It is great news that today the Department for Communities and Local Government have decided to call in Medway Council’s planning permission for Land Securities to build a new town on the Ministry of Defence site at Lodge Hill, on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent. Let’s hope that this means Rampisham Down will also be called in: it would be pretty bizarre if one were and the other wasn’t. Bearing in mind Lodge Hill is 4 months ahead of Rampisham Down, we may not hear a decision about Rampisham for several months and pre-election purdah is only 6 weeks away.
The letter (below) explains that the Secretary of State is particularly interested in looking at how the planning permission was arrived at, in the face of guidance within the National Planning Policy Framework, and how it fits in with the Medway Local Plan (Core Strategy). Given that an Inspector has already rejected a Medway Core Strategy which included Lodge Hill as a major housing development, it’s difficult to see how a new Inspector is going to come to a different conclusion from the previous one.
The various parties now have six weeks (the clock is now ticking) to prepare their “statement of case” and present them to the Planning Inspectorate. After that, a date for the Public Inquiry will be set. Six weeks from today will be the 27th March. Pre-Election purdah starts on the 30th March. Given the high profile and controversial nature of the case, I can’t see the Planning Inspectorate making any announcement about a date for an inquiry during Purdah. This sets the whole scene up nicely for a summer Inquiry.
OK now for a bit of a “what if”. What if the Planning Inspector does reject the planning permission and this rejection is upheld by the new Secretary of State at CLG. This would effectively seal any future development opportunity at Lodge Hill, barring some small scale developments within the non-SSSI areas of the site. What happens to the SSSI? The MoD has already moved out. Who would buy it?
It would make a fantastic nature reserve. Perhaps the Kent Wildlife Trust, RSPB and the National Trust could make a joint purchase, with a big national appeal. After all, it’s now one of the best known nature sites in England. Then a management plan would be produced and it would be carefully managed to ensure that all the features that are currently present would be maintained in perpetuity. In some ways this would be a bit sad because it has never been a nature reserve, and the reason it’s so rich in wildlife (including the blessed Nightingales) is quite incidental to the activities that went on there over the last century and more.The extraordinary character of the place would undoubtedly be lost if it became an orthodox nature reserve.
Is there another way? Could Lodge Hill be a new kind of place – rich in nature but not managed in the traditional ways. After all, the place used to be a training ground for engineers and sappers, bulldozing, blowing things up, practising emergency stops in a tank transporter.
Could Lodge Hill be a place where people come and have fun driving diggers around, blowing things up (guided by professionals of course!) knocking down scrub when it gets too big for the nightingales, digging a new pond, filling an old one in. Careering about it a tracked armoured vehicle. Doing all the things the Army did which made Lodge Hill the special nature site it now is.
Obviously there would have to be limits on the amount of careering – such that the site didn’t end up as all mud and bare groun; though actually if you look at photos of just these sorts of sites in the Second World War you will see that they often were almost all bare ground and mud. Anyway, there would also be plenty of more restrained activities, including visits to enjoy the nature and the history. It would also make a fantastic film set.
I am sure people would pay very good money to career about in an old tank or set some charges to blow up a few hawthorn bushes. And I am also sure that this is exactly the sort of activity which would ensure that nature continued to thrive at Lodge Hill. After all, these activities are just mimicking the activities of the Straight-tusked Elephants, the Rhinos, the Beavers and the Elk; and all the other megafaunal ecosystem engineers that dominated Britain for millions of years until 10,000 years ago.
But I guess my approach would not fit in too well with Natural England’s “Views about Management”.
Here’s the letter.