- New plans have been unveiled by Medway Council that could lead to thousands of new houses being built on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which could also threaten the legal protection of thousands of wildlife habitats and natural beauty spots across the UK
- National conservation groups are joining forces with Kent-based organisations to campaign to protect Lodge Hill, the best place for nightingales in the UK, from being lost to new housing
- The much-loved nightingale, famed for its rich song, has seen its decline in England by 90% in the last 50 years placing it on the UK Red List for threatened species, and Lodge Hill is one of the last strongholds for the bird in the UK
New documents released by Medway Council in Kent are set to test the Government's safeguards that prevent many of our best wildlife havens, natural habitats and beauty spots from being lost to new housing developments.
If approved, the authority's Local Plan could pave the way for thousands of new houses to be built on Lodge Hill, land that should be protected for nature.
Lodge Hill in Kent is recognised as one of the last strongholds for nightingales in the UK, an enigmatic bird that has seen its population in England drop to less than 6,000 singing males from over 60,000 a few decades ago. The decline of the species is so alarming that nightingales are listed among our most threatened birds and included on UK Red List for birds. However, the land is being targeted by Medway Council as a prime location to build thousands of houses.
The area includes ancient woodland with rare grasslands which are home to mammals, reptiles, amphibians, rare insects and flowers as well as nightingales. The importance of Lodge Hill is so great that in 2013 the Government declared it a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for nightingales and the habitat.
In addition to being recognised as a nationally important site for nature, local people have also demonstrated that they value Lodge Hill. Echoing the concerns of conservationists, local communities spoke out when the local authority approved a developer's planning application to build 5,000 houses on the area back in 2014. The strength of opposition from local groups could not be ignored and the decision will go to a Public Inquiry in 2018.
Alan Johnson, south east conservation manager for the RSPB said: "Flying thousands of miles from Africa, nightingales arrive at Lodge Hill every year to spend the summer in Medway where they nest and raise young. As they arrive they blend perfectly into their environment as they serenade the Kent countryside with their distinctive song. So it is deeply concerning that one of the few areas where they are thriving could be lost under bricks and concrete, threatening the UK's nightingale population as well as the strength of protection Sites of Special Scientific Interest should receive."
Stephen Trotter, Director, The Wildlife Trusts England, says: "Lodge Hill is an important test of whether the Government is committed to its stated aim of leaving the natural environment in a better state than this generation inherited it. We should be celebrating and protecting sites of international wildlife importance like Lodge Hill - not building on them."
Home to thousands of species, SSSIs are officially recognised as among the best places for wildlife in the UK, and are legally protected to safeguard us from losing these invaluable natural places. This level of protection should ensure the area is preserved as a home for wildlife today and for future generations.
There are just 4,000 SSSIs in England, and only Lodge Hill has been designated specifically for its nightingale population. The Government's National Planning Policy sets out that land that has been designated a SSSI can only be developed if all other options for potential developments have been exhausted. It is not clear that Medway Council has fully explored every alternative or option to allocating Lodge Hill for development, and the fact that Lodge Hill is a SSSI is not obvious in the Council's consultation document.
Martin Harper the RSPB's director of conservation added: "Lodge Hill was declared a SSSI by the Government because it is the best place for nightingales in the UK, a species that, in England, has declined by around 90% in the last half century leaving less and less to bring their beautiful song to the English countryside. The destruction of Lodge Hill would be one of the largest ever losses of a protected wildlife site in Britain.
"It is deeply concerning that Medway Council is still considering Lodge Hill as a suitable location for thousands of new houses. Although not made clear in the draft consultation document, Lodge Hill is a haven for wildlife and, importantly, is nationally recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). That legal protection means that development should only be a last resort. A decision to go ahead with this area being earmarked for housing would set a dangerous precedent for the nation's other protected sites."
The potential loss of Lodge Hill and what this may mean for other SSSIs has brought together conservation groups from across Kent and the UK. Alongside the RSPB in campaigning to protect Lodge Hill are The Wildlife Trusts, Buglife, Friends of the North Kent Marshes, Medway Countryside Forum, Butterfly Conservation, Woodland Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust.
Medway Council's public consultation runs from 16 January to 6 March 2017. To find out more about the concerns being raised by conservation groups, and get involved in saving Lodge Hill from development visit: www.rspb.org.uk/savelodgehill
The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.
Additional background information:
· There are two interlinked planning stories that would allow for the development of Lodge Hill: for the site to be developed, it should be in Medway Council's Local Plan, and a planning application needs to have been approved.
· However, in the absence of a Local Plan, in September 2014 Medway Council approved a Planning Application by the Ministry of Defence for 5000 houses at Lodge Hill. The decision was 'called in' by the Secretary of State following a strong campaign by the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and other key partners. 'Calling-in' is rare, as normally it is only done for planning applications which raise issues of national significance. An Inspector will consider the Lodge Hill application at a Public Inquiry in March 2018 and the Secretary of State will consider the Inspector's report for their final decision on the application.
· Now, Medway Council is trying to put Lodge Hill into its Local Plan. Their Development Options paper and consultation launched on 16 January 2017 explicitly states they want to see Lodge Hill developed. The consultation talks of 3,000 houses by 2035, but it is reported in Kent Online there remains a commitment for ultimately 5,000 houses.
· However, the draft vision for the new Local Plan says: "By 2035 Medway will be a leading waterfront University city of 330,000 people, noted for its revitalised urban centres, and its stunning natural and historic assets, and countryside."
· England's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which sets out the Government's planning policies for England, states that development that will have an adverse impact on a nationally important site should not normally be permitted. The process for determining an application on a SSSI should be, in this order: (a) to require the developer to find alternative sites; (b) if not, for it to mitigate for the effects (i.e. seek to do things to conserve the wildlife in situ); or (c) as a last resort for the developer to compensate for the loss to the SSSI by providing a new site elsewhere.
· Development at Lodge Hill would be likely to destroy 144ha of Nightingale habitat with wider indirect effects. The total area of SSSI recorded nationally as fully or partially lost due to planning-related activity between 2007 and 2013 was 139ha at 27 sites, i.e. less than what would likely be destroyed in one hit at Lodge Hill.