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Birdwatcher Pickles sidelined from decision over PRP masterplan

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Communities secretary Eric Pickles will not make a key decision over a planned 5,000-home scheme, which could threaten the habitat of nightingales, because he is a keen bird-watcher

Earlier this month, Medway Council in Kent controversially approved PRP Archtiects-masterplanned proposals to redevelop a 325ha former Ministry of Defence site at Lodge Hill into homes, shops, offices and community space.

Because of their scale and controversial nature, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is likely to call in the proposals – drawn up for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and delivery partner Land Securities - for a ministerial-level decision based on guidance from a planning inspector.

But the fact that any decision will involve weighing up the benefits of the development against its impact on Lodge Hill’s Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status is a potential source of conflict with Pickles’ well-documented interest in ornithology.

A statement from DCLG yesterday said a number of requests had been made for the final decision on the proposals to be ‘called-in’ and that while the matter was still under consideration, Pickles would not be involved.

‘Given the secretary of state’s membership of the RSPB, the quasi-judicial decision will be made by a different planning minister in line with standard propriety guidance,’ it said.

‘Only a small minority of such cases are called-in each year, generally where there is a wider national impact.

‘This request for a call-in is being carefully considered with due process – but this should not be confused with a decision on the merits of the substantive application.’

Plans to develop Lodge Hill were originally published by Land Securities and PRP in 2011, however the government’s nature advisors Natural England subsequently made an SSSI designation for 236ha the site, primarily based on its use buy nightingales, that threw the proposals into jeopardy.

Medway Council condemned the move, as the development of Lodge Hill was seen as crucial for it to deliver its new-homes target.

Councillors approved the proposals on September 4 after being told that the borough had no ‘credible’ alternative sites to provide housing and employment space on the same scale.

Planning officers added that a range of nightingale habitat was being retained as part of the proposed development, while new habitat would be created on-site, and with further measures introduced off-site.

The outline plans are mainly concerned with layout and access for the site, and do not contain details of specific buildings.

Lodge Hill from the air

Aerial view of the Lodge Hill site on Kent’s Hoo Peninsula

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