Natural History Museum wildlife garden redesign wins planning battle

Planning officers have overwhelmingly backed the re-landscaping of the Natural History Museum in London, despite the potential it holds for damaging parts of a much-loved Wildlife Garden.

Image: Pictureplane
Image: Pictureplane

At a meeting of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council, 11 members voted in favour of the development, with only one against. The vote gives the Natural History Museum the go-ahead to begin redeveloping its building and grounds.

Landscape architect Kim Wilkie is behind the outdoor redesign, which will see gardens extending around all four sides of the building and museum and educational themes brought into the outside space. These include a new green square and a geological timeline filled with ancient plants like ferns and cycads. A bronze cast of Dippy, the museum’s diplodocus sculpture, will be installed in the garden.

Museum spokesman Murray McKay said the organisation is now moving on to fundraising and finding the right suppliers and experts for the job.

"We’re likely phasing the scheme in three parts, with the central part being done first as it coincides with when we will close the doors to Hintze Hall to swap over our Diplodocus with a blue whale skeleton in spring/summer 2017.

"We’re undecided as to whether the eastern or western parts of the scheme will proceed next. The western part of the scheme features the current Wildlife Garden and we’ll soon be beginning to consider in very close detail the translocation strategy for that area. The sooner we catalogue and consider seasonally-sensitive flora and fauna the less likelihood we will have to wait an entire year to capture them at their optimal conditions again.

The museum is already looking at providers of ferns and cycads for the eastern "walk through time" area of the garden, and plans to partner with conservation and natural history societies to work on the activity areas to the west.

While most of the landscape aspects have met with the approval of the public, there were strong objections to plans to redesign the wildlife garden due to expected loss of habitat.

Planners said existing wildlife would be displaced by the move but in theory the new landscaping will allow the wildlife to reestablish within the site. In their report to councillors they said the loss of biodiversity habitat would not usually be acceptable but in this case would be outweighed by the other long-term benefits of the changes.

Councillors voted for the move on condition that a qualified ecologist writes a detailed translocation plan and ecological monitoring plan which are submitted prior to the move.

The Wildlife Gardening Forum had fought hard against the plans to move the wildlife garden, although it was in favour of other aspects of the landscaping. It launched a petition signed by more than 40,000 people opposing the plans.

Forum chairman Stephen Head said the group will not be appealing the decision as it lacks the resources. But now that the plans have been approved the group is unlikely to be offering advice on how best to translocate any plants or habitat, he said.

"Because we have opposed it considerably - we’ve already pissed them off - I suspect the last thing they will want to do is get input from us. It’s hard to see what we could usefully do." Head added that translocation usually is ineffective, but is "the last resort of avaricious developers".

Head describes the garden as a "recreation in small scale of lowland British habitat".

"It’s always been called the Wildlife Garden, which makes people think they’re replacing one thing with another, with muffled protests about making a fuss, they say they’re increasing the areas of biodiversity - but actually they’re eliminating almost completely the bit which can be managed for biodiversity, replacing it with something they can show stuff off to the public."

He predicts it will be managed as a garden, using pesticides to ensure it looks pleasing to the public rather than managing the space for wildlife.

"It’s a small area in terms of preserving British biodiversity - it’s not going to make a massive difference. But it is a massive loss for London and for education in particular."

While the plans had many objectors they also received backing from key figures, including RBG Kew. Chief executive Richard Deverell wrote in support of the plans, saying: "In reviewing the Natural History Museum's plans, we take a view that their proposals will make a material difference to improving the understanding of plants and the natural world. We are therefore supportive of their proposals.

"Their plans appear to take a balanced approach to conserving the historical built landscape and the natural features that sit within their grounds, while opening up access to the public for their enjoyment and understanding."

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