Published: 14:50, 13 February 2015
The proposal to build 5,000 homes at a former army camp in Chattenden will face a public inquiry, it has been announced today.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has decided to call in the planning application following a significant number of requests from local residents, Natural England, the RSPB and local MPs. A decision will be made following a public inquiry.
This power is used only in exceptional circumstances – a fraction of 1% of all planning cases – including where they are of ‘more than national significance’.
Medway Council’s planning committee unanimously agreed to grant permission after considering the application in great detail in September last year. However, because of the size and location of the development it had to be referred to the Secretary of State for a final decision.
A DCLG spokesman said: “Ministers have today confirmed that the planning application for the proposed Lodge Hill housing and commercial site in Rochester, Kent, is being called in to be decided by ministers.
"This decision will be made following a public inquiry and after consideration of a planning inspector’s report and other relevant matters".
In a letter to Medway Council, the DCLG said the Secretary of State wishes to be informed about the application's consistency with the development plan for the area as well as its conformity with several policies in the National Planning Policy Framework.
Ministers will be considering the conformity of the application with national planning policy on:
The “stand-alone, sustainable” development at Lodge Hill would create a home for 11,000 people, create 5,000 jobs and include new schools, healthcare facilities, leisure facilities and employment and business space.
Council leader, Rodney Chambers, said: “We know that organisations such as the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts wrote to the Minister asking for the application to be called in and this will provide an opportunity for them to give their view.
“I would state however that we are already well aware of their views and these were carefully considered and are contained in the very detailed 162 page report reported to the Special Planning Committee in September 2014.
“Although the Council supports the application which provides new homes and jobs for local people, ultimately it is a government planning application on a government owned site so it is only right that government comes to the final decision.
"We have done everything we can to properly assess the impact of this development and compensation land is being provided for the nightingales so they can continue to breed.”
Developers, Land Securities, have agreed to financial contributions for highways and education, £1.35million for nature conservation and a completely new site of 304 hectares for nightingales.
A spokesman for Land Securities said: "We've noted the decision from the DCLG and will be reviewing our options."
Kelly Tolhurst, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Rochester and Strood, said: ”I have consistently campaigned with local Conservatives against the development at Lodge Hill and am delighted that it has been called in - giving us another opportunity to have it stopped.
"Having grown up on the edge of the peninsula I know how important this area is, and I will continue to lead the campaign in the run up to the public inquiry helping to ensure the voice of local people is heard."
Lodge Hill was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 2013 which meant developers, Land Securities, had to reassess the environmental impact upon the site. This included finding new homes for the 84 nightingales and other wildlife that inhabit the site – compensation land has been proposed at Shoeburyness, Essex for the song birds.
SSSIs are protected under the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which says development should not normally be permitted on an SSSI and an exception should only be made where the benefits clearly outweigh both the local and national impact.
The council's support for Lodge Hill played a key part in Mark Reckless' decision to leave the Conservatives and join Ukip and said today's announcement was "extremely welcome"
The MP for Rochester and Strood said: "I am absolutely delighted at this news. It is a remarkable win for all of us who oppose destruction of this special site following its designation as an SSSI.
"I believe this is a vindication of my decision to call a by-election and put Lodge Hill at the forefront of my campaign, putting the environmental devastation that would have resulted from the Council's decision at the centre of national debate.
"Today is a very big victory, but I will not rest until we have won the war and defeated Medway Council and its Lodge Hill development at the public enquiry."
The RSPB said they were delighted that the government has listened to the pleas of over 12,400 people who wrote to them, concerned about the future the site which is home to breeding nightingales.
Martin Harper from RSPB said: “There has been public outrage and condemnation that a site of national importance for wildlife has been considered for development without public scrutiny. We are delighted that the Government has listened to these concerns, and has reached the only logical conclusion.
“Through an inquiry we hope and expect that this development will be rejected and the future of this SSSI will be secured. The important issue of housing allocation in North Kent should proceed without impacting on nationally-important wildlife sites.”
Vince Maple, leader of the Medway Labour Group said: "It is Medway Council Taxpayers who will have to pick up the bill for this process. Because of the scope of the call-in, it is in effect an open cheque for the costs to residents.
"In reality the decision, which was supported unanimously on a cross party basis at the planning committee, took into account all of the relevant information.
"The longer this process takes the longer the 20,000 residents who are on the housing waiting list will have to wait for this key infrastructure to be built on the former MOD brownfield site."