It’s always good to write about a victory for the environment, especially these days.
I was frankly amazed to read on Martin Harpers blog that the Planning Inspector had concluded that Medway Council’s core strategy was unsound because they had not taken into account the national environmental importance of Lodge Hill, before allocating it for the development of 5000 houses.
You may remember that Natural England had notified the site as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in March this year, on account of the nationally important Nightingale population, but also because of a large area of unimproved neutral grassland (MG5 for NVC nerds.)
This had led to questions being asked at Cabinet about what the hell was going on and why the MoD were being stopped from selling off part of their surplus land, for development. It may also have indirectly led to the Government deciding to place a “Duty to promote economic growth” onto agencies such as Natural England.
Medway, who have sought to use every conceivable tactic to support their case, have produced the most extraordinary press release, in which they fulminate against absolutely everybody – blaming Natural England, RSPB, Planning Inspectorate, and probably the French and the Germans too. But in truth the fault lies with them and with Land Securities, who were trying to develop the site. Had the Council required the Developer to carry out a proper Environmental Impact Assessment before considering whether the site was appropriate for development, and then actually read what the EIA stated, the Council would have concluded that as it was nationally important it should not be developed. Equally – why did Defence Estates or as they are now the DIO not recognise the environmental value of the site and come up with some alternative use that protected the conservation interest?
My interest is obviously in the grassland and I have been providing a tiny bit of advice to RSPB on its value. It is a large area of MG5 (nationally in the top 10% in terms of size) and and supports a good population of Dyer’s Greenweed, which is a great indicator of broader quality. Medway were supporting the Developers’ consultants’ arguments, that because it was in poor condition, it should therefore be discounted. This is like saying because Windsor Castle was badly damaged in a fire, it had lost its value and therefore should be demolished.
They were also claiming that the grassland’s value would be retained if it was translocated, and an even more ludicrous claim that newly created grasslands were just as valuable as long established ones, so it really didn’t matter if the grassland was lost. Medway confirmed my own suspicions that they have not really grasped an understanding of the environment when their Council Leader referred to the grassland as a “rare grass”.
Interestingly (at least for me) no-one seems to have picked up on the fact that that the only Priority species at Lodge Hill is the True Fox Sedge Carex vulpina. Where does that leave the biodiversity Duty?
Lodge Hill was also going to be a testbed for the use of Biodiversity Offsetting. Naturally there was rather a lot of concern about applying BO to a newly designated SSSI, not that that seemed to have been an issue for the Environment Bank who were appointed to prepare the Offsetting plan. I guess they will have to find another site for their experiments.
In an interesting coincidence, on the day the Planning Inspectorate wrote to Medway Council rejecting their Lodge Hill proposal, new came to light of a letter that Planning Minister Nick Boles had written in which he said developers should be allowed to build on fields if they are boring. He spoke of “environmentally uninteresting greenspaces” and that not all new housing could be built on previously developed land.
Are we seeing the Housing Minister having an epiphany about what sustainable development actually looks like? I hope so.
Will the MoD now take a much closer look at their sites before they decide to sell them off for housing? What does this say about how we value public land? There’s no question in my mind that the notion of publicly land is seen by some in the right of the political spectrum as a bad idea full stop. We all have to work to counter this neoliberal ideology and celebrate all the values of publicly owned land, not just financial.
Anyway well done RSPB for fighting this one all the way and well done Natural England for being brave enough to notify this SSSI in the most controversial of circumstances.