Part of Lodge Hill’s military past: a fictitious Newry Road with Iraqi posters (c) Miles King
Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless is nobody’s fool. You may remember that earlier this year I wrote about his tirade against coastal vegetated shingle in a parliamentary debate in March 2013. He strongly argued that Local Authorities should be given the freedom to over-rule national bodies such as Natural England, and ignore national or international wildlife designations. The then planning minister Nick Boles, agreed with him and implied that Natural England would be “taken care of” mob-style.
After Medway Council planning committee unanimously agreed to approve the planning application which would destroy Lodge Hill SSSI and all the military and cultural history the site encompasses, I was interested to see if Mark Reckless had made any congratulatory statements. I had an inkling that his position had changed, and this was confirmed when he made a statement on his website. This is what he says:
“I am appalled that Medway Council’s planning committee chose to ignore the clear message from local residents and their elected representatives that this development should not proceed, particularly following the very welcome decision earlier in the week ruling out a Thames Estuary Airport. Having reviewed the environmental evidence following the independent inspector’s findings in relation to Lodge Hill, and further considered the impact which this would have on our local infrastructure, I am bewildered by the committee’s decision to give Lodge Hill the go ahead.
I shall be consulting with local residents in coming weeks as to how best to stop this development and to ensure that the residents whom I was elected to represent have a voice on this issue, which many feel they currently do not.”
Reckless had indeed campaigned tirelessly against “Boris Island”, the Airport which would have destroyed many hundreds of hectares of European protected wildlife in the Thames Estuary. He said, in a letter to David Cameron that Boris Island would “devastate an area of global environmental significance.”
The Airports Commission report into Boris Island concluded that the environmental costs were so great as to make the proposal untenable – specifically:
the scheme’s very significant impacts on protected habitats which, as well as being a substantial disbenefit in themselves, would present, under Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive, a high legal hurdle to be overcome;
the scale of provision of new habitat required to compensate for the scheme’s impacts on protected sites, which would be unprecedented in the UK and in Europe and whose deliverability remains uncertain.
It is difficult to resist relishing the irony of a campaign at least in part led by a fiercely Eurosceptic MP which has used the Habitats (and Birds) Directive to counter a development proposal in his constituency. Reckless seems to be near the top of a list of Tory MPs UKIP is trying to persuade to defect.
Reckless used the wildlife argument against Boris Island, while railing against the power of Natural England (and presumably the European Commission) to protect Lodge Hill as a SSSI, and of course the European protection afforded Dungeness, on account of if coastal vegetated shingle.
If you look at the letter Reckless wrote to Rodney Chambers, leader of Medway Council, about Lodge Hill, things become a little clearer. Reckless chides Chambers on a number of matters:
His first concern is that Medway are setting housing build targets above the level set in the local plan and by other neighbouring administrations. He particularly criticises their population size assumptions, which he slates them for assuming “unrestricted EU immigration”, despite his firm belief that we will be out of Europe after a 2017 referendum.
Secondly he criticises Medway for incorporating an assumption of 25% affordable housing in each large development – he states that Conservative members (presumably of Medway) had agreed that this should be cut to “10-25%” of each development for affordable housing. His language is interesting here – likening the 25% commitment to affordable housing as “the owner gives away at least a quarter of their site.”
Thirdly he attacks Medway for not promoting the development properly – criticising them for not including it in the 2003 Local Plan.
Finally he chides Medway for failing to “challenge the legality of Natural England including it in an SSSI.”
To be fair to Medway they and the developer’s ecological consultants did try to challenge the legality of the designation. But Lodge Hill was so obviously a nationally important wildlife site, Natural England had no choice but to designate it.
On his website he states that development of Lodge Hill SSSI will “have serious repercussions not just for residents living in Strood and on the Hoo Peninsula but also in terms of potentially undermining SSSI protected sites across the country and the government’s own National Planning Policy Framework.”
Does he believe, as he said so eloquently in the house in 2013, that the quangocracy has too much power, as he urged the minister to end the ‘absurd situation” where Natural England can dictate to local councils “how to run things.” Or does he believe that the SSSI protected site series is needed and development cannot ride rough shod over it?
It is possible that Reckless has had a Damascene conversion and now understands why places like Lodge Hill are so important to Society and for their own sake, and why organisations such as Natural England and the statutory protection afforded to wildlife sites that they implement through legislation, are so vital for protecting those values.
Does it matter? Reckless is evidently a highly effective advocate (as a trained barrister) and he will be able to bring a significant degree of clout to the campaign against Lodge Hill. In these circumstances, Amicus meus, inimicus inimici mei definitely applies.
Welcome on board Mr Reckless.