A recent Mark Reckless Facebook Post alleging a Conservative Party “stitch up” over the Lodge Hill development. Critics point out he supported the development and attacked Natural England’s opposition to it as recently as March 2013, when still a Conservative backbencher.
[Public Domain via Facebook]
UKIP Parliamentary Candidate and former Conservative MP, Mark Reckless has ensured that the controversial proposal to develop 5000 houses on former Ministry of Defence land at Lodge Hill on the Hoo peninsula in Kent, will be a major issue in the forthcoming Rochester and Strood by-election forced by his defection on the eve of the Conservative Party Conference. The site includes both a nationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] and the earliest purpose built anti aircraft gun site in Britain, built in 1913. As a result conservation bodies fear not just the inevitable damage to the environment which would result form such a scheme, but also the precedent that would be set if the development is allowed to go ahead on a site with the highest levels of statutory protection within the existing planning system. However, critics point out this outright opposition to the controversial development may not be altogether consistent with previous Parliamentary statements regarding Lodge Hill, made by Mr Reckless when he still took the Conservative whip.
In an article on his new website Mr Reckless states his current position very clearly.
“Having reviewed the environmental evidence following the independent inspector’s findings in relation to Lodge Hill, and further considered the impact which this would have on our local infrastructure, I am bewildered by the committee’s decision to give Lodge Hill the go ahead.”
The proposal was given outline planning permission by Conservative controlled Medway Council on and on 24 September the Department for Communities and Local Government announced it was considering whether to “Call In” the decision, potentially taking the final decision away from the local authority.
Mr Reckless had recently given the Lodge Hill decision as one of the reasons for his defection. In his statement announcing why he was joining UKIP Reckless said
“I promised to protect our rural Hoo Peninsula. I cannot keep that promise as a Conservative. I can keep it as UKIP.”
A Conservative councilor on Medway Council, Councilor Peter Rodberg has also joined Reckless in joining UKIP, again citing the Lodge Hill development as the principle reason for his defection.
However, not everyone finds Reckless’s recent stance regarding Lodge Hill convincing. They point to the fact that on 26 March 2013 Reckless told the House of Commons
“Earlier this month, Natural England declared Ministry of Defence land at Lodge Hill in my constituency to be a site of special scientific interest. In numerous plans over 18 years, the site has been clearly designated for 5,000 homes and for employment opportunities for 5,000 people. A total of £35.5 million has been spent to get to the point of planning consent being granted. After all this time and money, the council is concerned, to put it mildly, to be thwarted at the last hurdle by Natural England, which does not consider the economic impacts.”
Mr Reckless then supported the plan approved by Medway Council and castigated Natural England stating
“Medway is an example of a council that is pro-development, that wants to support the Minister and that wants to show that it is open for business. Will the Minister assure me that our local council will be able to decide where it is best for development to go, not Ministers or their inspectors, and still less these quangos?”
Although opponents of the scheme, which range from local people to national organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, will welcome the wider debate which raising the issue in the context of a such high profile election campaign will bring, it will be recognised that the adoption of the issue by one political Party runs the risk of politicising the issue. Particularly when a politician highlighting the issue could be accused of exploiting the issue for short term electoral advantage. This is something the creators of the “Save Lodge Hill” campaign on Facebook are aware of. A recent post on the page warns campaigners
“…we would humbly remind members of this group to please restrict their comments to constructive criticism and avoid political attacks or promotion of any particular party or candidates. If we’re united, we can never be divided.”
The conclusion might be that the decision about the destruction of a Site of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI], an act which would have national consequences, both in terms of lost habitat and lost protection for other sensitive habitats and historic sites with similar levels of protection, is too important to be left to political parties whose interests seldom extend beyond the next outing of the ballot boxes.
The Rochester and Strood By-election will take place on Thursday 20 November. There is not yet a complete list of candidates who are standing for the seat.