From military base to ‘green town’

Being asked to incorporate biodiversity into a new development is challenging enough, but imagine being asked to help transform a former military base into a ‘green town’ that will become home to 22,000 people by 2030.

That’s precisely the challenge set by East Hampshire District Council and the Whitehill and Bordon Regeneration Company to consultants EPR, which has been working on plans to turn the former military garrison into a healthy and eco-friendly place to live.

The British Army left Whitehill and Bordon in December 2015 and moved to a new base at Lyneham in Wiltshire. The move has freed up over 100 hectares, presenting a unique ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to transform the town.

Speaking to Environment Journal, EPR’s managing director, Ben Kite, says they were attracted to the project because it was an opportunity to ‘use the power of planning to deliver biodiversity benefits’.

‘I think what has failed about the nature conservation agenda in the past is that often the approach taken has been to fence off and protect green spaces, and keep them away from people,’ says Mr Kite.

‘We think that’s quite detrimental, because [it means] people don’t then have access to green spaces and don’t value them,’ he added. ‘It does not set up good future stewardship.

‘If people can see wonderful wildlife from their doorstep, they will take care of it. It can be used as a place enhancer as well, so it’s a more desirable thriving place for people to live.’

Life after the retreat

The £1bn redevelopment project will run for 15 years and plans include new homes, shops and crucially 150 hectares of ‘suitable natural green spaces’ (SANGs).

Mr Kite says being a former military base has ‘helped and hindered’ their plans.

‘I think the motivation for the whole project was that the council was worried with the departure of the military, the town’s economy would suffer and that something had to be done to offset that impact,’ he tells Environment Journal.

‘It also made a great deal of land suddenly available for things to happen. It was a very complex. There were all sorts of existing features, like barrack buildings, modern military style properties and a great hinterland of a training estate.

‘The challenge was to identify where there was an existing ecological interest that could benefit from being managed in a certain way, and to make sure that was written into the proposal.

‘The green town comes with a suite of SANG areas, which will be in effect large country parks, which residents will have access to and will be managed in a way that specifically aims to enhance their biodiversity.’

The consultancy undertook various pieces of work, including an in a Habitats Regulations Assessment, and the implementation of ecological mitigation and enhancement strategies to protect wildlife, including badgers, bats, reptiles and nesting birds.

Mr Kite adds that they also had to take into account the designated nature conservation sites, which surround the town, including one with sensitive birds, who can be easily disturbed by people.

‘Part of the plan was to design a big new country park in the centre of the town and make it as attractive to dog walkers and recreational visitors as possible,’ he explains.

‘But then you drill down on the ecologicial interest of the site itself. You find there are some uncommon plants here, which are not in a good condition and trying to figure out what all the plants need and make sure that also gets written into management plans.

‘It is really about understanding the context first and then designing a plan, which responds to that and aims to maximise the benefits.

‘It’s ecologically-led, rather than attempting to design a scheme and try impose it on the landscape, if that makes sense.’

‘More interesting landscape’

He highlights the example of another piece of land in Whitehill and Bordon, which ‘back in the mists of time’ was mostly heathland.

‘In more recent decades, it was all ripped up and turned into a commercial forestry plantation and used for military training as well,’ he explains.

There are some relic patches of heathland there from its past life, which we can resuscitate. Part of the management for that SANG will involve gradually removing the timber crop and restoring the heathland and common land, which would have been there before.

‘Hopefully, that will have benefits to both the wildlife and the people who go there, so they will have a more interesting landscape to enjoy.’

Mr Kite says EPR also successfully obtained three bat licenses to enable existing buildings with bat roosts to be demolished. The consultancy has made provisions for some of the buildings to have large and small bat roosts.

There will be hibernation roosts in the country parks and lots of the new buildings will have bird boxes in a bid to encourage wildlife in the new town.

‘Ecology is just one of a number of competing interests that make up sustainable development,’ adds Mr Kite.

‘We might come up with an initial plan, but find it might not be the best way of accommodating another interest, like sustainable transport. There’s a need not to be disheartened by the fact that it your aspirations might need to evolve over time as the project progresses. That’s part of a healthy iteration of project design.

He adds: ‘Sometimes, ecology is portrayed as being a peripheral issue. I don’t really agree with that, because it provides huge benefits for people, as well as wildlife.

‘Biodiversity is a mechanism, which provides us with clean water, air and pharmaceuticals. People who live near green spaces are less likely to be obese, have Type 2 diabetes or have certain mental health conditions. So being able to build high-quality green infrastructure is essential to place-making. It’s not just about making sure bats and badgers are looked after, it’s a much wider agenda.’

Photo by East Hampshire District Council

Jamie Hailstone

Jamie Hailstone

journalist

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