I want to tell you a story which I am calling the “Battle for Lodge Hill”. This battle took place between the local authority, the MOD, Homes England, developers, the Government and the Local Plan.
Lodge Hill was part of a military camp in Kent, built as part of ordnance depots across other camps in Kent and functioned as such throughout the second half of the twentieth century. It had a firing range for explosive training and described as rich in a mosaic of many habitats and endangered species and Nightingales. The community knew as far back as 2007 that there may be a danger that the land would be threatened with development because the MOD had produced a Planning Statement setting out a possible master plan. This led to surveys being undertaken by the developers to establish more clearly what wildlife and other potentially important features might be on the site and in 2011 the first outline planning application was submitted to the Council for 5,000 houses at Lodge Hill.
Medway Council claimed the land as ‘brownfield’ because of its former use as a barracks as well as a firing range, however, aerial photographs showed a green oasis of scrub, wildflowers and meadows, just the sort of land nightingales love.
In 2012 the British Trust for Ornithology’s National Nightingale Survey revealed that Lodge Hill supported 85 singing males, more than 1% of the national Nightingale population, making it the most important site in the country for Nightingales. Given that at that time nightingales were in steep decline in Britain, the newly-discovered importance of Lodge Hill led to Natural England notifying it as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 2013, and as an extension to another neighbouring SSSI, Chattenden Woods. In addition, the SSSI was recognised for its important areas of ancient woodland and unimproved grassland.
However, because Natural England stated: “The decision to extend the SSSI clarifies the environmental importance of the site but does not determine whether or not development can go ahead; this is a matter for the planning system. Natural England will continue to engage with the local planning authority (Medway Council), the landowner (Ministry of Defence) and its commercial partner (Land Securities) to contribute, as appropriate, to the planning process”; Medway Council persisted with its desire to see Lodge Hill developed with the planning committee approving the application for 5000 houses to go into the Local Plan.
An independent Inspector found that the draft Core Strategy for the Lodge Hill development was in conflict with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which protects SSSIs, the development was subsequently withdrawn from the Local Plan. The Council started to appeal this decision and the RSPB, Kent Wildlife and other conservation groups, along with 12,400 concerned members of the public, wrote to the Secretary of State asking for the decision for it to be “called in” and to be decided by the Government. In February 2015 it was confirmed the application would be ‘called-in’ and the developers were required to do more surveys, with a Public Inquiry to be undertaken in March 2018. 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’) have had this granted. The controversial plans to build 5,000 houses also fell apart in 2015 when the developer, Land Securities, walked away from the scheme after spending a whopping £11.3 million on the site. It was, however, not until 2016 that Lodge Hill was put up for sale by the MOD and another plan was drawn up for 5000 houses, stated to be a £1bn scheme.
In January 2017, Medway Council again included Lodge Hill in every one of its development options in its draft Local Plan, however, on 6 September 2017 the MOD withdrew Lodge Hill from the sale and the council also withdrew the development from the Local Plan in the same month. By doing this also meant that a public enquiry would not need to take place in March 2018. News of the withdrawal of the MOD was immediately followed by an announcement of the Leader of Medway Council that a new application would come forward in the new year.
In February 2018 Homes England (a Government-run organisation) took over the land and stated that they would be submitting an application for 2,000 houses, which also included a draft masterplan. The Council said they would re-run the Local Plan development options consultation, taking into account legal advice they had received confirming that they must explore all alternatives to allocating damaging development with regards to Chattenden Woods and the Lodge Hill SSSI. The Council also stated that they were under “huge pressure” to build new homes.
In March 2019 Medway Council’s draft Local Plan “Development Strategy” consultation opened, with a revised set of options. Over 11,000 people responded to this consultation asking the Council not to allocate Lodge Hill for housing and in December of that year, Homes England made the surprise announcement that they had reconsidered their plans for Lodge Hill, and now only proposed to build up to 500 houses and to avoid any direct loss of the SSSI. The current status now is that Home England are no longer intending to promote the land for development.
The RSPB has noted that there is still pressure to build thousands of new houses on large areas of land around the Lodge Hill SSSI that could have a serious impact on the Nightingales and other wildlife interests on the site. Medway council have been reminded that Paragraph 175(b) of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that: “development on land within or outside a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and which is likely to have an adverse effect on it (either individually or in combination with other developments), should not normally be permitted” and that protected sites should not simply be viewed as constraints as they are like “jewels of UK natural heritage and should be recognised as places to be protected, effectively buffered and enhanced”.
Why am I telling you this story? It isn’t just about Lodge Hill. The decisions made, and the fight by campaigners, to save this land sends a signal to housing developers and local planning authorities that protected site designations are a powerful regulatory tool that can stop housing development. The Save MiddleWick Campaign team are in contact with Natural England with regards to SSSI status and busy gathering information to support this status (and of course we have Nightingales too). We do note that the National Planning policy doesn’t completely prevent development that damages SSSIs (a Local Wildlife Site can be on par with an SSSI), but there are a number of tests that have to be passed before permission can be given. The fight continues to protect Lodge Hill and their Nightingales.
During the restrictive parts of lockdown, people across the UK have connected with nature in their local areas and those who live in urban areas long for better access to green and beautiful wildlife havens. All councils have a choice on how and where to build houses. Nature cannot speak for itself and needs you to tell your local Councils and Government how much you care about our planning system and its potential to protect and restore nature.
This story proves it can be done and gives a small measure of hope, but it will be a bit of a long slog with many barriers to cross to get there. Please do support the Save MiddleWick Ranges campaign in any way you can.