Campaigners have criticised plans to develop two mega-prisons on the site of a rare bird and amphibian habitat in England.
The government has been accused of reneging on commitments in the Environment Act to stop the decline of wildlife by proposing the development on the old Wethersfield airfield, which has become an important space for nature near Braintree, Essex.
Seventy-four species of birds, many red-listed, nest nearby and the area comprises 75,000 trees and shrubs. The site also includes ancient woodland, as well as great crested newts and rare orchids. Red-listed birds on the site include turtle doves, lapwings and grey partridge.
Rosie Pearson, a planning and environmental campaigner, said she hoped a local campaign would force the plans to be scrapped and allow the area to be rewilded instead.
She said: “Already seven parish councils have come together to create a network, and a community action group has been created. It’s called Swap: Stop Wethersfield Airfield Prisons.
“We are in the process of appointing experts to assist in the campaign, and we are working on a better alternative – to see the land sold to a rewilding buyer. We would love to see the site protected. There is a farm adjoining the airfield which has been bought recently for rewilding.”
Pearson is convening a group of locals, including landowners, to develop and present an alternative plan for the site that would protect the wild areas from construction.
Building work on the Wethersfield site could begin in 2023 if the proposals are approved. The government is reviewing responses to a consultation of residents conducted last month.
The council is backing the plans because of the funding and jobs it could bring to the area. The prison complex will include two 1,750-inmate prisons and 1,000 parking spaces.
The environment minister Victoria Prentis praised the idea, and said in the planning document: “As part of our work to drive down crime, we have committed to creating 18,000 additional prison places by the mid-2020s. We believe that, following detailed feasibility work, land next to Wethersfield airbase would be a good location for two new prisons as part of the prison estates strategy.
“Our plans, if successful, would bring many benefits to the local community, such as hundreds of jobs during construction, careers within the prison sector and an increased spend in local businesses.”
But nature charities say by backing such plans, the government is reneging on its promise to protect wildlife.
Emma Marsh, the RSPB’s director for England, said: “We cannot keep pushing nature into smaller and smaller spaces and demand it fits in with our plans. Across England our wildlife is disappearing and wild spaces that are providing a refuge for our rarest species during the nature and climate emergency are under threat.
“Our leaders in Westminster championed the Environment Act for delivering the world’s first legally binding targets for halting the decline of wildlife, and yet only a few weeks after being granted royal assent we now need to see nature included in all decision making, including planning, especially when compensation land could take a decade or longer to replace what has been lost under concrete.”
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says the development will protect local wildlife. A spokesperson added: “The landscape design strategy for the new prisons seeks as a primary objective to protect local wildlife, plants and trees as much as possible.
“A lot of care has been taken to understand the existing context of the site, through research, surveys and assessment, to respect the existing rural setting. The layout of the prisons have been designed conscientiously, to ensure that there will be minimal impact to the existing green infrastructure.”
The local MP, James Cleverly, refused to disclose whether he would support the plans. He told the Guardian: “I have spoken with MoJ ministers, elected members and officials at Braintree district council and local people about the pros and cons of these proposals. This is still at the very earliest stages, and no formal planning application has been submitted. I will continue to engage with local residents and local representatives.”