From road-building to intensive agriculture, many forces drive habitat destruction. All too often, the conflict of interests is resolved at the expense of our wildlife sites. According to the Government, the expectation is that damaging development proposals "will normally be refused"  . Yet there is no evidence to justify such a view. Official data show that activities given planning permission are a significant cause of damage to SSSIs, and the most frequent cause of severe damage.
This briefing gives an outline of how to use the planning system to stop a damaging development. Local campaigns are the key to saving wildlife sites, through the principal weapon of public pressure. If you want to save a wildlife site, you must run a campaign, through public support and through the planning system where appropriate.
If you want to run a local campaign, you are advised to read 'Saving Wildlife Sites' - the Friends of the Earth manual on campaigning to protect wildlife sites.
Nature conservation should be an integral part of the work of local authorities. Under the Countryside Act 1968, they should exercise their duties so as to "have regard to the desirability of conserving the natural beauty... of the countryside". This includes conservation of flora, fauna and geological aspects.
Some local authorities take an active approach to conservation, although their resources and legal powers are piecemeal and inadequate. Councils frequently co-operate with the Nature Conservation Agencies, and with voluntary bodies such as the Wildlife Trusts . There are numerous ways in which local authorities can initiate and support nature conservation. They include:
These are not legal obligations, so local authorities cannot be forced to take any of these steps. But many are open to persuasion or lobbying. Local authorities do not usually take an active approach to nature conservation in Northern Ireland. They are consulted on planning applications affecting ASSIs, and may cooperate on a case by case basis.
Local authorities must have regard to their obligations under legislation such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and the Protection of Badgers Act. Local authorities may enter into management agreements with owners and occupiers of land "for the purpose of conserving or enhancing the natural beauty or amenity of any land" . In practice, they have been reluctant to use these powers.
Local authorities have many competing demands for resources, and are susceptible to other pressures. They may not support nature conservation where they see a trade-off between jobs or money. In one survey, only 31 per cent of district authorities and 5 per cent of country authorities stated that they had refused planning permission on nature conservation grounds. However, many local authorities have allowed developments which they want despite the ecological damage. A conservation organisation had to go to the High Court in 1990 to stop Poole Council granting itself planning permission for a housing development on the Canford Heath SSSI.
Local authorities also administer the planning system, under guidance from the Department of the Environment. County council structure plans set out a broad strategy for land use, covering mineral extraction, highways, waste disposal and green belts. District councils set out planning policies in greater detail, and process all the rest of the planning applications. National Parks have a single authority which takes all the planning decisions in consultation with district and county councils.
There are powerful interests driving environmental destruction. The institutions and organisations behind development often have money and influence. They expect you to play by their rules, to talk to them on their terms, and to become embroiled in negotiations which they control.
You cannot afford to wait for the official process, be it the public inquiry or the next important announcement. You need to get active as early as possible. Ensure that you use your energy most effectively. Do not focus on the planning system alone - experience has shown that running a campaign to mobilise public pressure is equally important.
Your campaign will be more effective if it has a strategy. Information is available from Friends of the Earth on how to structure a campaign, but an outline is as follows:
You are advised to read 'Saving Wildlife Sites', the Friends of the Earth guide to local site campaigns if you need more advice.
There are many competing pressures for land, including activities like housing, minerals extraction, agriculture and forestry. Some of these activities come under the heading of 'development', which is defined in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 as most activities involving building, engineering or mining works, or making any material change of use in the use of buildings or land. The use of land for agriculture or forestry does not need planning permission.
All land in the UK is subject to controls on development. Planning law is designed to "regulate the development and use of land in the public interest ... it is an important instrument for the protection and enhancement of the environment" . There are two parts to the planning system, development planning and development control.
Planning decisions are guided by Central Government through the 'Planning Policy Guidance Notes' (PPGs) produced by the Department of the Environment. These cover issues such as out-of-town superstores, nature conservation and transport. A separate set of notes covers minerals planning.
Development planning is the process of setting future policies for what activities will generally be allowed where. The 'development plans' are the documents and maps prepared by local authorities laying out policies and proposals for the future use of land. They may, for example, set out areas for nature conservation, and areas for development. Development plans are important because they must be taken into special account when considering individual planning permissions. New planning guidance has made it clear that "Nature conservation objectives ... should be reflected in regional planning guidance, structure plans, unitary development plans and local plans."  According to Government policy, plans must take account of the "environmental implications of development - for example, the impact on landscape quality, wildlife conservation..." .
The timetable of events will be available from the local planning authority. Formal objections or submissions must be made while the plan is on deposit. The Inspector will consider these, either at a public inquiry or in writing. His/her recommendations are important, but not binding on the local council. You can also write to the Secretary of State for the Environment urging him/her to direct the council to modify or call-in part of the local plan. For example, in 1995, campaigners pressurised John Gummer to intervene and stop Bolton Council allocating Red Moss Site of Special Scientific Interest as a waste disposal tip in the local plan! Many development plans have been updated recently, so the opportunity to change them may have passed. Check with your local planning authority, as plans are subject to periodic reviews and modifications every few years.
Development control (what many people know as 'planning') is when the local planning authority decides to allow a proposed development or not. Developers have to put in 'planning applications', which are then determined by the planning authority (your district or county council). The Secretary of State for the Environment has the ultimate decision making powers, but will only use those powers in important cases.
Local authority strategies for nature conservation should allow them to address their impacts on biodiversity. All councils should be persuaded to draw up and implement strategies if they have not already done so. Guidance on desirable planning policies are included in the Friends of the Earth publication 'Planning for the Planet'.
Campaigners frequently find themselves involved in the planning system, for example to oppose a development which would damage a wildlife site. The planning system is designed to be responsive to national and local concerns, and to be influenced by public pressure and by technical arguments. When you are dealing with the official process you have to play by the rules. The planning system is dominated by legalities, and you must, for example, concentrate your arguments carefully on 'planning' issues.
Council officers and other officials like planning inspectors deal with the technical details of planning. These are paid professionals who must justify their decisions and actions. Responsibility for planning decisions generally rests with elected officials - local councillors or the Secretary of State. They do not have to follow the advice of their officials, but must abide by the law. The final arbiters of planning decisions are the courts, who must abide by the law, Government guidance, and previous court judgements.
The details of planning law may vary from one type of development (eg a road) to another (eg a marina), but the principles are usually similar. There are a number of important stages on the way.
Even before there are any threats from development, sites can have varying degrees of protection through the local and structure plans.
A recent English Nature survey revealed a marked improvement in structure plan policies covering nature conservation. Nature conservation was explicitly referred to as a priority in about half the plans studied (a total of 14). A survey of planning officers showed an increasing awareness of conservation issues. If you still have an opportunity to work on development plans, you can lobby for stronger protection for SSSIs.
Corporations may spend considerable sums of money trying to sell their development to local people before putting in a planning application. MCA, an American company, planned to build a leisure park on Rainham Marshes SSSI in Essex. A professional PR consultants company campaigned successfully on behalf of MCA for the planning application to go through without a public inquiry. Likewise, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation presented their case for the Cardiff Barrage in a way that was 'economical with the truth', such that the press heavily overstated the number of jobs to be created. The Barrage, which will
totally destroy important overwintering ground for birds, became a 'jobs versus birds' debate. As soon as you hear of threats to wildlife areas, start to build support for the nature conservation case. At Rainham Marshes, many locals did not realise the significance of the SSSI designation on a visually unattractive site
Look out for the 'Environmental Impact Assessment' (EIA). The production of an EIA is a legal requirement under European Directive (85/337/EEC) for all large projects, listed under schedule I, and projects listed under schedule II where they are likely to have 'significant' effects on the environment. Any development likely to have significant effects on European Sites will also require an EIA under the 'Habitats Directive'. The assessment must have a non- technical summary, which can often be used for publicity material to help your case. The planning authority must not grant permission without taking the EIA into account, although the EIA does not override all other considerations. FOE will be producing a briefing outlining the requirement for an EIA under the Habitats Directive.
According to the wording of the EIA Directive, the environmental impact assessment will "identify, describe and assess in an appropriate manner, in the light of each individual case ... the direct and indirect effects of a project on the following factors:
The existence of an Environmental Impact Assessment must be publicised, stating where it can be seen or obtained. It must be available at a reasonable price "reflecting printing and distribution costs". The non- technical summary will often be available separately, but may not contain the detail which you require. It is worth going through the EIA in detail. You can often find important material, and good quotes for leaflets etc (some EIAs are actually very critical of the development). There is concern as to the quality of some EIAs. One study found only 60 per cent of EIAs satisfactory in a sample of 83 between 1988 and 1991. It is difficult to challenge the validity of the EIA, but if you can find experts to contradict key points, this might help your case. EIAs which have been carried out voluntarily are likely to have been mainly an exercise in public relations .
A planning application may go to public inquiry in a number of ways. Those developments which are significant may be 'called in' by the Secretary of State for a public inquiry. Most inquiries arise when the application is rejected, and the developer appeals against this decision. In such cases, your support for the local authority may be critical. The Government is expert at circumventing or avoiding the planning system, and can often thwart the process of public consultation. The Cardiff Bay barrage, for example, was approved by an Act of Parliament, so avoiding a public inquiry.
By the time a major development gets to a public inquiry it has often had years of work put into it, so it's very late in the day to kill the scheme. Public inquiries into major road schemes, for example, usually turn out to be 'rubber stamp' exercises. The lesson is to get in early and not wait for a public inquiry. They are time- consuming and hard work. Very few have come down on the side of the environment. Influencing a public inquiry should be just one of your objectives.
A local council is expected to decide the outcome of a planning permission within eight weeks (of receiving the application), but the time for public objections may be as little as two weeks. Councils may allow more time if asked (or pressurised). A copy of every planning application is available for public inspection at the planning authority's offices during normal working hours. Copies can be purchased. Note whether the application is for full planning permission, or outline only (which means the principle of development is agreed, but the details will be decided subsequently).
The Department of the Environment instructs planning authorities that "decisions should be based on planning grounds only and must be reasonable". In deciding whether to grant planning permission, decision-makers must "refer to the provisions of the development plan and to all other material considerations". Under the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, the "determination shall be made in accordance with the plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise." The planning guidance notes (or court judgements) generally indicate what are 'material considerations'.
A planning officer writes a report with a recommendation. This is available to be copied shortly before the relevant meeting, which you may also attend (take pen and paper to make notes). The planning committee must make a decision by weighing up the relevant material considerations, ie:
There are a number of legal obligations regarding wildlife protection, nature conservation designations and planning law. These are set out in Planning Policy Guidance 9 (on nature conservation), which replaced all earlier guidelines. PPG 9 states that "Nature conservation objectives should be taken into account in all planning activities which affect rural and coastal land use, and in urban areas where there is wildlife of local importance." But nature conservation will be balanced against other factors, such as job creation.
Conditions may be attached to the planning permission, and this is a common way for developers and planning authorities to try to 'mitigate' against damage. From the point of view of nature conservation, conditions are often unsatisfactory, and may not even be followed. Conservation organisations such as English Nature, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB have experience with recommending and influencing conditions.
Encourage as many people and organisations as possible to make representations opposing a development if it threatens a wildlife site. These should be sent to your local planning authority. Always refer to the planning application number at the top of your letter. The authority will take note of general public feeling for or against a development, but objections only constitute grounds for refusal of planning permission if supported by material evidence such as damage to public amenity, local pollution, traffic or loss of wildlife. It is important to put in a representation in the name of the local FOE group, in case you want legal 'standing' at a later date, (ie if you want to challenge a decision legally).
It is worth lobbying both individual councillors and officers. This can be particularly productive if you attempt to establish a long-term relationship. You can identify the best (and most sympathetic) people in your particular authority, but the chair of the planning committee and the chief planning officer are always worthwhile contacts. For a particular application it is valuable to meet with the case officer, and lobby the relevant ward councillor(s). All communication, written or otherwise, should be polite and courteous, and do not overdo it. When you are lobbying, don't forget the developer: s/he may be persuaded to withdraw or amend the application. Again, remain polite. It has been known for aggravated landowners to destroy the wildlife on a site just to get planning permission. The local MP may be influential in both planning procedures and public campaigning.
When you write your letter of objection, do:
The planning decision is available a week or two after the committee meeting. Check what conditions have been applied. If a planning permission is refused, there is nothing to stop a revised application (or even the same one) being submitted in the future. Once planning permission is given, it is difficult to overturn. A decision can be challenged if :
Any appeals must be made within six months of the refusal. Appeals are dealt with through public inquiries, informal hearings or written representations. A briefing dealing with public inquiries is available from the Local Campaigns Unit at Friends of the Earth.
Appeal decisions can be challenged in the courts within six weeks of the decision. But appeals can only be challenged on legal grounds, not planning merits or matters of opinion.
The evidence submitted by the Nature Conservation Agencies, (English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales) or the Wildlife Trusts is crucial to establishing whether a site is likely to be damaged. You should liaise as soon as possible with these organisations, and ask for copies of their evidence.
Official guidelines for SSSI selection state that "the protection and management of the most important areas for wild flora and fauna and their habitat, is regarded as the cornerstone of conservation practice and, within this, SSSI notification is now the principal statutory means of achieving this goal. " The network of SSSIs is considered to be the 'necessary minimum' to support viable populations of many rare and threatened native species .
SSSIs are notified under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, (and ASSIs under a 1985 NI Order) . These laws are based on cooperation and consultation with landowners and occupiers, the so-called 'voluntary principle'. There are few sanctions which effectively prevent damage to SSSIs, and in general, if a landowner or occupier wants to develop, "whatever the arguments against it, develop he will" .
At a conservative estimate, between two and three hundred SSSIs (around five per cent of the SSSI network), suffer some form of loss or damage every year . Developments have accounted for the partial or total loss of 133 SSSIs between 1986-93 . There is little protection for SSSIs under planning law, except for the few SSSIs deemed to be of international importance, (such as Special Protection Areas).
Damage to SSSIs is a political issue. The partial destruction of two SSSIs at Twyford Down, for example, has had national publicity, resulting in pressure to change Government road-building policies. Friends of the Earth would be pleased to receive written details of any damage or threat to an SSSI.
A number of sites have extra protection on top of the SSSI designation
(usually those of international importance). All of these site designations
fall within SSSI boundaries. If you are campaigning to prevent damage
to such a site, you should be in touch with Friends of the Earth or
a national wildlife organisation.
National Nature Reserves are SSSIs of national wildlife importance which are owned, leased or subject to agreements between the owner and the Nature Conservation Agency.
Special Areas of Conservation are designated under the new European Union Habitats Directive. They receive extra planning protection as through PPG 9.
Special Protection Areas are designated under the European Union Birds Directive. They receive extra planning protection as described in PPG 9.
Ramsar Sites are designated under the Ramsar Convention, which aims to secure the protection and 'wise use' of wetlands of international importance.
PPG 9 gives a detailed description of the extra protection to 'European Sites' (SPAs and SACs designated under the Habitats Directive).
Areas which do not have SSSI status range from village greens and small fields, to nature reserves of 'close to SSSI' quality. It may be more difficult to get recognition for the importance of wildlife on non- designated sites, but other arguments for their protection may be stronger (eg recreation and amenity). The county based Wildlife Trusts play a key role in protecting and maintaining such sites, and should be your first point of contact. There are a plethora of designations, but the main ones are below:
Local Nature Reserves (LNR) are designated by local authorities and must be 'special' in the local context. The local authority would usually be expected to provide some site protection in planning decisions, and management of the site. LNRs may also be SSSIs.
Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation are often run by the local Wildlife Trust, sometimes in conjunction with the local authority.
Any area with wildlife deserves care and attention. Plants and animals do not confine themselves to designated areas, but make use of the wider countryside as well. The principles of campaigning apply to all sites affected by damaging developments.
Even sites which are valuable to the local community are often under threat, and there is relatively little protection for non-SSSI designated sites under planning law. Paragraph 18 of PPG 9 states that:
"Local planning authorities should have regard to the relative
significance of international, national, local and informal designations
in considering the weight to be attached to nature conservation designations.
They should only apply local designations to sites of substantive nature
conservation value, and take care to avoid unnecessary constraints on
There are a number of designations used to protect our natural and historic heritage. They are all material considerations in planning law, but give only a degree of protection.
Green Belts are designated areas of land drawn around certain cities. They are designed to prevent urban sprawl and safeguard the surrounding countryside.
National Parks are specially protected areas of attractive countryside where the public are encouraged to go for recreation. Around ten percent of England and Wales is designated as National Park, and the New Forest, Suffolk and Norfolk broads have similar status.
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are areas of countryside of national importance for their scenery. Some degree of planning control is expected within AONBs, to take account of their landscape features.
Conservation Areas are parts of towns and villages designated
for their architectural or historic value.
Some designations apply to specific features only, rather than whole areas. Tree Preservation Orders can be placed on specific trees (or groups of trees) by the local council. Listed Buildings have strict protection under special legislation. Scheduled Ancient Monuments are important archeological sites.
It may be worth getting expert help, especially if involved with a complicated planning case. Solicitors can help, or there are planning consultants listed in Yellow Pages under 'Town Planning', (get a written estimate for advice).
People affected by bad planning decisions can complain to the local government ombudsman. The ombudsman cannot alter the decision, but can order compensation. A complaint may be an appropriate campaigning tactic.
Friends of the Earth. 1994. Saving Wildlife Sites: The Habitats Manual. The essential guide to running a local campaign. Price £4.50. Code L342.
Spear, R. Dade, M. How to Stop and Influence Planning Permission. £10.50 (inc p&p) from Stonepound Books, 10 Stonepound Rd, Hassocks, West Sussex BN6 8PP. (01273 843737)
PPG 9: Nature Conservation. Department of the Environment. £8.50 HMSO (071 873 9090).
Friends of the Earth. 1994. Planning for the Planet: Sustainable Development Policies for Local and Strategic Plans. Local groups price £4.00. Code L312.
County Planning Officer's Society. Caring for Nature: Good Practice in Nature Conservation. 1994.
Friends of the Earth. 1994. Gaining Interest: The UK's Wildlife Wealth and the Law. With colour pictures and a clear explanation of the problems. Suitable for lobbying work.£6.00. (Local gps) £3.00. Code T333.
Friends of the Earth. 1994. Losing Interest: A Survey of Threats to Sites of Special Scientific Interest in England and Wales. Local groups £4.00. Code L334.
CPRE. 1992. Campaigners Guide to Local Plans.
Friends of the Earth publications and catalogue are available from Friends of the Earth, 56-58 Alma Street, Luton LU1 2YZ. Please send a cheque payable to 'Friends of the Earth' and state code where available (postage is included in price).
1. Robert Atkins MP, Minister for Environment and Countryside. Letter
to Friends of the Earth. November 1994.
2. D Tyldesley. 1986. Gaining Momentum: An Analysis of the Role and Performance of Local Authorities in Nature Conservation. BANC/WWF. For a more up-to date analysis of nature conservation and Local Authorities, see Strategies for Wildlife. 1993. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
3. Section 39 of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.
4. Sinclair, G. 1992. The Lost Land. CPRE.
5. Department of the Environment. 1992. Planning Policy Guidance 1. HMSO.
6. Planning Policy Guidance 9. October 1994. Nature Conservation. Department of the Environment. HMSO.
7. Department of the Environment. 1992. Planning Policy Guidance 12: Development Plans and Regional Planning Guidance. HMSO.
8. A, Murdie. 1993. Environmental Law and Citizen Action. Earthscan Publications.
9. R, Spear. M, Dade. 1994. How to Stop and Influence Planning Permission. JM Dent Ltd, Orion Publishing Group Ltd, London.
10. Third Party Precedents. Planning Week. 8/9/94.
11. Nature Conservancy Council. 1989. Guide-lines for the Selection of Biological SSSIs.
12. House of Commons Environment Committee. 1984-85. First Report: Operation and Effectiveness of Part II of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
13. HoC. 1984-85. as above.
14. Analysis of statutory agencies' data in Rowell, T. 1992. SSSIs: A Health Check. London: Wildlife Link.
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