My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Lodge Hill has been in the news again (see here and here). There has been a bit of nonsense said and written about this case, so I thought I'd disrupt my Easter break to put the record straight. This is not just a straightforward battle between nightingales and houses. It is as much a question about what consitutes good planning and how to build houses without causing needless harm to environment. The last thing anyone should be doing is blaming Natural England for doing its job.
A couple of weeks ago, I reported the great news that Natural England has decided to protect a nationally important population of nightingales, by enlarging an SSSI at Lodge Hill in Kent.
Last year the BTO conducted its National Nightingale Survey and found that there were at least 84 singing males at Lodge Hill. The BTO have since calculated the 2012 national population at around 6,250 – 6,750. This means that Lodge Hill holds at least 1.3% of the national nightingale population.
This case brings into focus some important parts of the National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF). Much of the new SSSI is a former military training school and is being proposed by Medway Council and Land Securities as the location for 5,000 houses. Medway Council sees the notification of the SSSI as a major blow to its plans for development (see here).
We see it a little differently. The NPPF is designed to encourage the provision of housing where it’s needed, while at the same time protecting the environment we care about. The notification of this site as an SSSI simply puts into proper context the environmental importance of this site, for those making planning decisions about its future.
The NPPF doesn’t completely prevent development which damages or destroys SSSIs. In exceptional circumstances development affecting an SSSI could be possible (even if it may not be desirable). But the NPPF contains important safeguards, to ensure that these special places are only damaged where there really is no alternative, and where the need for the development clearly outweighs the impacts on the SSSI and on the national network of SSSIs. Pretty sensible tests of sustainable development in my book.
If Medway Council can demonstrate that there are no alternative places - with less harmful impacts - to provide its housing allocation and that the benefits of the proposed development at Lodge Hill clearly outweigh both the impacts on the nightingales, ancient woodland and important grasslands at the site as well as any broader impacts on the national network of SSSIs, then it could go ahead with development, provided that the developer can mitigate, or as a last resort compensate for the harm that would be caused.
We don’t think Medway Council has met those tests. That the Council sees the SSSI notification as a major threat to its development plans rather suggests it doesn’t think it can meet them either. That is why the RSPB is encouraging Medway Council to go back to the drawing board and think again about where to provide their houses.
This is just a further example of why there needs to be a change of mindset as you say Martin - if they just stopped seeing it as a threat and looked at alternatives, this would be a much more pro-active approach. It would also demonstrate that a Council can take an environmental view seriously and this in itself would set a great example for others across the nation - they could choose to be at the forefront of the mindset revolution!
I fully support the RSPB view on this and hope that Medway council do decide to look for alternatives and in a willing manner.
Thanks very much Martin for giving up a portion of your well earned Easter to tell us more detail on Lodge Hill. It is such an important subject and such a vital area for our every declining nightingale population in this country. As you say, there are also other very important issues in this case. I wonder why Medway Council see the efforts to protect Lodge Hill as such a threat rather than amending their planning prposals and taking a positive and constuctive approach to help protect a national asset.
Well done once again to the RSPB, keep up the good fight.