Swanscombe wins SSSI designation… but there’s a four-month consultation to come

The peninsula hosts some wonderful natural habitat (pic Paul Buckley)

The Swanscombe peninsula – the area of north Kent being targeted for the building of the country’s largest theme park – has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
National England announced today (Thursday, March 11, 2021) that the peninsula’s “nationally important invertebrates, breeding birds, plants and geology” warranted such recognition.
The government advisory body said: “The 250 hectare site, alongside the Thames Estuary, forms a corridor of habitats connecting Ebbsfleet Valley with the southern shore of the River Thames between Dartford and Gravesend.
“The site has an incredible assortment of grassland, scrub, wetlands, grazing marsh and saltmarsh habitat in a relatively small area, providing ideal conditions for a unique variety of wildlife.
“The area is home to over 1,700 invertebrate species, which includes over a quarter of the UK’s water beetle species and more than 200 species that are considered of conservation importance. It is one of just two places in the UK where the critically endangered distinguished jumping spider is found.
“The rich and varied habitats on the peninsula also provide great conditions for breeding birds such as marsh harrier and bearded tit, and for nationally scarce plants threatened with extinction in Great Britain, such as the divided sedge and the slender hare’s ear.”
James Seymour, NE’s Sussex and Kent area manager, added: “The designation of Swanscombe Peninsula as an SSSI is great news for one of the richest known sites in England for invertebrates, ensuring essential refuge for many rare and threatened species that sadly are not able to thrive in the wider landscape.
“Right on the doorstep of some of our most densely populated towns and cities, this new SSSI will also offer wonderful opportunities for people to connect with nature via the England Coast Path.
“This area is living proof that some of our most important species can thrive hand in hand with businesses and transport infrastructure. Special places like this will form the vital backbone of a national nature recovery network.”
The new Swanscombe Peninsula SSSI includes the previously-designated Bakers Hole SSSI, which covers 6.9 hectares with geological and archaeological features.
The designation is undoubtedly good news, but this is only the start of the process, not the end, as there will now be a four-month consultation before potential SSSI confirmation. 
Natural England said: “As of 11 March 2021, the SSSI has been formally notified to landowners and occupiers and other interested parties.
“There will be a 4 month period in which anyone can make representations or object to the notification. If all objections are resolved or none are submitted, the designation will be confirmed. If there are unresolved objections the Natural England Board will hear all of these; they must then decide whether to confirm the designation (with or without reductions).
“If the notification is not confirmed within 9 months of the date of notification, the notification falls.”
And, in a clear reference to the proposed London Resort theme park, it said: “Natural England recognises that there is interest and consideration of potential development opportunities in the Swanscombe area.
“Designation of this site for its nationally important wildlife features is an important step towards ensuring that its environmental value is recognised and taken due account of in any future planning decisions.”
In January, the Planning Inspectorate accepted the application by London Resort Company Holdings for a Development Consent Order to build the London Resort theme park on the peninsula.

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Thursday, March 11, 2021

Lodge Hill: protected habitats owed to a nightingale…

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.”