The Middlewick Ranges in Colchester is a unique, rare and precious ‘Local Wildlife Site’: one of the last significant remaining pieces of undisturbed lowland dry acid grassland in the country. Lowland dry acid grassland, named after the acidic soil that supports fine grasses and lichens, has almost disappeared from England. As well as being protected, it is a UK priority habitat for wildlife conservation.
Over 600 species depend on the 86-hectare (215-acre) site. They include: skylarks, nightingales, bats, reptiles and many crucial and rare invertebrates. It’s also a well-loved, vital greenspace and urban buffer for the residents of South Colchester and the only large accessible open space in that area. Despite its ecological and social importance, not to mention its role in climate change mitigation and nature recovery, the site is at risk of development and could be largely destroyed to make way for 1,000 homes.
The Ministry of Defence and Colchester Borough
The site is owned by The Ministry of Defence, and in 2016 the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), the MoD’s property arm, announced that the Middlewick Ranges was to be sold for housing development. With fear of a private developer placing 2,000 homes on the site, Colchester Borough Council hastily included the site into their local plan. The site plans were submitted with out-of-date reports including ecological surveys submitted by the MOD/ DIO, which had been carried out at inappropriate times and were riddled with limitations making them completely inaccurate.
Upon discovery of the sale of the Middlewick, residents set up a petition and Facebook group which attracted the attention of local independent and organised ecologist groups. An independent ecology survey was later commissioned by the campaign group which was able to describe the true diversity of the site. These reports have been submitted to Natural England who confirm the site’s ecological value. The site satisfies many of the criteria for being awarded higher protection, but the formal process takes a long time and cannot be done before the sale occurs.
Changing the rules
Planning rules allow developers to build on some types of rare land, so long as they offset the loss by creating ‘replacements’ (known as Biodiversity Net Gain). Several plant, invertebrate and bird species found in lowland dry acid grassland are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Middlewick Ranges is a Local Wildlife Site with protected species. As such, it should never have been allocated, nor allowed to remain in the plan.
Defra’s has a “Biodiversity Metric” which allows planners to calculate how to mitigate the loss of protected sites. In this case that was not used. Instead a ‘bespoke metric’ was developed and used to push through the plans. The MoD proposed to replace the rare grassland, by converting farmland nearby by adding sulphur and other toxins to the ground. There are no guarantees that an irreplaceable habitat such as lowland dry acid grassland can be created from scratch and there is little evidence that this kind of mitigation has or will ever work.
Undervaluing the ecology
The Middlewick Ranges should NEVER have been included in the local plan. We are now at the planning modifications stage where the plans have been approved subject to modifications, and a wide campaign to object to these modifications has just ended. The decision of whether the site will remain in the local plan rests with the examining inspector and ultimately Colchester Borough Council. The campaign supporters include the Essex Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Colchester Natural History Society, Essex Field club, en-form and the Community Planning Alliance. The campaign also received pro-bono legal advice from ‘Lawyers for Nature’.
What is very clear is that the site has been enormously undervalued in terms of its ecological value. We don’t blame the council and we don’t blame the inspector as they made these decisions based on the information they were provided with.
Colchester Council’s planning and housing manager has said: “Nobody local wants any development, I don’t think it’s just Middlewick, but we do have to allocate it. It has to go somewhere or it would be a free-for-all and I don’t think anyone would welcome that.”
This quote simply validates our views that the Middlewick Ranges is not being acknowledged for its ecological value, because this isn’t ‘just another development’.
The inspector was presented with out of date and poor evidence, so assessing building on this site and mitigating any biodiversity loss was bound to result in unsound and inaccurate decisions.
Now that the inspector has been given up to date and valid research, we know that any plans to include this site into the local plan would be unsound.
When the evidence changes, we change our minds
Historically speaking, science has dragged us out of some pretty embarrassing and dangerous positions; for instance humans used to believe that the earth was flat, that animals were machines, that cigarettes were good for us and that diesel cars were environmentally friendly… there have been many times we have changed our minds based on our developed understanding and research. It’s called progress… Being able to change our behaviours and direction is what makes humans so progressive. When we are presented with information it enables us to form an opinion, but without the full information we can form the wrong opinion. It’s vital as humans and individuals we continue to evolve because our knowledge and science is always evolving. If we don’t open up our minds to new information, then we can’t make progress… in other words, if we continue to assess the suitability of development on the Wick based on out-of-date surveys then we won’t be making an accurate assessment.
What we want to say to the inspector and Colchester Borough Council is that it is ok to change your mind. Anyone that has the courage to say they have changed their position demonstrates progression and an open mind.
Lessons to others
A note to anyone in a similar situation where they face the loss of a valuable greenspace. Had it not been for the tireless efforts of campaigners and local ecologists, this site could very easily have been approved (and still can be) through the planning process, without any problems. What this story demonstrates is that, without thorough surveying and oversight, we could be (are) losing many ecologically important sites all over the UK (and beyond) simply because our planning systems are not robust enough in supporting nature. Regardless of being labelled a ‘nimby’, sometimes the best people to fight these kinds of developments are the very people that live on and use these sites. With enough support and knowledge, it is local people that can challenge and, in many cases, win against the system that simply views Nature as an opportunity to make money.
Will Colchester be able to untangle this mess and do what is legally and morally the right thing? We hope to report back with good news in the not-too-distant future.