Medway Council’s Planning Committee has voted unanimously in favour of the Lodge Hill Outline Planning Application to destroy the site that is now a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. It was frankly a pathetic sight to witness a Planning Committee convince its self of what it wants, hiding behind a thin veil of understanding when quite clearly councillors had failed to understand the environmental risks. The committee was unanimous in its display of ignorance concerning the evidence before it. Councillors' focus on inadequate road infrastructure leading to their request for improvements to the plan was proof enough, contrasting so completely with their blind faith in the ability to successfully compensate for the habitat loss. Councillors expressed their confidence in Land Securities remedies to compensate for the lost nightingales despite overwhelming arguments to the contrary by the Core Strategy Inspector, RSPB, Buglife, Kent Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation and Natural England. Robin Cooper (Director of Regeneration) did draw attention to these fundamental issues at the beginning but not one councillor had anything to say about it. You would think if it was that easy, some one might ask why this had not been done long before 90% of the UK’s nightingales became extinct. Councillor Adrian Gulvin even said it would be nice to have some of the nightingales around when the housing was finished. It is alarming to hear a man make a critical decision regarding the environment ignorant to the simple fact, stated by RSPB from the outset, that the pet cats from 15,000 residents will have eaten each and every ground-feeding nightingale for miles around in a matter of months.
The committee proceeded to convince its self that there is no alternative to Lodge Hill based on assessments by the developers themselves and Medway Council, a case of ‘suit yourself’ if ever there was one.
The committee blindly accepted Land Securities assertion that the site for compensatory habitat will be assured, that it will deliver 1% of the UK population of nightingales, and believed that most of the birds’ territories at Lodge Hill will remain unharmed despite the development! Nowhere were we shown the location of the birds’ territories superimposed over the development. Thompson Ecology first hoisted this particular lie on the public at the public consultation in Chattenden last year and the committee firmly believed it.
The committee completely failed to understand that, just because a site is defined as Previously Developed Land it is not by default more suitable for development. The inconvenient sections of the National Planning Policy Framework pertaining to PDL were absent from any discussion. The council were shown a series of images of the site which focused on roads and buildings, and which Robin Cooper stated were representative of the majority of the site, a blatant falsehood. Only 15% of Lodge Hill actually shows any evidence of development. There were no similar images depicting the rich mix of habitat, the PowerPoint presentation was bias. What is telling is that Mr. Cooper had to go to some lengths to pick out on an aerial photograph the delineation between the Lodge Hill perimeter and the neighbouring Chattenden SSSI; without his pointer, no one could have said where the brown field began or ended.
Six Peninsula ward councillors addressed the planning committee. Councillors Watson and Irvine were at pains to point out the hypocrisy of Medway Council’s position, having argued for the protection of the Hoo Peninsula from being paved over for an airport (not least because of its environmental value) it now argues for it to be paved over for housing. Numerous councillors including the Chair, Mrs Chambers, were keen to note how Lodge Hill has been on the table for development for many years, not seeing the irony that an airport has been proposed for many, many more years and that made it no more valid a concept. These remarks also conspicuously failed to recognise that the landscape has fundamentally changed since the first Local Plan and Core Strategy; Lodge Hill is now a SSSI. The unprecedented destruction of a SSSI on this scale in this country was considered entirely acceptable by the committee without any comment, credible or otherwise, regarding the Council’s duty to address biodiversity declines or its earlier claims (Core Strategy) that it would enhance the biodiversity of the Hoo Peninsula.
Councillors feigned an interest in the environment but concluded homes must come first, direct at odds with the National Planning Policy Framework. It was blatantly obvious that they did not grasp the environmental implications by the cursory way in which they accepted Land Securities report and had no comment on the overwhelming, science-based objections. Councillors convinced themselves that the SSSI’s destruction is unavoidable, and that compensation is deliverable to the tune of 84 nesting nightingales in Essex. Medway Council were happy to ask Boris Johnson how 300,000 birds would be moved out of the estuary in order to build an airport, but believe the nightingales at Lodge Hill will accomplish this feat. It appears now that it will take the Secretary of State and a public inquiry to force the committee to give due regard to the evidence.
What we witnessed at Medway Council’s truly extraordinary planning meeting was a microcosm of every other deciding body that chose to cut down a rain forest, drain a wetland, and crush a coral reef saying people must come before the environment, and that the environment will be alright. We witnessed exactly how a group of decision-makers who perceives them selves to be rational human beings, convince themselves of a logic that directly contributes to the serious 60% decline of UK biodiversity and the global environmental crisis we are in. This council will go home thinking it did the right thing for people in good conscience despite being entirely at odds with national policy and every warning sign the environment can throw at us that exercising this kind of lazy politics will be the death of our communities and the environment upon which they depend.
Councillor Chris Irvine appealed to the Planning Committee to put politics aside and do the right thing, to not set a precedent by approving this planning application and threaten other SSSIs across the country from development. When common sense finally prevails, and the Government protects Lodge Hill SSSI in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework – a commitment to reversing biodiversity declines, I hope each councillor will recognise the shameful way and the cowardice with which they have acted. The rest of the country is watching.
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