The battle of Lodge Hill has gone a bit quiet since the Rochester and Strood byelection, when all the candidates except Labour were clamouring to be seen as the one true defender of Lodge Hill, despite the fact that both UKIP and Tory candidates had previously supported its development.
If you recall, the Tory run Medway Council gave the development planning permission, when its planning committee voted unanimously to approve the scheme, despite the fact that the sight had been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest a matter of months earlier. As Natural England had (bravely) maintained their objection to the development, they had asked for the permission to be “called in”, for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, bird watcher Eric Pickles, to decide whether it should be confirmed, or whether it should be debated at a Public Inquiry.
Pickles side-stepped having to make that decision: perhaps he was worried that his reputation might be damaged in the fallout of a “yes, go ahead and destroy this top wildlife site for housing” and he might even have to return his RSPB membership card. Instead, claiming that he wouldn’t be able to be objective in the matter, something that never bothered his erstwhile colleague Owen Paterson, he handed the decision to his underling Brandon Lewis.
Lewis was sufficiently ruffled by claims from former cheerleader for the Lodge Hill development, former Tory MP and now UKIP MP Mark Reckless, of a stitch up between the Government and Medway Council, that he published a letter rejecting claims that a deal had been done behind closed doors, assuring Medway Tories they would get their Shiny new Lodge Hill Garden City. Coincidentally, that letter was published less than a week before the Rochester and Strood byelection. It doesn’t appear to have made any difference to the outcome, when Lodge Hill eco-warrior Reckless won.
Now the Government are left with a number of options, all of them having pros and cons. They could just decide not to make a decision on whether to call-in the planning permission, until after the general election. This would be the safest course of action. They could decide to call it in, knowing that the process of putting together a Public Inquiry would take sufficiently long for it to not happen until after the General Election, leaving the mess for the next Government to clean up – unless they won and it was them. Or they could decide to not call in the permission and give Medway the green light for the development.
This last option must appeal to the dark side of this Government – especially people like George Osborne, who would like nothing better than use the case in the manner of the execution of Admiral Byng, which Voltaire satirized, saying England like to execute its Admirals from time to time, “to encourage the others.” Osborne would like nothing better than put the likes of Natural England firmly in their place, by watching them valiantly attempt to defend a top nature site by making it a SSSI, only to then have it deliberately “executed” in front of their eyes.
The latest twist in this long saga is that Lewis has just written to Medway Council, effectively asking them to answer points put forward by Natural England and the RSPB, in the evidence they submitted to CLG asking for the planning permission to be called in. Here is the letter. It’s a pity that the points that Lewis has asked Medway to answer were not appended. Nevertheless the points will be the same as those raised at the time the planning application was determined back in September.
This seems a bit odd to me. CLG are in possession of all the facts and they know Medway’s position, which is that they didnt care about what Natural England or RSPB or anyone else thought, they just wanted their Garden City. The call-in process means that, if the permission is called-in, a Planning Inspector will go through all the evidence and decide on the merits of the case. Could this be just another ruse to delay the process until after the election, while appearing to be taking an active interest in the case?
Lewis has asked the Council to look at the representations, and have asked in particular for the members of the Planning Committee to look closely at some highly technical questions, and reply by January 12th next year. One thing that occurred to me is whether CLG have sniffed the possibility of a Judicial Review being launched against Medway Council planning committee members. This would seem highly plausible given that
a) they appear to have totally failed to properly assess the evidence of environmental harm that the Lodge Hill development would cause; and
b) Mark Reckless’ claims of a stitch up between the Government and Medway Council.
If Medway produce a low quality response, it will be easy for CLG to conclude that a call-in is necessary, while neatly nailing Medway as the guilty party. If Medway produce a high quality response (unlikely on past form), CLG will be able sit back, stretch and yawn, and respond that this new evidence will have to be carefully considered before deciding whether to call in the permission or not. Thus delaying the decision even further.
Even if the call-in is then rejected, Medway Councillors may still be subject to calls for a Judicial Review, so what they put in their response to Lewis turns out to be rather important.
One thing’s for sure – Brandon Lewis has just ruined Christmas for the Medway Councillors.