Housing against nightingales - no way!

Nightingale singing in a hawthorn tree. Photo: John Bridges / rspb-images.com.
Nightingale singing in a hawthorn tree. Photo: John Bridges / rspb-images.com.
A 5,000-house development has just won planning permission on a SSSI nature area in Kent which is home to over 1% of the UK's nightingales. It violates government planning policies, and ministers have the power to stop it. But will they? Yes they will, writes Martin Harper - provided enough people show they care!
There is a housing need but if we are going to solve this by building on the 6% of our most precious land for wildlife we cannot possibly reverse the continuing erosion of nature.

Bad news I am afraid. The RSPB has been campaigning to stop a development of 5,000 houses on Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill SSSI.

This ex-MOD training ground is home to a nationally important population of nightingales - possibly the most important site in the UK for this iconic and declining species - as well as ancient woodland and rare grassland.

Last Friday, Medway Council made the decision to approve the application from Land Securities, MoD's delivery partner.

The vote to approve the development goes against the advice of Natural England, the government's own environmental advisors, as well as a raft of conservation organisations.

A shocking decision

If the development goes ahead it would destroy the SSSI including the home to more than 1% of our national nightingale population.

Worse - it would set the terrible precedent for future development. Under the terms of the National Planning Policy Framework (Clause 118), there is a presumption against building on SSSIs - our most important wildlife sites.

The public benefits from the development need to significantly outweigh the environmental damage. Houses which are important locally must not trump nationally important wildlife sites.

The Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, can 'call in' the application and make the decision himself with the national perspective it needs. In effect this would take the decision out of Medway's hands, and allow it to be made through the rigorous process of a public inquiry.

We'll be reminding him that if the development goes ahead, it will be one of the largest losses of SSSI land in the country - perhaps the biggest loss since the mid-1990s. This is not what we'd expect from 'the greenest government ever'. Not only that, but it would be contrary to the Government's own guidance on developing protected sites.

It is clear that Medway is in need of housing and employment, but these needs should be assessed through a thorough strategic review. Reliance on a single proposal at Lodge Hill is not the answer to providing a sustainable long-term solution.

The more I think about it, the angrier I get

Now, if Mr Pickles fails to call in the decision and fails to grant a public inquiry, then this would send a terrible signal to others looking to meet housing targets.

The Labour Party, for example, have said that by 2020 we should be building 200,000 new houses a year. If every block of 5,000 new houses happened to coincide with a SSSI, we could lose 40 SSSIs a year.

I know what you're thinking - this is hyperbole, this cannot happen as not all new houses will be built on SSSIs. But, if the Lodge Hill development goes ahead then developers might just chance their arm and the consequences could be appalling for wildlife.

And, given that this is public land (Ministry of Defence), what happens to future public land of high environmental value? Can that also be sold off for development? I expect higher standards from the State.

There is a housing need but if we are going to solve this by building on the 6% of our most precious land for wildlife we cannot possibly reverse the continuing erosion of nature.

And the Lodge Hill decision struck a discordant note after such a positive week. On Tuesday, we had been celebrating with Medway Council over the decision by The Davies Commission to rule out a Thames Estuary Airport.

And, on Wednesday, it had been a pleasure to hear positive commitments to restore nature from so many businesses, politicians and religious leaders at our Conference for Nature.

The original intention of the Today programme (which covered the Lodge Hill story on Saturday morning - see here at 7.32) had been to reflect on the juxtaposition of these events.

'Back to the future' on nature conservation?

But as I thought about possible responses, I felt the Lodge Hill decision was another reminder that the war continues. Fifteen years ago, we coined the phrase 'stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest'.

The optimists amongst us hoped that we would be spending more of our efforts recovering populations of threatened species and restoring wildlife at a landscape scale. We have done some of this (and need / want to do lots more) but the reality is we still have to fight hard to prevent even our finest wildlife sites from deteriation or destruction.

The verbal commitments made on Wednesday will ring hollow unless they are backed up by action. Our regional director in the south-east, Chris Corrigan, rightly said to me at the weekend:

"There is a housing need but if we are going to solve this by building on the 6% of our most precious land for wildlife we cannot possibly reverse the continuing erosion of nature and what kind of country we will leave for future generations."

I am hopeful that the Labour Party will address the false conflict of housing and the environment through its Lyons review, to which the RSPB's Head of Planning is contributing. Simon has some smart ideas which he is feeding in.

I'm also hopeful that Mark Reckless, the local Conservative MP who opposes the Lodge Hill development, will help persuade his colleague Eric Pickles to call Medway's decision.

Time for a Nature Act - and you know who to vote for ...

Decisions like Medway's send us back to the mid-1990s when the environment movement climbed into the trees to oppose the expanding road network. We may have to do so again, but in 21st century England we deserve a different agenda.

This is why I am pleased we now have two political parties - the Liberal Democrats and, after their conference this weekend, the Green Party - promising a Nature Act after the next election. We should be investing our energies in restoring nature, rather than destroying it.

The good news is, as I found out at the 'Vision for Nature' conference on Friday, the next generation of environmentalists are more passionate, more determined and (from what I can tell) more impressive that the current crop.

They'll need to be. We're leaving our natural world in a mess and, if we carry on as we are, it will be for them to clean it up.



Martin Harper is Conservation Director of RSPB. He blogs on the RSPB website.

Please help us: tell Eric Pickles why this decision matters, and ask him to call it in.

Catch up with the whole history of the case on our Lodge Hill web pages.

This article is based on two blog posts by Martin Harper on the RSPB website.


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