By Rich Lehmann
On the afternoon of 2nd May, I headed off to Conyer with my wife, Bea. It was the first time I'd driven a car for seven weeks (most of which had been during the most intense part of of the Covid-19 lockdown) and I was in need of some escape.
We had been due to travel to a gig at a secret location in East Sussex that week to see musicians perform alongside nightingales deep in the woods after dark, but in April it was confirmed that the gig wouldn't be going ahead. Still keen to hear live nightingales, we headed to the former Conyer Brickworks site on the advice of a friend who had told us that it was a reliable place to find them. I was feeling pretty stressed at the time as Covid-19 had had a huge impact on my income. I'm a professional wedding photographer, and I hadn't been able to do any work during what should have been some of the busiest months of the year.
A comparison of the original and current proposals for development. The new proposal increases the area of unique habitat lost by more than double the area of the original plan.
We parked near the Ship pub in Conyer and headed up the road to the site. Within seconds of walking through a gap in some hawthorn trees and into the site we heard the distinctive call of a cuckoo in the distance, and, incredibly, just a few seconds later we heard a nightingale singing too. We circled the area and laid down on the grass in a small clearing where we were treated to a chorus of nightingale song for two hours. Two hours in which I was
able to fully reconnect with nature and experience a calmness I hadn't felt all year.
It's incredible just how much nature has been able to reclaim a site that was an active brickworks less than 40 years ago. Before leaving, we also heard turtle doves, the third critically endangered bird species we'd listened to that afternoon.
On the way home I had a sinking feeling that a place that special wouldn't be safe from the clutches of developers unless it was protected in some way. Online investigations revealed that although parts of the site are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Ramsar (internationally important wetland), the top part of the site, which is now home to a thriving nightingale population (and possibly one of the most important nightingale breeding sites in the country), was not protected in any way.
On the Swale Borough Council website I found a planning application from 2007. The application was refused in 2009 by the council, but sadly overturned on appeal in 2011 by the Planning Inspectorate. A new application had then been submitted in 2019 but appeared to be dormant. I emailed one of our local Green councillors to see if they could give me any further information on either of the applications. They replied to let me know that the original application was still active as work had been “commenced” (although you'd be hard pushed to find evidence of this at the site).
It seemed the developers were now pushing for a much larger gated development of 24 detached houses of four to six bedrooms, whereas the 2007 application had been for a mix of detached and semi-detached, three- to four-bedroom houses. The new site would also take up more than double the area of the original application, encroaching far more heavily on to the unique habitat that is home to a diverse array of incredible and rare wildlife. On top of this, the original application had made provision for the rest of the former brickworks site to be maintained and managed as a wildlife reserve, but the new application seemed to have replaced this valuable piece of mitigation with a birdwatching tower. What's the point in having a birdwatching tower next to a housing development that has scared away most of the birds?!
The proposed birdwatching tower, if any birds remain after the new development has scared them all away.
In addition to the above, the new application is flawed in many other ways:
It does nothing to address the housing shortage. The homes from the original application would have been expensive, but the new proposal's larger, detached homes would be unaffordable to almost anyone living and working in Swale. The majority of the houses would almost certainly be bought by families from outside the area.
It does nothing to address the additional strain the new houses would put on the roads to and through Conyer (a village that has a pub but no shops or schools).
It makes a transparent, failed attempt at being ecologically friendly by suggesting that the local bus could travel up the narrow road to the gated development three times a day, as if the people living in £500k houses are likely to be frequent bus users (and if they were they could easily walk 400 metres down the road to the existing bus route).
Its solution to the increasingly frequent flooding in Conyer is to build some of the houses with ground floors well above ground level. This solution means that the three-storey houses are, in reality, closer to four storeys tall, so will cast an imposing presence (and light pollution) over the rest of the site.
And this is all before looking at the issues of the hazardous waste that needs removing from the site and that (according to at least one objection) the water table is just one metre below ground level at certain points on the site.
I started an awareness-raising campaign with members of our local Green party, which helped to increase the number of public objections to the development from less than 100 to nearly 250 during June and July. As of late August, the developers have done nothing to address their concerns, or the ones raised in objections from the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Kent Wildlife Trust, the Kent Ornithological Society and Natural England.
The application is awaiting a decision from Swale Borough Council.
Rich Lehmann is the Green party candidate for Swale East KCC in the next election. If you would like to contact him regarding the application please email email@example.com
His wife, Bea Lehmann, wrote the poem The Brickworks as part of her objection to the planning application.
By Bea Lehmann
I found a place -
a hopeful place
a place of concrete
slowly folding into
the soft belly of Mother.
Forty years abandoned
the former brickworks now
relaxing; opening to probing
roots of butterfly bush.
Fissures filled with fallen leaves;
the seasons' soils
invite the hawthorn pips
and sloes to grow, and so
a new haven takes shape.
I think of all the fields and forests
to the west, now lost under
bricks fired here
and smile at Nature's justice.
At how She beckoned the nightingale to stay
and paint the night with his
golden song from the may trees as they
shimmer blue-white in the moonlight;
bridal, virginal and heady-scented
with sweet nectar
and promises of crimson fruit
to stain the blackbird's yellow bill.
I sat one night on the golden moss
and drank in his honeyed song
under the fullest moon -
before I knew.
Before I knew this hopeful place
is worth too much to those
who put a price on the priceless;
who've never sat and
surrendered their soul
to the starry sky and nightingale song
and to tales once told by ancestors gone.
This scrub will be scrubbed out by
yellow metal machines
that will shake nests from
hawthorns so easily torn;
four decades of wilding undone.
And when he returns next spring
to lure a mate and make new kin,
from Africa to this spot in Conyer,
Where will the Nightingale sing?
Where will he sing?