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Council calls on government ministers to act following Planning Inspectorate letter

Date: 24/06/2013           Category: Planning and Development Control

Medway Council today (24 June 2013) calls upon Government to act after two of its own agencies overturned Minister’s wishes to redevelop former military land – and cost the taxpayer £27million, including £2million from Medway Council.

The council has worked for nearly two decades with the government, all relevant environment agencies and Land Securities on plans to use former military munitions site Lodge Hill/Chattenden to build 5,000 homes, which would create 5,000 jobs.

The development of the site, which is owned by the Ministry of Defence, aims to provide a large proportion of Medway’s housing needs.

Developers Land Securities has spent many more millions on their planning application for Lodge Hill/Chattenden.

A number of environmental organisations – including the RSPB and Natural England – have been closely consulted on the plans for this site from the outset.

This and more than 90 hours of public consultations and open design workshops led to plans being drawn up with half the site becoming open spaces, community gardens and woodlands.

But despite all this close working the RSPB waited until the summer of 2012 – an astonishing 17 years after consultations began - to oppose the scheme because around 70 nightingales are based there in the summer for around 12 weeks.

Since then, red tape and grinding bureaucracy appear to have delayed the Lodge Hill development.

Earlier this year, the government appointed quango Natural England notified that they intended to declare the area a SSSi, due to the nightingales and the fact that a special type of rare grass – called MG5 – was discovered there.

People were given four months to appeal this notification, with that time period ending next month.

Natural England was then expected to come back with a decision on whether the SSSi should become permanent by the end of this year – up to five months after this.

Now, though, the national government executive agency the Planning Inspectorate have held an examination into Medway Council’s Core Strategy and declared it potentially unsound.

They have done this mainly because of the issue of Lodge Hill being considered a SSSi – even though the appeal process is still ongoing.

Importantly, they have ignored the fact that during this appeal it has emerged that the rare grass MG5 reportedly discovered at this site is of very low quality.

And the council understands that a new survey has been carried out to see whether the nightingale population have decreased and has asked to see the results on this.

In addition, the Planning Inspectorate has stated that the council had put forward alternative sites for the nightingales, but that none of these were in Medway or the Hoo Peninsula.

In fact, there a number of sites that nightingales already use on Hoo, as well as other suitable habitats there for them, but the council were unable to put any forward as the RSPB refused to work with the council on these.

As well as this, the council has already previous explored and consulted on using other sites in Medway for development including Capstone Valley, extending development on the Peninsula, and at areas to the east and north of Rainham.

None of these were seen as being as suitable as the previously developed land at Lodge Hill/Chattenden.

Cllr Rodney Chambers, the leader of Medway Council, said: "It is unthinkable that more than £35 million pounds, which has been invested by the Government, Medway Council and the developer to ensure the viability of this project, could now simply be written off.

“But this won’t just cost public money – it will cost local people 5,000 much needed new homes, and 5,000 jobs.

"There was extensive public consultation before the plans were put forward including nearly 90 hours of public exhibitions and design workshops. As a result of that consultation nearly half the 620 acre site has been devoted to public open space, community gardens and extensive areas of woodland.

“We have worked with numerous people over a 17 year period since this site was first identified by the government as one for development to make sure that this site is suitable for sustainable development, bringing the housing needed to support our area’s growth in a way that is sensitive to the natural habitat.

“This is what the government decided to do as part of its drive to redevelop former military sites.

“Yet – despite ministers from the past and current governments supporting the development of Lodge Hill – their unelected quangos seem intent on throwing a spanner in the works, which quite simply beggars belief.

“It is surprising and frustrating that this has been delayed in this way at the 11th hour.

“We now call on the government to sort this out – for local people, for the growth of our area and for the economy.

“We are not prepared to spend any more council taxpayers money without a degree of certainty.

“It is now for the government to get to grips with its own agencies, who appear to be trying to stop its economic growth and housing agenda – growth that we are led to believe the country desperately needs.”

Note to editors -

Lodge Hill/Chattenden is a brownfield site (previously developed land) that was used for a range of military purposes, including the large scale manufacture of ordnance (bombs and shells) for the Royal Navy. It was also used for heavy plant training for the Royal Engineers, anti-terrorism training, and training for bomb disposal personnel (including IED clearance in Afghanistan).

A link to the Planning Inspectorate’s letter can be found at http://www.medway.gov.uk/pdf/Letter%20to%20Medway%20Council%2021%20June%202013.pdf