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Natural England is another public sector agency that owns a substantial amount of land. It has 470,000 acres in its portfolio – more than the total size of Buckinghamshire.

What plans are there for new homes on its land? A spokesman tells me:

“Natural England has no plans, as most of our land is designated as Site Special Scientific Land (SSSI) land and therefore no potential for development.”

Fair enough, some may conclude. But SSI land does not mean an absolute prohibition on development. There is a proposal for 2,000 homes in Lodge Hill in Medway (there was an early plan for 5,000) on a derelict site. That is a SSSI – as it has 85 pairs of nightingales. For some decades, the nightingale population was sharply declining for 40 years – but since 2010 it has been rising by an average of two per cent a year. Of course, the Common Agricultural Policy has been very damaging in terms of the destruction of hedges – but them we are leaving the CAP which should be good news for nightingales.

I understand that some will have strong feelings about even a single nightingale being put at risk – no matter how many thousands of new homes might be made available in return. Others may be using the nightingales as an excuse – the real concern is that the new homes will be ugly. They would be right to be concerned, given that Medway Council declares:

“It is therefore likely that a large proportion of the site will be built out in relatively modern designs. The council is comfortable with this as a consequence of the policies in this document. Innovative and interesting responses to the design challenge will be welcomed, and will be considered against the same criteria set out above.”

By “modern”, of course the Council planning officers mean “modernist” – the sort of thing that planning officers like but most of the rest of us do not.

But supposing that the Council had the sense to stipulate that the new homes be beautiful and traditional. That still leaves the challenge to the bird population. Here, greater imagination should be shown in using the proceeds of the development in mitigation. Or indeed, not merely mitigation, but to more than offset any loss. What about a few million pounds spent of extermination of grey squirrels which have been so devastating to our bird population? Or what about spending the money on projects safeguarding the habitat Gambia where our nightingales like to spent the winter?

Similar principles should to the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty owned by Natural England. There is already a considerable amount of housing in these areas, and more is being planned. Last year, the Campaign to Protect Rural England complained about a 82 per cent increase. But the report got caught in a numbers game – lamenting that “15,500 houses have been approved in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the past five years.” It demands that policy should change to “state a presumption against proposals for large housing developments”.  That would reduce supply – and so increase prices – even more than at present. But the CPRE contradicted themselves by insisting that any new homes that were allowed “generally be affordable and in relation to local needs.”

The point that is missed is that 15,500 homes built on the edge of villages could be an enhancement – or they could be an adornment. 155,000 beautiful new homes made of local materials with a design that blends in would be welcome. 1,550 monstrous concrete carbuncles would not be. To focus on the number is to miss the point. The CPRE pretty much dodge this – they just make a passing banal reference to “good design”.

Given that Natural England is paid £151 million a year of taxpayer’s money, one would hope they need just seek the lazy option of always trying to block the development of new homes, but try to find ways to make new housing compatible with safeguarding and improving our environment and making our country more beautiful.

13 comments for: State land banking: Natural England owns 470,000 acres

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