Last night (4th September) Medway Council’s Planning Committee voted to approve the outline planning application for 5,000 homes at Lodge Hill. This ex-MOD site had been identified in the last draft of the Medway Local Plan as a significant strategic location for around one-third of all Medway’s identified housing needs to 2026. While this site was technically designated as brownfield in 2007, it has more recently been identified as one of the most important breeding sites for nightingales in the country; as a result of this, Natural England recognised its significance in 2013 by designating it a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)*.
This important designation was one of the significant reasons that the Inspector charged with testing the Medway Local Plan in 2013 advised that the Plan was sufficiently flawed that it should be abandoned; she wrote “… I am not convinced that the social and economic benefits … would outweigh the harm to a site of national importance.” She went on to state that the modifications that would be needed to prevent damage to the SSSI were “…so significant as to amount to the Plan being re-written”.
This makes Medway Council’s resolution to grant planning permission seem all the more bizarre. If the selection of this site as a major centre for Medway’s future development is sufficiently ill-advised as to make the whole of Medway’s Local Plan ‘unsound’, then the validity of the resolution to grant planning permission must also be somewhat shaky.
Let’s hope that the Secretary of State will give this decision the scrutiny it deserves. The National Planning Policy Framework makes it clear that in exceptional circumstances, the need for development might outweigh the importance of an SSSI or other important habitat. In this case, the independent Inspector made it equally clear that it does not. Let’s further hope that our National Planning Policy Framework lives up to its name this time.
*Natural England describes SSSIs thus: “…the country’s very best wildlife and/or geological sites. SSSIs include some of the most spectacular and beautiful habitats: wetlands teeming with wading birds, winding chalk rivers, flower-rich meadows, windswept shingle beaches and remote upland peat bogs.”