The Lodge Hill site is a former military training ground owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and is identified in the Council's draft Core Strategy for development of around 5,000 homes and for provision of an equal number of jobs. Developer Land Securities submitted an outline planning application for a mixed-use residential-led development at the 700 acre site in November 2011.
Natural England last week announced that it had extended an existing SSSI at Chattenden Woods to incorporate the land at Lodge Hill because of its nightingale population and special grassland and woodland. It said that more than 80% of the local nightingale population is distributed across the proposed development area.
Natural England said in a statement that it would continue to engage with the Council, the MoD and Land Securities to contribute to the planning process. "In particular, we will consider carefully any proposals for a habitat creation scheme to offset the impacts on the special wildlife of the site, should development proceed," it said.
"Natural England did not raise any objections until July 2011 despite working with others since the mid 1990s on plans for the development of Lodge Hill," said a spokesman for the Council.
"However, we now seem to have the absurd situation of a Government agency (Natural England) stopping a Government department (the MoD) from proceeding with their plans to relinquish their former training grounds, an area where this is believed to be unexploded ordnance. We are deeply unhappy with this decision and will be considering our options," said the spokesman.
"We find it astonishing this decision has been taken. This is a Government site and is former vacant military land. In addition, it is an area earmarked for development for 18 years, and this would help provide 5,000 local jobs and 5,000 homes, which is important for a growing area like Medway," said the spokesman.
"We have worked with Natural England and its predecessors since 1995, as well as other experts, to mitigate the effects such development would have on the around 70 nightingales that live on the site for 12 weeks a year and believed that Lodge Hill would not be declared an SSSI," the spokesman said.
"Nightingales aren’t a protected species, and there are numerous similar habitats within the immediate area, as well as elsewhere in Kent and the south east where they spend three months a year,” said the spokesman.
The Council will have four months to make objections and representations about the notification. According to reports in The Independent Councillor Jane Chitty has said the Council will oppose the decision and that it will "be looking to meet with Ministers to reverse this ill-considered decision".