Regular readers of this blog will know the RSPB has been involved in the case of a former military training school at Lodge Hill in Kent.  Before Christmas, in one of his last acts as Chair of Natural England, Poul Christensen confirmed the site as an SSSI (see here), and Medway Council withdrew its Core Strategy (the local development plan which included Lodge Hill as a strategic allocation for housing and employment land).  

There has been a fair bit of publicity around this case, including suggestions that offsetting could be used to make development of the site acceptable.  I’d like to take the opportunity of a new year and a clean slate, to clear up some of the misconceptions.  This case is important and it a good test of the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) so I have (forgive me) gone into some technical detail...

1. The NPPF doesn’t completely prevent development which damages or destroys SSSIs (or indeed irreplaceable habitats like ancient woodlands).  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, an independent Inspector listened to detailed evidence from all sides, and was not satisfied that the proposals at Lodge Hill could overcome either of those tests.  Medway Council have now withdrawn their Core Strategy on the basis of the Inspector’s findings.

2.  This is not a brownfield site.  Medway Council and the Ministry of Defence have often described the land as such, and on the face of it, one might assume that a former active military site would constitute 'Previously Developed Land', also known as brownfield.  However, the definition of Previously Developed Land in the NPPF excludes “land that was previously-developed but where the remains of the permanent structure or fixed surface structure have blended into the landscape in the process of time”.   Lodge Hill is an extremely green site, as the aerial photo below shows.  The independent Inspector visited Lodge Hill and found that a relatively small proportion of the site fell within the definition of previously developed land.  She also found that because the site is of “high environmental value” the usual priority given to development on brownfield land doesn’t apply.

3.  The site is not appropriate for offsetting.  In early 2013 Medway Council published a report bythe offsetting  company Environment Bank Limited, proposing an offsetting package for nightingales at Lodge Hill.  There are various reasons why offsetting is not appropriate at this site but the most significant are...

(i)  Unless the Lodge Hill scheme can overcome the tests set out in the NPPF, neither offsetting, or any other form of compensation is relevant.

(ii) Offsetting is still in its pilot phase and it would be wrong to use a SSSI as an early test case.

(iii) Offsetting is not really intended for protected sites.

(iv) The package proposed by Medway Council was experimental.  It would deliver replacement habitat many miles outside of Medway, which would not be ready to accommodate the numbers of nightingales present at Lodge Hill until some 15 to 30 years after the destruction of their habitat.  Whether it is called an offsetting package or simply branded as compensation, we think that a nationally important site is not the place to conduct such an experiment.

The RSPB now understands that the Ministry of Defence and their delivery partner Land Securities remain committed to developing Lodge Hill and plan to pursue an Outline Planning Application this year. This is disappointing, because MoD as a public body, has a duty to protect SSSI’s, but it is also rather astonishing.  

It is difficult to see how any rational Planning Authority (or the Secretary of State if he were to call in the decision) could grant consent for a planning application, when an independent government Inspector, having heard detailed evidence, has found that the proposal is contrary to planning policy.  On the basis of that finding, the Local Planning Authority has withdrawn its plan.  In that context it’s difficult to understand why a landowner would continue to invest public money pursuing development.

There are undoubtedly people both in Medway and in government who are deeply frustrated by the current situation.  There are a few who are not ready to accept that Lodge Hill cannot be developed.  But a closer, objective inspection of the facts shows that pursuing the development of Lodge Hill can only have two outcomes: a) a further expenditure of taxpayers’ money pursuing a development which does not meet the NPPF tests;and/or b) undermining the government’s flagship planning policy, the NPPF.  If the tests which safeguard SSSIs are distorted  in an effort to push development through, the credibility of the entire NPPF will be irreparably damaged.

Neither of these outcomes would be positive for government, for the taxpayer, for planners, for future generations or for nature. 

It's time that the Ministry of Defence and Land Securities think again and consider a more favourable future for the wildlife of Lodge Hill.

P.S. Enjoy Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend.

  • Yes, Kathryn.  The battle goes on. I may say more on this later this week.

  • Shame Land Securities have submitted a revised plan to Medway Council at end of Feb '14 which leaves a very short period of time for objections before the consultation period ends on 24 March 2014.

  • FAscinating idea, Nightjar.  NERC duties on public bodies 'having regard to biodiversity' clearly insufficient at the moment.  But you are right that this part of a wider debate about MoD's land holdings and indeed public land in general.

  • Martin, thanks for the photo - Knew it was good, but what an absolutely fantastic site. Surrounded by intensive arable of low biodiversity value. No possible way to make the case in favour of this site for development, other than the existing hard standing which looks fine for re-development.

    I would suggest that rather than just opposing development of this site there needs to be a wider discussion of what is going on with the MOD estate. What most people may not realise is that the MOD has the largest area of SSSI in England ahead of the Forestry Commission at 2 and the national trust at 3. It is a sad fact that, despite all the legislation and good intentions, bullets and shells have been our wildlife' best protection - MOD has a high proportion of land in roughly the ecological condition it was when taken over during WW2. Airfields like Greenham Common have grassland and heathland untouched by anything other than a sever drenching in jet fuel.

    Greenham Common, surely, is the example that should be followed: extensive hard standing and buildings re-developed, the natural areas retained for wildlife. I saw a similar example near Salisbury where an exceptional private owner has built a thriving business park on the existing buildings & hard areas and, with his own money, is managing the balance of the site, grassland and woodland, for wildlife.

    I would suggest we need legislation similar to Lord Clark's 1985 amendment to the forestry act to impose a duty on MOD to take account of wildlife value in disposing of its estate. MOD has been used to using the national interest argument for training areas (although its care for nature on its training estate has been transformed in recent years, including a huge LIFE project to restore Salisbury Plain)  - but that clearly cannot apply when a site is redundant.