the Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is conducting that Examination, has now written to Medway Council, telling them that “the only reasonable course of action is for the Council to withdraw the Core Strategy” (see here). 

The Inspector considers that the scale of the impact on the SSSI would constitute “a significant adverse impact”.  She concludes that the policy allocating Lodge Hill for development is not in conformity with national policy, and that the Council’s plan is unsound.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is the national policy which the Inspector is referring to.  It doesn’t completely prevent development which damages or destroys SSSIs.  In exceptional circumstances such development could be possible (even if it may not be desirable).  But the NPPF contains important safeguards.  These are tests which ensure that special places are only damaged where there really is no alternative, and where the need for the development clearly outweighs the impacts on the SSSI and on the national network of SSSIs. In this case, the Inspector has listened to the evidence from all sides, and is not satisfied that the proposals at Lodge Hill can overcome either of those tests.

This is not a case of wildlife vs jobs and houses.  It is a question of good, sustainable planning vs a local authority who doesn’t want to change its plans.  The Examination hearings were particularly interesting, because my colleagues found themselves making the same points as several housing developers about the interpretation of the NPPF, the need to look at alternatives and the protection of the SSSI.  

Instead of taking on board the importance of the site for nightingales, and coming up with an alternative proposal, Medway Council has spent a year fighting the notification of the SSSI and pushing ahead with its plan in the face of opposition from both conservation organisations and housing developers.  We think now is the time to draw a line under the Lodge Hill proposal.  It is difficult to see how any rational planning authority could grant consent for a planning application, now that a government inspector has made it clear that the proposal is against national planning policy and that the benefits of development would not outweigh the harm to the SSSI. 

The message to Medway Council is simple:  come up with 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.

  • Dear Peter Crispin

    I appreciated your systemic view on planning so much I set joined this discussion group just to tell you.

  • Thank you Martin for not confusing us by referring to this conflict as 'the battle of Medway', wherein the Roman invasion force (definitely an 'invasive species') overcame the Britons in this same neck of the woods.  If today's inhabitants are surprised to find nightingales in their back yard, imagine waking up in Colchester in A.D. 43 to find Claudius's grazing elephants in your garden!

  • Well done RSPB - and a big pat on the back and support for NE, too, who went ahead with the SSSI no doubt in the face of Government disapproval. I have read some of the commentary from British Land (the developers) and Medway and think it is disgraceful that their approach is to split hairs over whether the Nightingale population is above or below 1% of the national population: it is clear this proposal went ahead in the full knowledge of the site's wildlife importance and if they have both lost money as a result of the failure of planning, surely they should take the message away and work with rather than against wildlife interests in future ?

    And, as Peter points out, this is not in any shape or form about conservation 'strangling' much needed house building - I know the area well (as do so many RSPB members thanks to the nearby Cliffe Airport proposals) and there is a wide range of more suitable building land.

  • Peter - I think that Ruth Davis' idea of green affordable housing is an interesting and important area to explore.  Enjoy the nightingales today and I hope you keep body and soul together before the holiday in France...

  • Let the RSPB be clear also that unsustainable and unearned  returns on private and private rental property were at the core of the "Bank Bail Out" and that private mortgage debt is at the heart of UK indebtedness and many times higher than public sector debt.  Building on 5% of Green Belt land would significantly increase house build which is desperately needed; the key here is the price of land and I continue to urge focus on land banks and oligopoly control of building land. When there are over half a million plots with planning permission why are the builders not building; clearly the price is to high and "Ponzi" schemes by govt are not the solution but lower land and house prices are. Did these builders pay too much in the Boom ? Why are so much of their profits related to land speculation ? Access to land when kit houses are available on the internet has to be facilitated directly to the young first time buyers via land co-ops, self build co ops etc; refer the land banks to the OFT as oligopoly control vs self build aspirants and house prices against the national interest vis UK competitiveness; just as other areas of privatisation and wealth ownership has rendered ownership of the key levers of rail, water and energy in foreign hands. Offshore class traitors of the Mail and Telegraph !

    Ah the song of the nightingale; I am off by train to listen to them; hopefully still singing in July in France and wild camping.