Campaigning for nature
Image: John Bridges
On the Hoo Peninsula in Medway, Kent, sits the one of the most important sites in the country for nightingales – Lodge Hill. Nightingales are one of our most iconic birds, famed for the startling beauty of their nocturnal song, but their numbers are in steep decline across England. In 2013, this site's national importance as a stronghold for our nightingales was recognised when it was notified as a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), making the site the only SSSI in the UK notified specifically for nightingales.
The site, however, had already been earmarked for development, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) are pursuing plans to build a new settlement of up to 5,000 houses at Lodge Hill.
Medway Council's Core Strategy (which set out Medway's housing plans for the next 15 years) was withdrawn at the end of 2013, after an independent Inspector found that the allocation of housing at Lodge Hill was in conflict with National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which protects SSSIs. Despite this, MoD and their delivery partner at the time, Land Securities, submitted a revised Outline Planning Application in February 2014 and remain committed to developing the site today with a new delivery partner Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO). The site is due to pass to the Homes and Communities Agency in 2016, who seem also committed to the development.
Medway Council's Planning Committee decided to approve that outline planning application in September 2014. However given the proposal's conflict with the Government’s NPPF and the ruling to that effect by the independent Inspector for the Core Strategy, the decision to approve was automatically referred to the Secretary of State. In 2014 the RSPB wrote to the Secretary of State as did other conservation organisations and over 12,400 concerned members of the public. In February 2015 it was confirmed that the application would be 'called-in'. This power is used only in exceptional circumstances – a fraction of 1% of all planning cases – including where they are of 'more than national significance'. A Public Inquiry will now be held to examine the application and the Ministers' decision will be made after consideration of a planning inspector's report and other relevant matters. The RSPB was delighted that the Government has listened to the public who are concerned about the future of England finest nightingale site.
Since this 'call-in' however there have been many delays to the Public Inquiry timetable and a start date is not likely until spring 2017. The Planning Inspectorate has also asked that many of the original environmental work be re-surveyed as they are now out of date, as are the proposed compensation plans. The NPPF requires an avoid-mitigate-compensate approach to development on SSSIs with compensation is a last resort only. The RSPB believes that the avoid- mitigate-compensation approach have not been followed here and the compensation is not appropriate. The original planning application approved by Medway Council included proposals for compensation land at Foulness Island in Essex. In 2016 this location was abandoned and at present new sites are being examined throughout the South East. The RSPB believes that attempting what would be experimental compensation on a nationally important single species population like nightingale would be an unacceptable risk.
The RSPB has registered as a Rule 6 party, which means we will be one of the parties allowed to present our evidence at the Public Inquiry in 2017. Lodge Hill isn't only important for nightingales and in our preparations for the Inquiry we are working alongside other conservation organisations. Other Rule 6 parties include Kent Wildlife Trust and Medway Countryside Forum who will also be giving the wildlife that Lodge Hill protects a voice at the Public Inquiry.
If the application were to proceed, not only will we lose the only site in the UK protected specifically for nightingales, it would constitute one of the largest ever losses of a SSSI to development. This would set a dangerous precedent that would leave other protected sites across the country vulnerable. A decision to develop Lodge Hill would undermine the Government tests for other nationally protected areas around the country, meaning that they could be at risk from damaging development or other damaging activities in the future too.
Chattenden Wood and Lodge Hill was notified by Natural England as a SSSI (a type of protected area with special or exceptional wildlife features) because it is one of the most important places for nightingales in the UK. The SSSI supported 85 singing male nightingales in the British Trust for Ornithology's 2012 National Nightingale Survey (and 65 pairs in a 2013 survey), both of which are sufficient to demonstrate that the site holds more than one per cent of the national nightingale population. In addition, the SSSI is recognised for its important areas of ancient woodland and unimproved grassland.
The proposed development would destroy the majority of the nightingale habitat and comprise one of the largest ever losses of a SSSI in England and the rest of the UK. Whilst national planning policy doesn't completely prevent development which destroys SSSIs, there are a number of tests that have to be passed before permission can be given.
These tests ensure that special places are only damaged where there really is no alternative site for that development, and where the need for the development clearly outweighs the impacts on the SSSI and the national network of SSSIs. An independent inspector for Medway’s Core Strategy concluded that the Lodge Hill proposal conflicted with national planning policy because it does not meet policy tests. We agree and believe that the Lodge Hill SSSI and its nightingales should be safeguarded for the nation.
We were delighted to hear on 13 February 2015 that Planning Ministers announced they'll step in on Lodge Hill. The Government's department in charge of housing have decided that the development will be subject to a public inquiry.
Huge thanks to the 12,400 of you who sent personal emails to the Ministers making this decision. Only a tiny fraction of planning decisions are picked up by central Government each year, and in their letter the Minister sited the significant number of requests from members of the public in their decision to 'call in'. It is clear that your emails helped to successfully convince them that the threat to Lodge Hill really is of national concern and that they had to step in.
We are firmly of the view that Lodge Hill is not the right place to build up to 5,000 houses.
Why we are concerned
The British Trust for Ornithology's 2012 National Nightingale Survey indicated the Lodge Hill area supports 85 singing male nightingales. A 2013 survey showed the site supported 65 territories, with the majority on the proposed development site. Visit our nightingale page to hear this wonderful songbird in full voice and imagine what 85 would sound like!
This number of nightingales means it is one of the most important places for nightingales in the country. Natural England has recognised this by making it a Site of Special Scientific Interest for nightingales, ancient woodland and grassland. It should be safeguarded for the nation.
As well as direct loss of nightingale habitat, the proposed development would mean increased recreational disturbance and cat predation within any remaining habitat, jeopardising any birds that remain. Nightingales nest low down in scrub and on the ground – making them exceptionally vulnerable to predation and disturbance.
There is also a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the creation of compensatory habitat for nightingales. In essence, we believe that the risks to the nightingale population - if the development were to proceed - are simply too high.
What we’ve done so far
In late 2011, we formally objected to both the original Outline Planning Application made on behalf of the MoD, and Medway Council's Core Strategy. We called for the Lodge Hill Strategic Allocation of up to 5,000 houses to be removed from the Core Strategy and following an examination of the plans an independent Planning Inspector agreed. In June 2013 she informed Medway Council that the only reasonable course of action was to withdraw their Core Strategy and go back to the drawing board.
However it was not until November 2013 that the Council withdrew their Core Strategy after Natural England's decision to confirm the Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill SSSI. Disappointingly, the MoD and their delivery partner, Land Securities, submitted a revised Outline Planning Application at the end of February 2014 and remain committed to developing Lodge Hill. In April 2014 we formally objected to this revised application. We continued to object throughout the summer of 2014.
Prior to the Planning Committee meeting we submitted a joint letter from the RSPB, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Kent Bat Group, Kent Wildlife Trust outlining our objections. Once the Planning Committee voted to approve the proposals at Lodge Hill in September 2014 we requested that the decision be 'called in' and examined at public inquiry. Our campaign resulted in over 12,400 members of the public asking the minister to 'call in' the decision. We made further representations when the minster requested further information from Medway Council in December 2014. The decision to 'call in' was made in February 2015. The minster recognised that requests to 'call in' from Natural England and RSPB as well the "significant number" of public requests for the protection of the site was influential in encouraging ministers to decide to 'call in' the decision for public inquiry.
Why the RSPB opposes the Lodge Hill development
We recognise the need for Medway to identify land for - and build - new houses in the District, but we firmly believe that more environmentally sustainable locations should be found.
The RSPB opposes the development at Lodge Hill because:
There are a couple of critical issues facing this proposal:
1. The Government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) does not completely prevent development which damages or destroys SSSIs. In exceptional circumstances such development could be possible. But the NPPF contains important tests which ensure that special places are only damaged where there really is no alternative site for the development proposed, 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 independent Planning Inspector who examined the Medway Core Strategy, having listened to detailed evidence from all sides, was not satisfied that the proposals at Lodge Hill could overcome either of those tests.
Following the Inspector's conclusion, an update to the Sustainability Appraisal conducted by Medway Council has been published on the Council’s website. This document finds that there are two "reasonable and realistic" alternative sites to Lodge Hill, and there are other options for delivering this level of development.
2. This is not a brownfield site. The Inspector found that only a relatively small proportion of the site was previously developed land (as defined by the NPPF), given that much of the fixed structures have now blended into the landscape. She also found that because the site is of "high environmental value" the usual priority given in the NPPF to development on brownfield land over other land doesn't apply.
A sustainable future for Lodge Hill
We believe that the national importance of the nightingale population on the Hoo Peninsula presents a fantastic opportunity to promote the understanding, conservation and enjoyment of an iconic bird, and the very special qualities of the area. We would like to work with Medway Council and other partners to achieve this.
RSPB object to publication draft of Medway Core Strategy
Outline planning application submitted
RSPB object to the Outline planning application
Applicant submits further ecological information
RSPB sustains objection
RSPB appears at the Examination in Public of Medway's Core Strategy and objects to strategic allocation of the site at Lodge Hill
The Medway Core Strategy Examination is reopened and the Council publish its draft Sustainability Appraisal Addendum. The provisional national estimate from the BTO National Nightingale Survey 2012 is published, which shows that the site holds around 1.3 per cent of the UK's nightingale population.
Natural England have notified the site as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
RSPB appears at the reopened Examination in Public of Medway's Core Strategy, where the Council, Land Securities, MoD and other stakeholders are given an opportunity to make all of their arguments in favour of and against the Lodge Hill allocation.
The Independent Planning Inspector conducting the Medway Core Strategy Examination writes to Medway Council to say that the Lodge Hill allocation is "not consistent with national planning policy" and because of this, the Council's failure to allow for contingencies and shortcomings in the Council's assessment of housing needs "the only reasonable course of action is for the Council to withdraw the plan".
Natural England’s Board confirms the notification of the Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill SSSI on the quality of its ancient woodland, grasslands and nationally important nightingale population.
Following confirmation of the SSSI, Medway Council formally withdraws its draft Core Strategy.
On behalf of the Ministry of Defence, Land Securities reactivates its dormant outline planning application, first submitted in 2011, and submit replacement planning documents and Environmental Statement. Medway Council launch public consultation on the new documents with a deadline ending on 15 April 2014.
The RSPB sustains its objection, Natural England also objects.
Further public consultations, the RSPB and Natural England sustain their objections.
Prior to the Planning Committee meeting we submitted a joint letter from the RSPB, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Kent Bat Group, Kent Wildlife Trust outlining our objections. Medway Council Planning Committee made the decision to approve the Lodge Hill outline planning application, making a decision within two hours. Without Government intervention this decision will affect the future of our most special national wildlife sites all over England.
The minister responsible for making the ‘call in’ decision requested further information from Medway Council on the representations made by Natural England and RSPB.
Medway Council submitted further information and the RSPB and Natural England made representations on this information and sustained their requests for Government to 'call in' the decision.
Ministers wrote to the applicants, to confirm that the application will be 'called in'. This decision to ‘call in’ the application was made following a significant number of requests from the public, Natural England, the RSPB and local MPs. This power is used only in exceptional circumstances – a fraction of 1% of all planning cases – including where they are of 'more than national significance'. The Planning Inspectorate will announce details of the public inquiry soon.
The planning inspectorate requested that the applicant update the original environmental survey data which is now out of date. New consultants were brought on board to do this work and we will be involved in examining this new data which will include new plans for compensation. These new surveys will be conducted throughout 2016 with the Public Inquiry due to take place in early 2017 to accomodate the new surveys.
Public Inquiry due to take place.