There was some very unusual good news late last week as Homes England announced that it was no longer pushing for housing development on the protected areas of Lodge Hill – the former military training ground (and munitions works) on the Hoo Peninsula, Kent. Instead they will push for a 500 house development on the former MoD land outside the SSSI.
As long-suffering readers of this blog will know, Lodge Hill and its remarkable array of natural history and historical interests, was threatened with total destruction, in the form of a 5000 house new town. Despite Natural England finding the gumption, under severe pressure from conservation NGOs, to notify Lodge Hill as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 2013, Medway Council and the MoD pushed ahead with their development plans. I have chronicled most of the story on here (search for Lodge Hill). Up until this latest announcement, we were waiting for a Public Inquiry to be called to determine the site’s future.
Make no mistake, this is a major victory for nature conservation. Thanks, at least in part, to “controversial” notifications such as Lodge Hill and Rampisham Down, Natural England has been eviscerated – see my previous blog on Natural England’s demise. Despite their claims, it seems unlikely to me that the hollowed-out remnants of a nature conservation champion had that much to do with this change of heart at Homes England. Nor can I really believe that RSPB was able to bring this about through their continuing efforts.
Much more likely is the intervention of Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove. Gove may well have felt now would be a good time to persuade new CLG Secretary James Brokenshire that getting 500 houses built on the former MoD land would be a big win, without the controversy that would inevitably accompany a Public Inquiry. Such a Public Inquiry, with the Government effectively arguing for the complete destruction of a site it had protected only a few years ago, would make a big dent in the notion of Gove’s Green Brexit. You may feel that the GGB is a bit of a joke anyway, given the threats to the environment that Brexits of all colours will bring. Nevertheless it’s something that I am sure Gove believes in – and there are still promising signs that the new Agriculture Bill will bring about improvements for nature in the farmed environment.
Natural England’s marginal involvement in the decision is also reflected in the fact that Homes England didn’t tell NE of their intention to make this momentous announcement last Thursday. We’re still waiting for a substantial comment from Natural England – other than a rather belated tweet pointing out its key role in protecting the site.
Some have complained that building 500 houses near to a SSSI will still be enormously damaging to the value of the site for nature. That remains to be seen, but it should not detract from the importance of this decision. This isn’t just about Lodge Hill. It sends a signal to housing developers and local planning authorities, that SSSI designation is a powerful regulatory tool which can stop housing development. Eight years ago no-one would really have thought that this was something worth debating or even an issue. It shows how much the political and policy landscape has changed since 2010. Hopefully this decision could be a sign that the pendulum is swinging back towards a position where regulation for nature is seen as a good thing rather than a hindrance to economic growth, though there are so many other factors still pointing in the wrong direction that it’s probably far too premature to make such a claim.
So let’s congratulate Natural England, Defra and Michael Gove, for making the right decision at Lodge Hill. This is a most unlikely and very welcome early Christmas present for the environmental movement.