Birdwatcher MP Eric Pickles will not vote on ex-MoD site Lodge Hill - home to Britain’s biggest nightingale population

Eric Pickles is often to be seen down at the RSPB’s Rainham Marshes nature reserve in Kent

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Indy Politics

When politicians have to keep out of decisions because of potential conflicts of interest, it is usually financial investments or business relationships that are the cause of the problem. For Eric Pickles, it is his passion for ornithology.

The Communities and Local Government Secretary is standing aside from a decision on whether to build on the home of Britain’s biggest nightingale population because his love of birds may bias the outcome.

Earlier this month, Medway Council in Kent controversially approved proposals to redevelop a 325-hectare piece of land at Lodge Hill into 5,000 homes, shops, offices and community spaces. The decision to waive through development of the former Ministry of Defence site was condemned by conservationists because it is the most important nightingale habitat in Britain, where the species has declined by more than 90 per cent in the past 40 years.

Furthermore, because the development is on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the application is being seen as a test case that would set a precedent for future such proposals.

There are 4,100 wildlife-rich SSSI sites in England, covering about 7 per cent of the land and the government afforded these areas special protections in its planning policy overhaul last year.

Medway’s decision has met with such an outcry that Mr Pickles Department for Communities and Local Government is being forced to consider overturning it – without input from the man himself.

“Given the Secretary of State’s membership of the RSPB, the quasi-judicial decision will be made by a different planning minister in line with standard proprietary guidance,” a department spokesman said, confimring he will have no involvement at any step in the process.

The impending decision follows George Osborne’s reported complaint last year about “feathered obstacles to development”.

Mr Pickles has a well-documented interest in ornithology and is often to be seen down at the RSPB’s Rainham Marshes nature reserve on the north of the Thames.

He is the latest in a long line of – mostly Conservative – ministerial bird-enthusiasts, the RSPB said, which includes Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Norman Lamont.

Further back, the list includes Sir Alec Douglas-Hume and Viscount Grey of Fallowden, the Liberal foreign secretary at the outbreak of the First World War.