Published: 13:23, 24 June 2013
A government inspector has today rejected Medway’s entire housing strategy - which took six years and cost taxpayers £27m.
It comes because a former army base earmarked for a 5,000-home town was declared a nightingale stronghold.
It is a colossal blow to Medway Council, for whom Lodge Hill, Hoo, would have been one of the biggest housing estates in Britain. It would have hosted a third of all Medway’s new housing up to 2026.
“I am not convinced that the social and economic benefits... would outweigh the harm to a site of national importance,” she wrote. “The only reasonable course of action is for the council to withdraw the core strategy.”
Her orders have put her on the warpath with council leader Cllr Rodney Chambers (Con).
He blasted the “surprising and frustrating... 11th hour” decision by an unelected inspector which “beggars belief”.
He added: “This won’t just cost public money – it will cost local people 5,000 much needed new homes, and 5,000 jobs.
“We are not prepared to spend any more council taxpayers’ money without a degree of certainty.”
Council regeneration director Robin Cooper complained it was government ministers who pushed Lodge Hill in the first place.
“The government has said it wants to get people back into work,” he said. “This would have provided up to 5,000 jobs and 5,000 pretty desperately needed houses for local people.”
The strategy has cost the taxpayer £27m. Medway Council spent £2m drawing it up and the government's Homes and Communities Agency spent £25m transferring and preparing Lodge Hill from the MOD.
The inspector said no realistic alternatives to Lodge Hill were ever put forward, which Mr Cooper disputed.
He claimed four other sites includng the Capstone Valley and Riverside Country Park - hugely popular beauty spots - were properly considered and declared unviable.
But Hoo Parish Council chairman Lionel Pearce said: “Medway Council put all their eggs in one basket and it didn’t come off.”
Ms Graham visited Lodge Hill and said she doubted a scoring method which pitched it vastly above every alternative was merited.
That, she wrote, was because despite being an ex-army site, most of Lodge Hill is not “previously developed” but rolling fields.
Council chiefs are especially furious at the inspector for making her ruling while a consultation on Lodge Hill’s nightingales is still ongoing.
Natural England, another government body, declared Lodge Hill a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) in March but is still allowing people to appeal. That means its decision may change later this year.
And another survey was taken on nightingales at Lodge Hill in the last few weeks, but the results have not yet been published.
Whether or not the SSSI stands, Mr Cooper claimed today’s blow will not halt house building elsewhere in Medway, where several plans are already approved.
Housing developer Land Securities is behind the Lodge Hill plan and has poured £8m into the blueprints.
The firm has already lodged a planning application, which it could take to appeal amid the row already going on.
If they do, the communities secretary Eric Pickles will make the final decision - the third government department do so.
Attacking “red tape and grinding bureaucracy,” Cllr Chambers said: “We now call on the government to sort this out - for local people, for the growth of our area and for the economy.
Responding to the news, John Bennett, chief executive of Kent Wildlife Trust, said: “This is a great victory for wildlife, and a great result for the people of Medway.
"We hope that Medway Council will now abandon their plans for this site and look for an alternative that isn’t so damaging.
"We have worked well with the Council for many years, and look forward to helping them plan a sustainable future for the area.”
As well as supporting at least 1.3% of the national population of nightingales, the SSSI also supports communities of bats (six species), lizards, grass snakes, adders, slow worms, newts, frogs, toads, badgers and rare insects such as the shrill carder-bee.
What does this mean for you? Special report in Friday's Medway Messenger.