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Are UK’s SSSIs at risk?

New housing proposal in Kent threatens important wildlife habitats across the country
Nightingales arrive at Lodge Hill every year to spend the summer in Medway

New documents released by Medway Council in Kent are set to test government safeguards that prevent many of our best wildlife havens, natural habitats and beauty spots from being lost to new housing developments.

If approved, the authority’s Local Plan could pave the way for thousands of new houses to be built on Lodge Hill – land that should be protected for Nature.

Nightingale stronghold

Lodge Hill in Kent is recognised as one of the last UK strongholds for nightingales, an enigmatic bird that has seen its population in England drop to less than 6,000 singing males from over 60,000 a few decades ago.

The decline of the species is so alarming that nightingales are listed among our most threatened birds and included on the UK Red List for birds.

The area targeted by Medway Council as a prime location to build thousands of houses includes ancient woodland with rare grasslands.These are home to mammals, reptiles, amphibians, rare insects and flowers as well as nightingales.

‘Flying thousands of miles from Africa, nightingales arrive at Lodge Hill every year to spend the summer in Medway where they nest and raise young. As they arrive they blend perfectly into their environment as they serenade the Kent countryside with their distinctive song. So it is deeply concerning that one of the few areas where they are thriving could be lost under bricks and concrete, threatening the UK’s nightingale population as well as the strength of protection Sites of Special Scientific Interest should receive.’

South east conservation manager for the RSPB

Recognised as a SSSI

The importance of Lodge Hill is so great that in 2013 the government declared it a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for nightingales and the habitat.

Home to thousands of species, SSSIs are officially recognised as among the best places for wildlife in the UK, and are legally protected to safeguard us from losing these invaluable natural places. This level of protection should ensure the area is preserved as a home for wildlife today and for future generations.

There are just 4,000 SSSIs in England, and only Lodge Hill has been designated specifically for its nightingale population. The government’s National Planning Policy sets out that land that has been designated a SSSI can only be developed if all other options for potential developments have been exhausted.

A dangerous precedent

It is not clear that Medway Council has fully explored every alternative or option to allocating Lodge Hill for development, and the fact that Lodge Hill is a SSSI is not obvious in the Council’s consultation document.

‘Lodge Hill was declared a SSSI by the government because it is the best place for nightingales in the UK, a species that, in England, has declined by around 90% in the last half century leaving less and less to bring their beautiful song to the English countryside. The destruction of Lodge Hill would be one of the largest ever losses of a protected wildlife site in Britain.

‘It is deeply concerning that Medway Council is still considering Lodge Hill as a suitable location for thousands of new houses. Although not made clear in the draft consultation document, Lodge Hill is a haven for wildlife and, importantly, is nationally recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). That legal protection means that development should only be a last resort. A decision to go ahead with this area being earmarked for housing would set a dangerous precedent for the nation’s other protected sites.’

RSPB’s director of conservation

Local opposition

In addition to being recognised as a nationally important site for Nature, local people have also demonstrated that they value Lodge Hill. Echoing the concerns of conservationists, local communities spoke out when the local authority approved a developer’s planning application to build 5,000 houses on the area back in 2014. The strength of opposition from local groups could not be ignored and the decision will go to a Public Inquiry in 2018.

‘Lodge Hill is an important test of whether the government is committed to its stated aim of leaving the natural environment in a better state than this generation inherited it. We should be celebrating and protecting sites of international wildlife importance like Lodge Hill – not building on them.’

Director of The Wildlife Trusts England

The potential loss of Lodge Hill and what this may mean for other SSSIs has brought together conservation groups from across Kent and the UK. Alongside the RSPB in campaigning to protect Lodge Hill are The Wildlife Trusts, Buglife, Friends of the North Kent Marshes, Medway Countryside Forum, Butterfly Conservation, Woodland Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust.

Medway Council’s public consultation runs from 16 January to 06 March 2017.

Click here to get involved and help save Lodge Hill from development.

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