Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Nightingale singing

Nightingales Under Threat in Kent

On the Hoo Peninsula in Medway, Kent, sits the one of the most important sites in the country for nightingales - Lodge Hill. Nightingales are one of our most iconic birds, famed for the startling beauty of their nocturnal song, but their numbers are in steep decline across England. Last year, this site's national importance as a stronghold for our nightingales was recognised when it was notified as a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), making the site the only SSSI in the UK notified specifically for nightingales.
The SSSI supported 85 singing male nightingales in the British Trust for Ornithology's 2012 National Nightingale Survey (and 65 pairs in a 2013 survey), both of which are sufficient to demonstrate that the site holds more than one per cent of the national nightingale population. In addition, the SSSI is recognised for its important areas of ancient woodland and unimproved grassland.
The site, however, had already been earmarked for development, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) are pursuing plans to build a new settlement of up to 5,000 houses at Lodge Hill.
The proposed development would destroy the majority of the nightingale habitat and comprise one of the largest ever losses of a SSSI in England and the rest of the UK. Whilst national planning policy doesn't completely prevent development which destroys SSSIs, there are a number of tests that have to be passed before permission can be given.
Medway Council's Core Strategy (which set out Medway's housing plans for the next 15 years) was withdrawn at the end of 2013, after an independent Inspector found that the allocation of housing at Lodge Hill was in conflict with national planning policy to protect SSSIs. Despite this, MoD and their delivery partner, Land Securities, submitted a revised Outline Planning Application in February 2014 and remain committed to developing the site.
On Thursday 4 September Medway Council's Planning Committee decided to approve that outline planning application. If it goes ahead, not only do we lose one of the best homes in the country for nightingales, but it undermines those Government tests for every other nationally protected area around the country, meaning that they could be at risk from damaging development or other damaging activities in the future too.
The Committee's approval was subject to referral to Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State and Minister with overall responsibility for housing decisions. Given the proposal's conflict with the Government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the ruling to that effect by the independent Inspector for the Core Strategy, the decision to approve was automatically referred to Eric Pickles. He can then choose to 'call in' and make the decision himself, following a public inquiry. The RSPB wrote to Eric Pickles requesting that he 'call in' the decision and for the proposal for Lodge Hill to be examined at a public inquiry.
Over 11,000 people also wrote, including Natural England, the National Trust and concerned members of the public from across the UK. In late September, it was announced that Eric Pickles would not be making the decision as he is an RSPB member, instead another planning minister will take over. The Department for Communities and Local Government has now issued a Holding Direction, essentially buying more time to make a decision. If the application proceeds, not only will we lose the only site in the UK protected specifically for nightingales, it will constitute one of the largest ever losses of a SSSI to development. This will set a dangerous precedent that would leave other protected sites across the country vulnerable.