Karen Syrett, Senior Officer for Planning & Place Strategy
Sandra Scott, Planning Policy Officer
Simon Cairns, Development Manager
Shelley Blackaby, Principal Planning
Policy Officer (Environment)
Colchester City Council
Sir Bob Russell
Will Quince MP
Bernard Jenkin MP
James Cracknell OBE
5th January 2024
Dear Officers and Councillors,
Subject: Urgent Appeal for the Protection of Middlewick Ranges – by Removal from the Local Plan (Formal Submission to Local Plan Consultation 2023-24)
We write to you as part of the current Local Plan consultation – and as a collective of 17 esteemed naturalists and ecologists from Essex (and beyond!). We implore you to reconsider the inclusion of Middlewick Ranges in the Local Plan for housing development.
This is fairly unprecedented; but it matches the unprecedented and alarming nature of what is proposed. This letter, backed by a wealth of ecological data and expertise – and dare we say, together, centuries of experience – aims to reiterate the irreplaceable value of Middlewick Ranges and the grave ecological risks posed. Additional key evidence is also laid bare.
During forensic examination of all of the available evidence on Middlewick Ranges, a long list of specific claims emerges on which the entire case for building on this site rests. We have identified 30 of these assertions – 30 ‘Pillars’, as it were – put forward by MoD/DIO and their ecological consultant Stantec. These provided the basis for allocating 1000 houses under the Local Plan.
Following this architectural analogy, if one takes away a single pillar then the case for development would look increasingly shaky. Take away two, three, four or more… and the entire case collapses.
In this letter and accompanying document we will show, unequivocally, how the evidence and premise behind the proposals (and each one of those pillars) – is fundamentally and fatally flawed.
We hope to work collaboratively and constructively with Colchester City Council, as individuals and through the various natural history organisations which we represent; many of which have worked closely with CCC in the past, lending expert input to navigate a minefield of environmental legislation – and help make sure Colchester retains what little wildlife-rich spaces we have left after decades of intensive farming and development. All in the shadow of a Biodiversity and Climate Crisis.
Before we i) summarise the new evidence and ii) question the basis for development, here are the references to crucial supporting documents, found at the link below (documents regularly updated):
- ‘30 PILLARS’ – THE CASE FOR REMOVING MIDDLEWICK FROM THE LP (Supports this letter)
- MIDDLEWICK OBJECTIONS 1 – Summary of Representations to CCC wrt LP (2019-2023).pdf’
- MIDDLEWICK OBJECTIONS 2 – Have Your Say Speeches wrt CCC Local Plan (21-12-23).pdf’
The focus in this letter is within our field of expertise: natural history, ecology, conservation and environmental legislation; we will not include the many other areas of concern which have been and continue to be raised involving other legitimate objections such as inadequate social/urban infrastructure, lack of road network/connectivity to A12/A120, traffic and air pollution.
However, we will briefly mention the place that Middlewick has in so many people’s hearts; and the immense value and importance of this site as a public amenity and open green space.
If you were to position a time-lapse camera on any main footpath running through Middlewick, on any given day of the week, you would record many hundreds of people enjoying this public space; or using it as a commuting route to school or work: Dog walkers, families, cyclists, runners, pensioners, parents with buggies, commuters, children climbing trees… and bird watchers and naturalists. Repeated over generations, maybe even more so now the red flags are no longer flying.
People not only enjoying but relying on this beautiful green resource in the heart of South Colchester; for physical and mental health. During Covid many described the Wick as a ‘lifesaver’.
The burden of proof/evidence that Middlewick is used as a vital public amenity space should not be for the people of Colchester to prove, it is self-evident for anyone who has visited Middlewick; it should surely be for those wanting to pave over this green space to prove otherwise?
[A visit in person to Middlewick and Weir Lane grasslands (‘mitigation land’) is essential to appreciate their sheer scale and impressive patchwork of habitats; however, the next best thing is photographs and maps of the site. We include these in Appendix 1.]
“Middlewick is a particular site with a history. It is a history that comprises not just its biodiversity but also its military significance and its place in the memories of the local people, which make it irreplaceable not just in an ecological sense.” – Professor Ted Benton FRES FBNA (CNHS)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
This letter is headed by Essex Field Club (EFC) and Colchester Natural History Society (CNHS), as the organisations who have respectively led in i) the key recording efforts and charting Middlewick’s biodiversity and ii) the only dedicated organisation to conservation of natural spaces in Colchester District; many EFC and CNHS members have recorded at Middlewick since proposals were made.
Joining forces with these esteemed organisations are numerous distinguished figures in natural history and conservation, having recognised the significant impact and far-reaching consequences of losing Middlewick, along with the dangerous precedent it could establish.
Signatories’ experience covers a broad spectrum of specialisms and species, respected at county and national levels. Areas of specialisation range from dragonflies, moths and spiders, to birds, mammals and reptiles, as well as grasshoppers, lacewings, wasps, bees and other pollinators. Experience extends to protected species, plants, lichens, fungi, acid grassland, sandy soils, coastal and grassland conservation, habitat management, SSSIs and European Designated Sites.
With their names on several hundred papers and with numerous qualifications, accreditations and awards, we invite you to acquaint yourself with all signatories and their wide ranging and eclectic backgrounds in our ‘Introductions’ section below.
1. New / Recently Emerged Evidence
Firstly, we would like to draw attention to a large amount of new evidence which has recently emerged. This new compelling evidence is outlined below as well as referenced documents above; we believe this new information further strengthens the case to reconsider the Local Plan and protect Middlewick Ranges and the huge associated biodiversity from development.
(Some of this evidence below is entirely new; some is an extension of what was already known).
10 Points/Evidence not Considered in the Original Local Plan
- Improved invertebrate data: Essex Field Club spear-headed recording efforts and have now identified 1480 species of invertebrate with 167 with conservation status. Stantec reported only 318 species of invertebrate with 19 with conservation status (21.5% and 11.4% of the current totals respectively!).
Stantec used an old Essex Field Club data search from 2017, over 3 years out of date when their report was issued; much more data was available and known about at that time yet not included, and much has been revealed since.
“As well as a Local Wildlife Site of exceptionally high nature conservation importance, with a number of scarce plants, and most significantly an outstanding range of rare, scarce and characteristic invertebrates, we have little doubt that it would qualify as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)* if subject to specialist surveys to Natural England invertebrate survey and Invertebrate Standard Advice for Essex guidelines.” – [3-1] Peter Harvey, Essex Field Club (April, 2021)
*Since then, twice as many favourable SSSI invertebrate communities have been confirmed!
- Acid grassland: A review of acid grassland in Essex within all LoWS and SSSIs* has found that Middlewick Ranges, with 52 hectares of this Priority Habitat, constitutes:
- over 10% of all acid grassland in Essex.
- over 35% of all acid grassland in Colchester District.
- is the largest area of continuous acid grassland in the county by far.
*See ’30 pillars’ PDF and ‘Essex acid grassland provisional review’ XLS (http://bit.ly/middlewickranges)
- Inadequate grassland surveys: Stantec’s survey within the ‘mitigation land’ (Weir Lane) took place immediately after cutting mis-identifying the 100ha of existing tall semi-improved permanent grassland as ‘arable’ (a BNG multiplier of 2.53 instead of minimum 3.98); thereby massively reducing its perceived value/score in the ‘bespoke’ Biodiversity Net Gain table.
During a recent visit in December 2023, Kestrels were seen hovering overhead – highlighting presence of small mammals; this is one of the largest areas of tall grassland in Colchester District with inherent wildlife value and connects Middlewick and Birch Brook to Roman River Valley. Stantec called this extensive grassland ‘ecologically benign arable’ and ‘rye grass ley’. It is neither of these (see photographs in Appendix 1 and Maps 1-3).
[It is well-documented that the northern Middlewick grassland was partly acidic and supports rare invertebrates; yet this was mis-identified as ‘poor semi-improved’ (a BNG multiplier of 3.98 instead of 8.19). Additionally, areas of recognised acid grassland were undervalued as ‘non-HPI acid grassland’ thereby reducing their BNG values in the ‘bespoke’ metric (multiplier of 7.26 instead of 14.54!]
It is easy to see just from these examples how the case for viability collapses; this also highlights a concerning trend for developer-commissioned reports to underplay these metrics as a matter of routine. The pattern: underestimate the impacts and overestimate the benefits.
“The Middlewick Ranges is the most important registered Local Wildlife Site (LoWS) in the Colchester area. It has a very high level of ecological value, particularly its invertebrate interest which is well documented, and should be defended from development. The species present demonstrate that the site is of local and national importance and the presence of lowland acid grassland is such a fast-declining resource that it should be given the same protection as lowland heath.” – [8-1] Rob Smith, Butterfly Conservation
- Stantec BNG review: A review of Stantec’s Biodiversity Net Gain ‘bespoke’ metric has found this to be critically flawed at all levels; both the data from inadequate surveys/habitat assessments and the highly questionable multipliers (see point 3 above and point 4 below).
This resulted in:
i) significantly deflated values for existing habitats (impact area and ‘mitigation land’) and
ii) significantly inflated values for habitat creation (both ‘acid’ and ‘neutral’ grassland).
The consequence is that confidence in the BNG table and resulting ‘net gain’ (as well as the validity and rigour) is severely undermined. The conclusion: it is simply not fit for purpose.
- Corrected BNG table: A replicated table with suitably amended figures/multipliers, adjusting for the higher value of existing habitats and a more realistic figure for habitat creation, results in a Biodiversity Net Loss of -31%. The reality is likely to be a significantly larger loss in biodiversity, this calculation was deliberately cautious and conservative.
[It must however be remembered that use of DIY or Defra 4.0 metric for irreplaceable habitats is not legitimate in any case.]
This confirms unequivocally that the proposals would not achieve – hypothetically or practically – the required Biodiversity Net Gain which is mandatory under the newly introduced Environment Act. This, therefore, undermines the entire basis for inclusion in the Local Plan which relied on a positive net gain of at least 10%.
“CIEEM Good practice principles for development states that Biodiversity Net Gain does not apply to irreplaceable habitat… The idea that the ecology can be enhanced and a biodiversity net gain achieved through development, a masterplan, mitigation and compensation does not hold up to independent scrutiny and has no basis in evidence.” – [3-3] Peter Harvey, Essex Field Club (2021)
- Buglife objections and ‘Important Invertebrate Area’ designation: Buglife are a respected national organisation advocating for the species which underpin all life, invertebrates.
They have strongly objected to the proposals to bulldoze and build on Middlewick Ranges. Alongside other organisations such as RSPB and Essex Wildlife Trust, they restated that the proposals fall foul of current and emerging environmental laws and planning obligations from National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to ‘30by30’.
Buglife reiterate the national level value of the invertebrates and acid grassland within Middlewick, hailing the ‘outstanding’ assemblage of 1480 species of which 167 have a conservation status (‘Species of Conservation Concern’).
For this reason Middlewick has been designated a nationally Important Invertebrate Area (IIA):
“The entire Middlewick Ranges site is part of the revised Essex Coast Important Invertebrate Area (IIA)1. IIAs are nationally or internationally significant places for the conservation of invertebrates and the habitats upon which they rely.” –  Jamie Robins, Buglife
- RSPB Minsmere: RSPB have strongly refuted the use and citation of their study by Stantec to justify development at Middlewick Ranges, citing significant differences and concerns. (‘Minsmere’ and ‘RSPB’ were mentioned 14 and 12 times respectively and formed the backbone of the case to turn what they erroneously termed ‘arable’ into ‘acid grassland’).
- Different objectives: Minsmere aimed to create habitat for Stone Curlew, they did not attempt or claim to recreate a complex acid grassland ecosystem; they were not compensating for acid grassland lost to development.
- Contrasting soil conditions: Minsmere was arable land with lighter soils unlike Middlewick ‘mitigation land’ which is tall grassland with heavier soils, less suitable for acid grassland creation (and crucially, with significant existing biodiversity!).
- Selective sulphur use: Minsmere’s sulphur treatment was limited and targeted, unlike the extensive application proposed for Middlewick.
- Extended timeframe: Minsmere’s habitat development spans >20 years, with nearby intact acid grassland allowing colonisation of invertebrates and plants; unlike Middlewick’s optimistic 5-7 year projection with the ‘source’ habitat destroyed.
- Scientific premise flaws: The assumption of recreating complex acid grassland by adding sulphur lacks robust scientific support as shown below.
- Adjacent habitat risks: The sulphur application at Middlewick poses risks to nearby sensitive sites like Birch Brook LoWS and Roman River/Upper Colne Marshes SSSI.
RSPB also reiterate concerns about that the proposals are not consistent with planning guidelines and environmental legislation such as Planning Naturally (CIEEM), NPPF and the upcoming Local Nature Recovery Strategy (LNRS).
“The RSPB wish to advise the Council that the Minsmere case study presented in the Stantec report is not comparable or analogous to the proposed compensation site for Middlewick Ranges and we do not consider that any mitigation/compensation would be suitably bespoke, deliverable or effective.
We would not wish the work at Minsmere to be used to legitimise or justify the destruction of acid grassland or heathland (priority habitats) at Middlewick.” –  Mark Nowers, RSPB
- Expert testimony: Steven Falk FRES, a national authority on invertebrate conservation and signatory to this letter, has raised critical concerns about the Middlewick Ranges development proposal, particularly regarding the recreation of acid grassland using sulphur:
- Recognising Middlewick’s value: Falk acknowledges Middlewick Ranges’ significant biodiversity, especially for rare insects, stating the scarcity of acid grassland in Essex.
- Misconceptions about acid grassland recreation: He expresses alarm at claims of recreating high-quality acid grassland on unsuitable soils through sulphur addition, indicating a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes true acid grassland.
- Complexity of acid grassland: Acid grassland is a complex ecological community, with a long history of unique microhabitats and plant-insect-fungal assemblages, not merely grassland with altered pH levels.
- Soil profile and historic continuity: The impossibility of recreating acid grassland’s unique soil profile and historic continuity, shaped over centuries, by sulphur addition.
- Controversial claims and need for expert opinion: Falk categorises the claims as among the ‘most controversial’ in his extensive career and urges consulting bona fide experts from Natural England and wildlife trusts for a more accurate assessment.
- Nightingales and Birch Brook LoWS: The likely devastating impacts of development on Middlewick Ranges on habitats and wildlife within and around Birch Brook LoWS are outlined elsewhere below. Here we will focus on Nightingales; it has increasingly come to light how important this site is for this elusive, charismatic and declining Red List bird:
“Clearly the whole area encompassing Middlewick and Birch Brook Wood LoWS is exceptionally important for not only the Essex but the national Nightingale population. The Red-listed Nightingale has declined nationally by nearly 50% in the last three decades to some 5,550 singing males.
Any development at Middlewick will result in a clear and obvious increase in disturbance through the construction process, habitat degradation through the proximity of the development itself caused by increased recreation (especially dog walking), noise, lighting, pets etc., all of which will adversely affect this significant population which is likely of comparable size to the largest Essex population around nearby Fingringhoe Wick Nature Reserve, the two sites combined accounting for perhaps 1% of the UK population.” – Simon Wood, President Essex Birdwatching Society
- Third party approval: validation by a neutral third party is an essential part of the review process and professional standards required and expected for ecological reports, at all times, but especially for plans of such scale and impact as Middlewick Ranges. It is hard to explain on what basis the Stantec Evidence Base was signed off and validated.
Essex Wildlife Trust have recently repeated their previous strong objections dating back to 2019; and they have also confirmed that their ecological consultancy Essex Ecology (formerly EECOS) who were acting CBC ecologist at the time, would no longer approve the Stantec report or the proposals. The proposals and the inadequate Stantec Evidence Base therefore now lack any objective third party verification; and can be considered null and void.
“In the face of the UK’s deepening biodiversity crisis – and climate crisis – and with your Council’s strengthened duties to enhance biodiversity, full protection of Middlewick Ranges’ wildlife is, in the Trust’s view, essential. I am speaking for both the Wildlife Trust and Essex Ecology (or EECOS) as your former technical adviser, requesting and advising that your Council, through its green spaces’ consultation, now fully protects Middlewick Ranges and removes the current site allocation for houses there, providing revised housing allocations at alternative sites.” – [2-3] Dr Jeremy Dagley, Essex Wildlife Trust (https://www.essexwt.org.uk/middlewick-ranges)
2. Middlewick Ranges – The Case for Protection and Against Development
This letter is informed by the more detailed and exhaustive ’30 Pillars’: http://bit.ly/middlewickranges. Here, we will provide a summary and reasonably detailed overview of the key claims/pillars for development detailed in this larger document, and the main objections and concerns.
This summary includes in part the new evidence presented above whilst avoiding too much repetition and includes previous objections raised by respected organisations such as the Essex Field Club, Colchester Natural History Society, Butterfly Conservation and Essex Wildlife Trust as early as 2017.
Throughout we have made a concerted effort to steer clear of complex jargon that often renders ecological texts near impenetrable. Our goal has been to make the content accessible for readers without a background in ecology.
The implications of this letter and attached document are profound, affecting both the biodiversity and future of Colchester – and the wellbeing of its residents on a broader landscape level. This letter and the supporting documents are therefore, well worth the read.
The Case For Protection and Against Development (Summary)
1. The Biodiversity and Ecological Significance of Middlewick
It is not hyperbole to say that Middlewick Ranges is ‘a jewel in Colchester’s ecological crown’.
A remarkable ‘biodiversity hotspot’ and rich ecosystem – not only of local and county importance but of national significance, supporting more than 1/10th of all Essex acid grassland. The site is a mosaic of rare acid grassland and species-rich neutral grasslands alongside scrub and woodland, each a haven for an extraordinary array of species.
In total 1,480 invertebrates have been recorded here (over 11% with conservation status), more than many SSSIs. Inhabitants including nationally rare species like Phaeocedus braccatus, Tomosvaryella minima and the Necklace Ground Beetle Carabus monilis. See Appendix 1 for photos of some of Middlewick’s notable inhabitants.
The presence of these species alone underlines the national ecological significance of Middlewick Ranges. However, it is not just about numbers; equally important are the unique ecological interactions and the irreplaceable habitat and mosaics that supports these species.
“Middlewick Ranges is an outstandingly important site for wildlife, not only for Colchester, but for Essex and the wider region. At 76 hectares it is one of the largest Local Wildlife Sites in the area and on its own, represents nearly 4% of the District’s complete Local Wildlife Site acreage. With tens of hectares of rare acid grassland habitat, Middlewick Ranges encompasses the largest extent in north Essex and is of similar ecological importance to Epping Forest SSSI’s acid grasslands. As Natural England’s letter of 28th June 2022 to your council emphasised, the significance of its special acid grassland is likely to have been underestimated.” – [2-2] Dr Jeremy Dagley, Essex Wildlife Trust
“Middlewick Ranges is one of the best locations for Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets) in the county with nine species recorded (four grasshoppers, five bush-crickets). The acid grassland at Middlewick Ranges is highly important for the Mottled Grasshopper (Myrmeleotettix maculatus), an Essex Red Data List (status: Essex Vulnerable) species.” – Dr Tim Gardiner FBNA
Whilst celebrating the astonishing invertebrate diversity, we must not neglect the other wildlife of Middlewick, from Badgers, small mammals and at least nine bat species to toads and possibly all four Essex reptile species to over 10 Red Data List birds including Skylark and Nightingale.
This is best outlined in Section 15 of ‘Middlewick Objections 1’ (see: http://bit.ly/middlewickranges).
Also, let us not overlook the ‘Opportunity Costs’. Middlewick is currently a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ of very high value; but it could be significantly better! (Similarly, the 100ha of Weir Lane grasslands, the sacrificial ‘mitigation land’, is already valuable but could be managed even better for wildlife.)
Currently, Middlewick is not managed optimally for conservation under a full Management Plan. For example, the grass is often cut during the Skylark breeding season and whilst bees and other pollinators are foraging for nectar. If Middlewick is developed, then this site would never realise the immense potential which would be achieved if this were properly and securely managed for wildlife and conservation as a nature reserve or country park.
[This could result in significant biodiversity uplift; there are opportunities therein and elsewhere for Colchester City Council to purchase the site and benefit from a number of grants/credits in collaboration with one or more county or national conservation charities]
“It was at Middlewick Ranges that I discovered my passion for mycology; quite apt given the ecological importance of the site for waxcaps and other fungi species found only on unimproved grassland. Suitable sites for waxcaps are vanishingly rare, particularly on the scale of Middlewick Ranges, and are the sole habitat for not only a wide selection of fungi, but countless plants, vertebrates and invertebrates as well. There is no substitute for ancient acid grassland.
‘Ancient’ is a term used meaningfully, explicitly describing a site that has existed in its current state for centuries, and implicitly marking it as one with hundreds of years worth of ecology, of interwoven plant and fungi and animal communities that can never be recreated.” – Sarah Manning, Colchester Natural History Society
2. The Flawed Basis for Development
The development proposals, as presented by the MoD and Stantec, are fundamentally flawed. They hinge on the misconception that complex ecosystems, like those at Middlewick, can be replicated or replaced. This is not just scientifically unsound; it is ecologically irresponsible.
The process of adding sulphur to recreate acid grassland, as proposed, grossly simplifies the intricate ecological processes that have shaped Middlewick over centuries. It overlooks the site-specific conditions, including soil type, microclimate and existing biodiversity, that are critical for the survival of the unique species assemblages found here.
“I am astonished and disturbed by the claims that high quality acid grassland can be recreated on unsuitable soils elsewhere simply by adding Sulphur. I would suggest there is a basic misunderstanding of what acid grassland actually is! It is not ‘acidic’ grassland, or ‘acidified’ grassland (i.e. any grassland treated with acid to produce a lower pH).
To suggest that simply adding Sulphur can recreate an ancient soil profile, an ancient seed bank, or ancient (and isolated) plant, invertebrate and fungal communities, is one of the most controversial claims I’ve encountered during my many years working in nature conservation. It should be treated with the utmost suspicion, and expert opinion sought from bona fide grassland, plants and insect experts at Natural England and the wildlife trusts.” –  Steven Falk FRES
This is, and always was, an extraordinary claim. To reproduce ancient acid grassland – and all of the hundreds of specialist and rare invertebrates associated with this – in 5-10 years. Ploughing 100 hectares of an existing grassland ecosystem… then simply adding sulphur to the disturbed ground.
…Then expecting a ‘net gain’! As we know, extraordinary claims warrant extraordinary evidence. Evidence which, we are afraid to say, has not only fallen far short but has been exposed as woefully inadequate and misleading in a multitude of ways.
One example of perceived confirmation bias is the consultation of just a single expert, Dr Philip Putwain, in his ‘Acid Grassland Creation Strategy’ (Stantec, Appendix M). His contributions were given considerable weight by Stantec, much of their approach is predicated on his approval.
A soil scientist and not an entomologist, he mentions ‘acid grassland’ 43 times in his statement. ‘Invertebrates’ are mentioned 0 times by Dr Putwain, not a single mention.
This belies the abstract ‘landscape chemistry experiment’ approach, with a solitary focus on attempting to replicate the soil pH with sulphur. And little to no thought about the complex needs of the over 1400 invertebrate species spanning many taxa. At Middlewick in summer you can see a hive of activity. 10,000s of bees excavating their nests/burrows in exposed free-draining ground within the acid grassland and across the sandy slopes. None of this activity or diversity would be likely or possible within the ‘mitigation land’, be it 10, 20 or even 30 years later.
“Nobody has ever gone out and recreated a fully functional community. They may have altered the ground chemistry such that the plants can start to naturalise into something approaching a pastiche of the original habitat. But it is only a pastiche. Because you don’t get the rest of the wildlife there. From the microbes up to the invertebrate…” – Dr Chris Gibson FBNA
3. Grassland: Misidentified and Misunderstood
The entire northern grassland was named ‘poor semi-improved’ by Stantec, and thereby given a very low multiplier in their ‘bespoke’ Biodiversity Net Gain calculations table: 3.98x as opposed to 8.19x for neutral grassland (a value they readily gave their proposed future compensation grassland).
Expert surveyors beg to differ. The difference between A) Stantec surveys/assessments and B) Third party expert surveys/assessments who have examined Middlewick – could not be more stark.
Rather than further analyse these discrepancies, we would like to illustrate using their own words by way of example:
Northern Grassland Survey and Assessment Results: A Comparison
- Stantec Assessment = “Poor Semi-improved” (surveyed after a hay cut)
“D.1.20 The majority of the Mitigation Land to the east of the Allocation Boundary comprised poor semi-improved grassland. These grassland areas differed from the semi-improved acid grassland by the presence of red fescue rather than sheep’s fescue, and a higher proportion of coarse grasses such as false oat-grass, cock’s-foot, and Yorkshire fog. Herbaceous species were rare but include common sorrel Rumex acetosa, cat’s-ear, common bird’s-foot trefoil and yarrow. This type of grassland was also recorded to the south of the fenced ranges within the wider Mitigation Land, but to the north of the brook.” – Stantec (page 96 (131)
This is all they had to say about this expansive grassland. No mention of its inherent invertebrate value or that significant flora and fauna would likely have been missed due to the timing of the survey visits after drought and a hay cut. The Local Wildlife site citation which they list in the report’s Appendices, mentions ‘acidic influences’ within this area; this is not however referenced.
- Richard Kilshaw CIEEM Assessment = “Acid origins; nearer to MG5 Lowland meadow”
“The majority of northern grassland is much less enriched and still dominated by mixed grasses: Sweet Vernal, Red Fescue, Common Bent plus Field Woodrush, Common Sorrel, Sheep’s Sorrel, Bulbous Buttercup, Yarrow in addition to Cat’s-tail, Field Scabious, Common Knapweed, Red Clover, St Johns-worts etc; the latter group can be abundant in areas that have avoided cutting for a while.
Soil conditions overall likely to be more neutral due to accumulating organic (vegetable) material over many years and absence of any hard grazing. As well as reptiles, these parts likely to support a different suite of invertebrates, albeit with less high-profile rarities but with high value in own right on site and wider environment. No doubt of acid origins but the survey suggests nearer to MG5 Lowland meadow in parts.” – Richard Kilshaw CIEEM (January 2024)
This assessment as a valuable unploughed neutral grassland, which supports a myriad of rare/threatened invertebrates particularly spiders, was shared by EFC and CNHS recorders:
“The published masterplan proposes development in the northern part of the site. However, CNHS records show an area of this to be a key location for terrestrial invertebrates.” – [4-1] CNHS (page 3)
“…as well as the acid grassland and sand areas, the northern grassland area (described by Stantec as poor semi-improved grassland) has known high value for spiders and almost certainly other taxonomic groups.” – [3-1] Peter Harvey, Essex Field Club (page 1) (April 2021)
[We also have to remember that acid grassland – and grassland rich in invertebrates, is not necessarily very diverse botanically speaking, yet can be of enormous invertebrate diversity and associated biodiversity value. This needs to be reflected in the BNG calculations, an entire ecosystem should not be written off using an incorrect assessment and a low multiplier.]
So… why this significant discrepancy in surveys and in the evaluation of the same northern grassland?
This could be explained by the following:
“B.5.4 The walkover survey was completed within the optimal period for habitat and vegetation surveys (April to September). The tall grasslands had just been cut for hay before the survey and therefore some plant species in the grassland may have been overlooked if not identifiable from vegetative characters.” – Stantec report (page 62 (97))
The extensive Weir Lane Grasslands or proposed ‘mitigation land’ received the same treatment:
“B.10.3 The majority of the fields in the north of Birch Brook woodland were uncut at the time of the visit, however the majority of the grassland to the south of Birch Brook had been recently cut at the time of the visit, presumably for sileage.” – Stantec report (page 67 (102))
[It must be remembered that Stantec had many months/years to complete surveys. Their assessment would inevitably have very serious consequences for the future of this grassland and for the wider Middlewick Ranges; their entire proposals and BNG ‘gain’ hinge on this area being ‘poor’.]
This unfortunate timing no doubt also contributed to the misidentification of 100 hectares of Weir Lane permanent grassland with herb-rich areas and marginal acidic influences – simply as ‘arable’ or a ‘rye grass ley’. This represents a vast wildlife resource and is one of the largest bodies of grassland in Colchester District and connects Roman River SSSI to the south with Birch Brook and Middlewick Ranges to the north and the wider landscape (See Appendix 1 for photographs and Maps 1-3).
There was absolutely no evidence of widespread ‘sowing’ as a rye grass ley. However, this was Stantec’s assessment:
“I1: Arable fields managed for silage that had been cut on the day of the visit. Structurally homogenous and likely to be nectar-resource poor.” – Stantec report (page 142 (177))
“Arable (Mitigation Land)
D.1.21 The majority of the Mitigation Land to the south of the Allocation Boundary (to the south of the woodland parcel/Birch Brook) and Weir Lane further south consisted of arable land. These areas had been sown with a rye-grass ley (likely Italian rye-grass Lolium multiflorum) and supported very few forbs or herbs. Given the recent origin of the grasslands on these areas and management as a hay or silage crop (i.e. regular disturbance) it is appropriate to classify these as arable.” – Stantec report (page 97 (132))
Most qualified ecologists know that meaningful and adequate botanical surveys cannot be undertaken after cutting. Particularly when the stakes are so high. Surveys at this time become a forensic examination of plant remains, you would be lucky to identify more than 20% of grasses and flowers; and you would struggle to tell a SSSI meadow from semi-improved after mowing.
This is why we have survey guidelines, professional standards and CIEEM Codes of Conduct.
4. A Misguided Approach to Biodiversity Net Gain
The approach to Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) by Stantec for the Middlewick Ranges project, as detailed in earlier sections, is critically flawed. The primary concerns include:
- Flawed BNG Metric and Surveys: Stantec’s use of a ‘bespoke’ BNG metric, based on inadequate surveys and assessments, has led to a deeply flawed BNG table. Notably, the misidentification of habitats, such as the tall grassland in the ‘mitigation land’ and the northern Middlewick grassland, and the use of inappropriate multipliers, have resulted in a significant underestimation of the existing habitats’ value. This approach has led to an actual calculated biodiversity net loss of -31%, contradicting the requirement for a positive net gain under the Environment Act (the actual biodiversity loss would be far greater than this).
- Concerns Over Bespoke Metric and Misinformation: The flexibility in the BNG calculation, especially with a bespoke metric, raises concerns about potential manipulation. Stantec’s approach, criticised for not aligning with NPPF, fails to accurately reflect the ecological value of Middlewick Ranges. The misidentification of habitats and inflated valuation of proposed habitats cast doubt on the ecological viability and credibility of their plan.
For example, their chosen multiplier for 55 ha created acid grassland (with all of the concerns as described) is 11.4x which gives 12% net gain. Why 11.4%? On what basis?
10x would have given only 6%. 8x would have given -3%. For comparison, 11.4x is significantly higher than the 7.26x multiplier given to a large area of old acid grassland within Middlewick which was down-graded by Stantec for reasons not fully know.
- Undermining the Basis for Local Plan Inclusion: This flawed BNG approach fundamentally undermines the basis for including Middlewick in the Local Plan. The evidence suggests that the proposed development would not achieve the mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain, thereby invalidating the justification for its inclusion.
In summary, Stantec’s BNG approach for Middlewick Ranges is not only technically flawed but also fails to adhere to responsible ecological practices. The use of a bespoke metric for irreplaceable habitats like Middlewick is fundamentally irresponsible. This flawed methodology and the resulting miscalculations challenge the validity of including Middlewick in the Local Plan.
5. Disregarding the Mitigation Hierarchy
The development plan for Middlewick Ranges disregards the fundamental principle of the mitigation hierarchy, which prioritises avoiding harm to biodiversity.
The proposals leap to compensation without adequately exploring alternatives or fully understanding the site’s ecological value. This approach is not in line with contemporary conservation standards and fails to recognise the inherent value of the existing habitats and species.
This presumption ‘for development’ – the seed of which MoD/DIO appear to have planted in 2016-17 – ignores the national level value of the site as well as best practice and legal obligations regarding planning laws and environmental legislation: from NPPF and the Environment Act (now mandating a meaningful Biodiversity Net Gain) – to the pending Local Nature Recovery Strategy (LNRS).
In reiteration, Essex Wildlife Trust objects to the allocation of Middlewick Ranges LoWS for housing development. The proposals do not represent sustainable development and will result in the destruction of a large area of valuable wildlife habitat and the degradation of retained habitats; the proposals do not conform to NPPF guidelines for the protection of the environment and biodiversity; the proposals will result in unacceptable biodiversity loss and cause irreparable harm to a highly valued Local Wildlife Site.” – [2-1] Dr Annie Gordon, Essex Wildlife Trust (July 2019)
The original argument that the allocation of ‘only’ 1,000 would be the ‘least worst’ option and limit the damage of potentially more houses was always deeply misleading and presumptuous; who declared that any development on Middlewick was inevitable? The resignation to ‘inevitable’ development by a landowner keen to sell suggests a dangerous weakness in the planning process, its conditions and in the Council’s ability to enforce them.
The claim that a Local Plan guards against ‘speculative development’ is now rendered baseless. Given its documented value for both wildlife at national level and people at a local level, Middlewick Ranges is probably the worst example of speculative development you could ever wish to see.
“Where there is reason to suspect the presence of a protected species (and impact to), or Species/Habitats of Principal Importance, applications should be accompanied by an ecological survey assessing their presence and, if present, the proposal must be sensitive to, and make provision for their needs and demonstrate the mitigation hierarchy has been followed.” – [10-1] Lawyers for Nature (page 1)
6. Flaws in the Stantec Report and Local Plan Evidence Base
The Stantec report, contributing to the Local Plan Evidence Base, is lacking in rigour and is fundamentally flawed in numerous ways. It breaches best practice and professional standards both in terms of quality of surveying and reporting and appears to fall far short of CIEEM Codes of Conduct.
The report’s approach to surveys, conducted at inappropriate times of the year, fails to capture the full ecological picture of Middlewick Ranges, leading to a gross underestimation of its biodiversity value as shown above. Some species were given no consideration at all, such as Species of Importance in England: Harvest Mouse, Hedgehog and Brown Hare (the latter spotted last year).
This further delegitimises the proposals to destroy and build on Middlewick and replace using unproven methods and an illegitimate metric. Such shortcomings in the ecological assessment process not only undermine the credibility of the development proposals but also raise serious ethical concerns about the disregard for such a significant wildlife and habitats and the environmental and planning legislation which is intended to safeguard these.
“I’ve looked at the Stantec report, and one of the things that stands out is the invertebrate study which was done on one visit when it was raining. They admitted that the timing of the botany study was after hay crop had been taken off and also at the end of July; it had been such a hot spell that a lot of the vegetation had already gone over. If you’re doing botanical surveys you should be able to monitor the weather and heating up so much so that you need to get out on survey.” – Dougal Urquhart, Colchester Natural History Society
“No surveys were performed for mammal species by the Stantec study. Of the eight surveys that were done, only two were regarded as “adequate”, two were regarded as “partly adequate” and four as “inadequate”. The Midland Ecology Report concludes that the survey work (and, thus, evidence base) in respect of Dormice, Breeding Birds (especially Nightingale and Skylark), Reptiles, Amphibians and Badgers are to varying extents inadequate.
This undermines the ability to assess impacts, mitigation strategies and Biodiversity Net Gain calculations. These considerations, when combined with the admission that further assessment is necessary, demonstrates that the Stantec Report provides no justification for allocation of the site for housing development.” – [4-1] Colchester Natural History Society statement (page 2-3)
7. Impacts on Birch Brook LoWS and Roman River SSSI
The potential development of Middlewick Ranges poses significant risks to the adjacent Birch Brook Local Wildlife Site and the nearby Roman River SSSI.
Ornithologists and other experts have expressed concerns about the increased disturbance and habitat degradation that would follow the development. The proximity of the housing development would lead to an increase in human activity like recreation, noise and light pollution, which could severely impact sensitive species like the Nightingale, with 19-29 singing males recorded in this area, a very significant Essex population (see quote above from signatory Simon Wood, President of Essex Bird Watching Society).
The estimation based on UK cat ownership is for an increase in the local cat population of 289 cats (based on 17& of households with 1.7 cats). This would be a very significant increase in predation on birds, small mammals etc; and in nutrient loading/degradation from cats and even more dogs.
The ecological characteristics of Birch Brook reflect those found along the Roman River Valley, and there have been tentative signs of Dormice alongside varied flora and fauna. The ground flora mirrors ancient woodland including Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa) and three Essex Red List ferns. Development-induced pressures, such as pollution runoff from new housing and increased footfall and litter, threaten to transform Birch Brook into just another degraded urban watercourse.
This degradation would not only diminish the ecological value of Birch Brook but also potentially affect the Roman River SSSI, 1500 metres south, known for its sensitive invertebrate communities and flora. This would raise many red flags and alarm bells in the required Environmental and Ecological Impact Assessments and Habitat Regulations Assessment.
Another grave concern is the use of sulphur to create ‘acid grassland’ and the spectre of toxicity to local flora and fauna. For example, the endangered Necklace Ground Beetle (Carabus monilis), found near the mitigation area, is susceptible to this toxicity. The potential for sulphur runoff impacting both Birch Brook and the aquatic ecosystems of Roman River/Upper Colne Marshes SSSI raises serious questions. This could have far-reaching and unforeseen negative impacts on these sensitive habitats and the species they support; these have not been adequately addressed or explored.
“We are really talking about the destruction of two Local Wildlife Sites… one of the other areas of concern for me is Birch Brook which runs to the south of the Ranges. My impression of looking at Birch Brook was that it was a microcosm of the Roman River Valley SSSI.” – Sven Wair, Colchester Natural History Society
“There are quite a few springs in that area and the water table may be affected negatively. This is noticeable in newly built up areas in Rowhedge and the Hythe, where there used to be springs which feed ditches; those springs are much reduced now, especially in drought conditions. It not only reduces the amount of rain available to top up the water table, that water might also be polluted. The amount and quality of water available within the sub-catchments of Birch Brook and Roman River is likely to be reduced.” – Pam Wilson, Colchester Natural History Society
8. Fragmentation – Death by a Thousand Cuts
One justification used to reassure people worried about up to 1000 houses on Middlewick Ranges is that ‘not all of the site will be built on’. Let us use one example, a proposal to build on ‘only 40%’ whilst ‘preserving’ 60%.
This ‘partial development’ would in itself raise numerous ecological concerns that extend well beyond the simple calculation of area percentages; and touches on many ecological principles which are highly relevant to any proposals for Middlewick Ranges.
These concerns can be summarised as follows:
- Habitat fragmentation: Development would divide the habitat, causing ‘edge effects’ that alter environmental conditions, reducing habitat quality even in the preserved areas.
- Increased disturbance: Proximity to human activity and cats/dogs, especially from a new development, will disturb/predate wildlife, regardless of the percentage of habitat preserved.
- Pollution and light impact: The development would introduce pollution and artificial lighting, disrupting ecological balance and potentially harming sensitive species.
- Reduced ecological resilience: Smaller, fragmented habitats are less able to withstand environmental changes and recover from disturbances, especially in a Climate Crisis.
- Habitat mosaics and specialist needs: Species such as Badgers, Nightingales and Adders require large, undisturbed habitats, forming part of a crucial habitat mosaic. Development disrupts this intricate balance, diminishing the area’s ecological value and making it unsuitable for species dependent on diverse habitat structures.
- Invertebrate habitat needs: The diverse invertebrate population at Middlewick has similarly complex habitat requirements, including nesting, foraging, and overwintering sites. Disturbing any of these can render the habitat unsuitable and unviable to sustain these species.
- Disproportionate biodiversity loss: The loss of biodiversity is not proportional to the footprint of the development. A small area of development can have a large negative impact on the ecosystem.
- Cumulative ecological effects: The overall impact of development is cumulative, encompassing habitat loss, fragmentation, disturbance, and environmental changes.
- Risk of future development: Partial development opens the door to future incremental development, further degrading and potentially leading to the loss of the remaining habitat.
“These points underline that retention of a portion of Middlewick Ranges does not guarantee the maintenance of its ecological integrity or the survival of its diverse species. It highlights the importance of protecting entire habitats and ecosystems to prevent incremental losses and protect biodiversity.
“When the Government purchased the 167 acres of Middlewick Farm in 1857, to create a training area and firing range, Colchester and its surrounding area was rich in heathland and acid grassland.
Today, most of this has gone, leaving the ranges as an important and significant survivor of a once widespread habitat… it soon became apparent that the flora and fauna, particularly the invertebrate assemblage, was of national importance. This opinion was shared by other conservation bodies including Essex Field Club, Essex Wildlife Trust and Colchester Natural History Society.” – Jeremy Bowdrey, Colchester Natural History Society
9. The Approach to Protected Species and their Translocation
Translocating protected species, especially in a large-scale project like Middlewick Ranges, is in principle and in practice questionable and is an increasingly controversial approach to species conservation and mitigation. The concept that an entire ecosystem and population of animals can simply be moved. The reality: this is not backed by any substantial evidence, science or successful case studies, in particular at this vast scale.
“The study found no confirmatory evidence that mitigation-driven translocations are compensating for the losses of populations to development.” – Nash et al (2020)
Reptiles, for example, would be losing over 60 hectares of habitat at Middlewick and roughly 100 hectares of tall grassland at Weir Lane, the proposed ‘mitigation land’ which would be ploughed and spread with sulphur. It would be one of the largest single losses of reptile habitats in Essex.
The answer to the crucial question… ‘where will they go?’ has been left hanging in the Stantec report.
Here we briefly highlight the shortcomings of this ‘movable’ and ‘replaceable’ approach to legally protected species and the logistical challenge (or nightmare) of attempting this. The majority of animals who are ‘not on the list’ are given short shrift and would simply be killed or displaced.
- Habitat readiness time-scale: Creating complex habitats required suitable habitats for translocation can take years or decades, during which species will struggle to survive.
- Inadequate surveys: Comprehensive surveys are essential to understand species’ needs, and insufficient surveying increases the risk of overlooking critical habitat requirements.
- Legislative challenges: Each species is governed by specific legislation, making mitigation strategies complex and time-consuming.
- Invertebrate translocation issues: Invertebrates have specific ecological requirements, and cannot be easily translocated for obvious reasons; making their protection and translocation particularly challenging.
- Concerns for mammalian species: Mammals, especially those requiring large territories like Badgers, complicate mitigation plans due to their specific ecological needs.
For the 3-4 species of reptile alone the scale and structural complexity of habitat impacted is just one example of a broader conclusion. The impacts are, in our professional opinion, unmitigatable.
There would be ripple effects on wildlife within wider South Colchester; and fewer garden birds.
Stantec’s attempt to justify the lack of surveys of many legally protected species by stating their presence would not affect the ultimate allocation of housing on the site; ‘not a material consideration’.
However, at this large and complex scale, the value of a population of Great Crested Newts, Common Lizards or Adders for example (all of which have been recorded on or near Middlewick) could be of significant District or County importance. Very much a material consideration.
Here is one example of Stantec’s lack of consideration of the implications, for example, of a notable Adder or Common Lizard population (as they conceded in their report, Adder have been reported and the habitat is ideal; and they are not common or widespread in Essex!):
“A reptile survey has not been completed as this is not required for this stage of the project (i.e. Allocation), as the presence of the UKs common and widespread reptile species within the Allocation Boundary does not affect consideration of the acceptability of development at Middlewick Ranges.” – Stantec report (page 28 (34))
Development would of course not only affect (and kill or injure) many individuals within the work footprint – but threaten the viability of local populations which rely on habitat connectivity and continuity, and to avoid the genetic risks of ‘island’ populations. We are back to fragmentation, isolation and ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
“The translocation of reptiles from development sites is a frequent but controversial intervention to resolve reptile-development conflicts. A general lack of post-translocation monitoring means that the fate of translocated reptiles is largely unknown. The study found no confirmatory evidence that mitigation-driven translocations are compensating for the losses of populations to development.”
– Nash, D. J., Humphries, N. and Griffiths, R. A. (2020) Effectiveness of translocation in mitigating reptile-development conflict in the UK. Conservation Evidence 17 -7-11.
10. The Problem with Planning Conditions
“Don’t worry… wildlife is covered in stringent and rigorous planning conditions!” So sounds the attempted reassurance that the Inspector’s many planning conditions will address concerns and objections, such as those addressed here. However, reliance on planning conditions to address Middlewick Ranges’ development issues is inherently flawed – as we feel has been convincingly shown here and elsewhere.
These conditions are inadequate for preventing irreversible ecological damage due to irreplaceable habitats alongside fragmentation and loss. Planning conditions often fail to comprehensively tackle ecological impacts and are not reliably enforceable, leading to insufficient protection for rare and specialist species and fragmented habitats.
This has happened time and again; the ambitious plans for ‘wildflower meadow creation’ promoted by the developer with impressive looking visualisations. Only to be met by a field of nettles and thistles 10 years later. There are many examples of this in Colchester and all other UK towns and cities.
If conditions remain as the ‘solution’ to the intractable problem of Middlewick, two scenarios emerge.
- conditions are adequate and properly applied making development impossible; OR
- conditions are insufficient or not adequately applied leading to sever impacts/loss.
A reliance on planning conditions overlooks the fundamental ecological principles that these species and habitats cannot be uprooted and replaced; and risks legal challenges and public opposition.
11. The Legal and Ethical Imperative
With new and emerging environmental legislation, such as the Environment Act and the Local Nature Recovery Strategy, it is imperative that planning decisions are aligned with these frameworks.
The ways in which NPPF policies and statutory obligations have been ignored or breached have been shouted from the roof-tops since 2019 by a chorus of nature organisations and lawyers, most notably: Natural England, Essex Wildlife Trust, Essex Field Club, Colchester Natural History Society and Lawyers for Nature. See documents , , ,  and .
Building on the biggest and best Local Wildlife Sites is not normally advised or consistent with NPPF.
The proposed development of Middlewick Ranges under the Local Plan is not only ecologically unviable and unjustifiable but is also likely in conflict with existing/emerging legal requirements.
The conservation and protection of Middlewick Ranges is not just an ecological necessity; it is a legal and ethical imperative. In particular in a Nature Emergency and Climate Crisis, the carbon footprint alone – and the opportunity costs of the loss of a site like Middlewick would be astronomical.
The sheer scale and loss of species – and individual wild animals – is simply unthinkable and unjustifiable, these are not pieces on a chess board. Colchester City Council has officially recognised the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis. We feel it is time these words and sentiments are backed by credible, well-informed action.
The apparent disregard by those who stand to gain most from this development of due process and wildlife should also not be ignored. From a misleading evidence base, a lack of transparency, cherry-picking of experts, the presumption for development, the veiled threats of ‘2000 houses’ and the false premise of a ‘least worst’ option. And the mis-representation of respected nature organisations: i) using RSPBs name and Minsmere case study to attempt to legitimise the destruction of this valuable site (strongly refuted by RSPB) and ii) citing ‘Essex Wildlife Trust’ as if they were properly listened to:
“We also met early on in the process with Essex Wildlife Trust to inform them of our proposals and seek advice from them on the technical work required.” – JLL Local Plan Evidence Base (Dec 2020)
Deception by omission, JLL/DIO failed to state that EWT have been strongly opposed since 2017.
Lawford Tye Planning Precedent
We would like to draw your attention to the local planning precedent set by the Lawford Tye case study and proposed development. This was dismissed by the Inspector because the planning application had relied too heavily on the report and assessment of the developer’s commercial ecological consultancy. Data from local naturalists was disregarded; and in part for this reason (and the presence of the Lunar Yellow Underwing moth!) the site has been saved from development.
See Middlewick Objections Section 13 and papers [13-1] and [13-2] (http://bit.ly/middlewickranges).
“The Lawford site sets a legal precedent. Even if you get a report and a veneer of legitimacy saying you can compensate, if the local naturalists and data contradicts that, the fact that you have this report is not a legal basis. They have an obligation to consider all of the available data and science. Flagship species like the Lunar Yellow Underwing – and numerous similarly rare and threatened invertebrates at Middlewick – can play an important role. This raises legal and financial questions for the council and any prospective buyer. An investment can be lost.”
A Future Site of Special Scientific Interest?
Also, there is an elephant in the room… or the grassland. Most entomologists/naturalists who have studied the data believe Middlewick Ranges is a ‘shoe-in’ as a SSSI! In 2021 there were five invertebrate assemblages in ‘favourable SSSI condition’, and Natural England were very interested; now there are eight! Many believe it is simply a matter of time, and Natural England ‘reserve the right’ to intervene if the site is not protected by other means.
A SSSI designation would of course make development untenable; but this is somewhat academic. The site is of county and national value and must be protected – irrespective of its designation.
“Natural England’s Chief Scientist Directorate invertebrate specialist has now looked at these 2021 data and states the site has merit in being considered as an extension of the existing SSSI, with the presence of scientifically interesting free-draining and impeded drainage assemblages, which are stronger in these assemblages than the recently notified Basildon ridge SSSI, as well as a good spread of 8 S41 Priority Species in the list.” – [3-3] Peter Harvey, Essex Field Club (Nov 2021)
This letter, representing the collective voice of Essex naturalists and those who cherish Middlewick, stands as a testament to our commitment to protect this vital green space. We believe the evidence presented makes an overwhelming case against the inclusion of Middlewick Ranges in the Local Plan. It is our strong hope that Colchester City Council will take decisive action, recognising that the current development proposals would likely be further exposed and fail under rigorous examination.
We find ourselves at a critical juncture, with Middlewick Ranges still under threat and its fate hanging in the balance. It is imperative that we, alongside esteemed Councillors and Officers, work together to prevent the sale of this land to developers and the escalation of this issue. This letter, supplemented by comprehensive documentation from the Friends of Middlewick Ranges group, bridges the information gap which has led us down this path – and emphasises the substantial and irrefutable evidence and objections that have emerged.
Informed decision-making is crucial in this context. The initial decision to include Middlewick in the Local Plan, shown to be based on incomplete information, must be re-evaluated in light of the new and existing evidence. This is a pivotal moment to act decisively and preserve Middlewick Ranges as a public green space, nature reserve or country park. Inaction risks further delays and complications.
The image of trucks laden with sulphur and bulldozers driving through the heart of Colchester onto Middlewick and the surrounding green spaces… a very visible ecological catastrophe. It would also set an incredibly dangerous national planning precedent, an open invitation for developers to try their luck on a valuable wildlife site and posit experimental methods to replace irreplaceable habitats.
The strength of feeling within South Colchester is difficult to convey; the 4600+ people who signed the petition in favour of a country park; the 3000+ people belonging to the ‘Save the Middlewick Ranges’ FaceBook group; the previous demonstrations at the Town Hall; the residents who use and value this local and county treasure. They should not be ignored or taken for granted.
As we stand in 2024, it is clear that Middlewick’s unique history and ecological importance should not be sacrificed to misinformation, commercial interests and development. The era of poor urban planning and unregulated development that compromises essential ecological and community spaces must be left behind. We urge a reversal of Middlewick’s inclusion in the Local Plan, based on the robust evidence now presented.
“The main thing I wanted to say was really to argue that Middlewick is irreplaceable. It is irreplaceable for three reasons:
- It’s a much-loved amenity space for citizens. That’s the explanation for why more than a thousand people objected to the proposal for it to have houses built on it. It’s part of their lives. Part of their memories and it goes back generations, which brings me to the second reason why it is irreplaceable;
- It represents a very long association between Colchester and Colchester Garrison. So, it has that link with the military for all those years; in fact I checked it out today, since the barracks were put in Colchester during the Crimean War. So, this has been under Ministry of Defence management for something like 150 or 170 years. That’s important not just because it is a significant part of Colchester’s identity, but it’s also important – this is the third reason;
- Because that continuous management of the habitat, this large piece of land, is a reason why it has such a rich and complex biodiversity.
And that is a key reason why the mitigation proposed by Stantec is completely inappropriate.
Because that cannot be recreated. Something that has been managed in a suitable sensible way for more than a 150 years; you cannot replace the complexity of the wildlife, the soil bacteria and fungi, and everything else within that brief period of time. It should never have been in the Local Plan. The reason it was I think is because the Council at that time was I think radically misled.”
– Professor Ted Benton FRES FBNA (Colchester Natural History Society)
Before we leave you with our introductions – and some rather spectacular photographs (and illustrative maps below) – we would like to pose eight questions, based on all of the above.
Vital questions which emerge from all of the many concerns and objections which have been raised since these proposals were first put on the table (without much notice to properly scrutinise!).
We feel within these questions also lie some constructive answers and solutions. We look forward to your response to these questions and to the new and existing evidence presented.
- Justifying Inclusion Despite Ecological Value (two related questions):
“Considering the Essex acid grassland review showing Middlewick comprises over 10% of Essex’s acid grassland and the county’s largest continuous area of this habitat, combined with concerns for rare invertebrate species and biodiversity loss, how can the Council justify maintaining Middlewick in the Local Plan in light of this catastrophic ecological impact?”
[Our strong scientific consensus is that compensation is not realistic or achievable.]
“In light of the significant ecological value of Weir Lane Grassland as a wildlife corridor and the objections about Birch Brook LoWS’s vulnerability to development impacts, how does the Council plan to rectify these oversights and ensure the preservation of these crucial habitats within the Local Plan?”
- Feasibility of Safeguarding Biodiversity:
“In view of Middlewick Ranges’ complex and unique ecological makeup, is it realistic to expect that imposed planning conditions can effectively safeguard its biodiversity, especially considering poor outcomes within historical precedents?”
[In response to Q1 and 2, our consensus opinion is that the impacts cannot be mitigated]
- Reconciling Development with Conservation Principles:
“Considering the legal and ethical implications, how does the Council reconcile the proposed development with the principles of biodiversity conservation as mandated by national environmental legislation such as NPPF and the Environment Act?”
- Mitigation Strategies vs. Ecological Realities:
“How does the Council plan to address the widening disconnect between the proposed mitigation strategies and the practical realities of preserving Middlewick Ranges’ irreplaceable ecological patchwork?”
- Adherence to Environmental Legislation:
“How will the council address the potential legal conflicts arising from the development of Middlewick Ranges, especially considering the requirements of the Environment Act and the upcoming Local Nature Recovery Strategy?”
- Revisiting the Local Plan Inclusion Criteria:
“If the council had been fully aware of the ecological significance of Middlewick Ranges at the time of its initial inclusion in the Local Plan, would the decision have been different?”
- Transparency and Stakeholder Engagement:
“Has the Council ensured transparent communication with all stakeholders in particular JLL and DIO, providing the opportunity to inform potential buyers about the significant ecological value and likely legal challenges associated with the development of Middlewick Ranges?”
- Green and Blue Spaces Consultation: Amenity Value and Community Use:
“How does the Council plan to incorporate Middlewick Ranges’ clear community use and value as a vital public amenity into its planning decisions, and how will it ensure that the burden of proof for demonstrating this space’s value rests appropriately, rather than unfairly on the public?”
“In light of the Green and Blue Spaces consultation, what measures will the Council take to reassess the amenity value of Middlewick Ranges, to reflect its significance for the community’s well-being and to balance these factors against the pressures for development?”
We respectfully seek direct and transparent answers to these questions, emphasising the need for collaborative and open dialogue. This approach is crucial for those who have tirelessly championed Middlewick Ranges’ conservation, often facing vague and automated responses. Transparent and honest communication is now paramount to resolve this long-standing issue effectively.
We trust Colchester City Council will value the ecological and community significance of Middlewick Ranges and join us in pursuing a sustainable and respectful resolution that honours commitments to the Nature Emergency and Climate Crisis. Your prompt attention to this matter and willingness to engage in further discussions is we feel vital and in the interested of all involved – and for a positive outcome that safeguards Middlewick Ranges for future generations.
Dr Ken Adams, Dr Edward Barratt, Jeremy Bowdrey, Prof Ted Benton FRES FBNA, Steven Falk FRES, Dr Tim Gardiner FBNA, Dr Chris Gibson FBNA, Dr (Hons) Peter Harvey, Jamie Robins (representing Buglife), Richard Kilshaw CIEEM, Sarah Manning, Colin Plant FRES FBNA, Rob Smith, Sven Wair, Dr Pam Wilson, Simon Wood and Dougal Urquhart.
Link to shared folder (Google Drive) containing evidence/resources: http://bit.ly/middlewickranges
Key Resources (amongst others):
A) ‘30 PILLARS’ – THE CASE FOR REMOVING MIDDLEWICK FROM THE LP
Comprehensive analysis of the 30 foundational claims of the development proposal, each critically examined and found wanting on scientific grounds. This document further reinforces the urgent need for a re-evaluation of the proposed plan.
B) MIDDLEWICK OBJECTIONS 1 – Summary of Representations to CCC wrt LP (2019-2023).pdf’
An overview of the key statements and submissions of objections to Middlewick’s place in the Local Plan, from many respected nature organisations and experts.
C) MIDDLEWICK OBJECTIONS 2 – Have Your Say Speeches wrt CCC Local Plan (21-12-23).pdf’
Speeches made during the Council’s Have Your Say sessions, including the Local Planning Committee and the Environmental and Sustainability Panel, advocating for Middlewick.
5. INTRODUCING THE 17 SIGNATORIES
The above letter to Colchester City Council regarding Middlewick Ranges is endorsed by a distinguished group of 17 eminent naturalists and conservationists, each bringing a wealth of expertise in environmental and ecological fields. This collective of respected experts includes academics, researchers, conservationists and policy advisors, offering a comprehensive perspective on the ecological, environmental, and socio-economic aspects of the Middlewick Ranges situation. Their diverse experience ensures a well-rounded understanding of the complex issues at stake.
In addition to their professional qualifications, these naturalists are deeply committed to advocacy and community engagement. They actively participate in raising public awareness about environmental conservation and are involved in various educational initiatives. This collaborative effort among experts from different disciplines underscores the need for a holistic approach to environmental planning, emphasising the importance of informed and sustainable decision-making.
Their collective voice adds significant credibility and urgency to the campaign for the preservation of Middlewick Ranges, exemplifying the crucial role of expert guidance in responsible environmental stewardship.