Defense Ministry under fire for “inventing rules” to sell wildlife refuge | Planning policy

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The Middlewick Ranges are an ecological wonder by 21st century Britain standards. The army firing range near Colchester, Essex has not been hit by a plow for nearly 200 years, allowing larks and nightingales to feast on the endangered invertebrates and insects that thrive in the rare acid meadows.

Yet a plan to sell the stoves to build more than 1,000 homes has sparked accusations from activists that the Department of Defense (MoD) has rewritten environmental protection rules to suit his case.

Acid meadows – named for the acidic soil that supports fine grasses and lichens – have all but disappeared from England and are protected by guidelines from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Town planning rules allow developers to build on certain types of rare earths, including marshes, wetlands and woodlands, provided they compensate for the loss by creating replacements. Defra’s biodiversity metric allows them to calculate how to do this.

“Under the Defra metric it says the score is too high to allow development,” said Richard Martin, of the Save the Middlewick Ranges group. “They couldn’t use it, so they made one up. It’s crazy.”

Because grasslands have been unplowed for many years, they are home to many endangered invertebrates and insects. Photograph: Philippe Hays / Alamy

The Department of Defense’s real estate arm, the Defense Infrastructure Organization, has agreed to use a “tailor-made” measure with Colchester Borough Council to pass general approval to develop the 86-hectare site. (215 acres) as part of the plan. Worse, activists say, is how the Defense Department is proposing to replace acid meadows, converting nearby farmland.

“They want to put sulfur in the earth,” Martin said. “There’s a little stream flowing next to it and all the land flows into that stream.

“And that flows into Colne Marshes, which is a site of special scientific interest. You will therefore put sulfur in the rainwater flowing in an SSSI animal site.

The campaigners were backed by the Essex Wildlife Trust, which calls the Middlewick Ranges a “major ecological asset” with “valuable habitats essential for nature’s recovery”, adding: “We cannot afford to lose them” .

The campaigns culminated in a planning survey of how ranges were added locally, which concluded its hearings earlier this year.

Rosie Pearson, founder of the Community Planning Alliance, which advised the activists, said: “From a biodiversity perspective, this should sound a giant wake-up call. The developers couldn’t do whatever they wanted using the official metric, so they invented one. For the rare species inhabiting the site, this could spell the end – unless the planning inspection recognizes that what is attempted is deeply flawed.

Pearson said developers were manipulating biodiversity offsets, adding, “Larks are offered ‘off-site plots’ when their grasslands are concreted. Large areas of old-growth forests have been described as “thickets”. And arable land is widely dismissed as meaningless to wildlife in the metric. She said green assessments should be carried out by an independent body, funded by the developers, adding, “Local communities should be able to request a second opinion, also funded by the developer, if they have concerns about a report. And government proposals to provide better funding to local authorities for ecological services should be acted upon.

The Defense Ministry defended its plans, saying 63% of the land would be set aside for open green space. He has yet to sell the site to a developer, who would still need a building permit, but if the plan was maintained, opposition would be limited to discussing which parts of the ranges one could build on.

The sun goes through the trees
The new town planning rules introduced by the government have raised concerns in many rural areas, especially around the Middlewick site. Photography: Richard Martin

There are more than 460 environmental campaigns across Britain according to the Community Planning Alliance, which fears the new planning rules – blamed by Tory activists for Lib Dem’s victory in the Chesham and Amersham by-elections last month – make it more difficult for local groups to stop similar developments.

The Department of Defense plans are based on a similar project to create acid meadows in the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve in Suffolk.

Adam Rowlands, regional director of the RSPB in Suffolk, who is not involved in the Middlewick Ranges dispute, said it took around 10 years to create the acid meadows in Minsmere. “It was not an easy task,” he said. “There was a fairly intensive planting period, scarifying the soil, sowing seed mixtures. You can’t just take it off again, otherwise it will turn into scrubland.

A spokesperson for Colchester Borough Council said: ‘The Middlewick chains are allocated in the emerging local plan for mixed use, including housing, open spaces and community uses.

“The future of the ranges has not yet been finalized, as we are still awaiting the report from the local plan inspector, but it will be important to ensure that residents have the opportunity to comment if the site is included in the range. the plan.

“A future master plan for the site will need to be undertaken, which will include open spaces and increased tree planting, to enhance the biodiversity value of beaches for future generations of residents to enjoy.

“Although we are unable to comment on DIO’s specific plans for the site, the council remains fully committed to preserving and enhancing as much as possible all forms of biodiversity in the borough.”

The Defense Ministry said: “We continue to work with the council to develop plans for the site, including working with experts to find innovative ways to help secure biodiversity. The techniques will be tested extensively as part of the review process.



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