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Giant white horse illegal claims brussels
13 May 2003
The UK Government has been sent a letter of "formal notice" by the European Commission in which it is claimed that the UK acted illegally in giving the go-ahead to the carving of a giant white horse on a hill at one of the UK's top wildlife sites. The news is contained in a letter from the Commission to Friends of the Earth who made a formal complaint about the "clear breach" of European wildlife law.
The giant horse, which is currently being carved into a hill near Folkestone in Kent, now looks set to be the subject of legal action in the European Court, where the Government could face massive fines and even be ordered to restore the damaged habitat. The row over the horse could be a forerunner of future European challenges over proposed roads, ports and airports on or near Europe's best wildlife sites.
Construction of the White Horse Millennium Landmark is already well underway at Folkestone to Etchinghill Escarpment Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which overlooks the entrance of the Channel Tunnel in Kent. Turf has been removed, outline trenches dug and chalk slabs are expected to be laid shortly . Friends of the Earth today called on English Nature to seek an immediate injunction to stop future work on the site, on the basis that it constitutes an illegal activity.
The site is of national importance for its outstanding chalk grassland plants and insects, and has also been proposed as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), because of its importance as a European wildlife site - particularly for rare orchids .
Stephen Byers, the then Secretary of State for the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions  granted planning permission for the horse in March 2002. In so doing, he rejected advice from English Nature, the Government's own wildlife watchdog, who had concluded that the habitat loss would be irreplaceable.
Friends of the Earth, and other wildlife groups, were concerned that the White Horse decision would set a precedent of the Government rejecting English Nature's advice and allowing our very best wildlife sites to be damaged and destroyed by roads, ports and airports. A number of wildlife organisations including Plantlife, The Kent Wildlife Trust and WWF, wrote to the European Commission in support of Friends of the Earth's complaint.
In its letter to Friends of the Earth, the Commission outlines how it has now "...sent a letter of formal notice to the United Kingdom Government in connection with its failure to ensure that the requirements [European law] ...were met with regard to the proposed development". It goes on to say that "...the UK has granted an approval likely to ...seriously adversely affect the integrity of a Site of Community Importance containing priority habitat, in breach of ...[the Habitats Directive]" .
The "formal notice" represents the first step in the European Commission's infraction process against member states, for failure to uphold EU law. The UK Government now has two months to explain its position or rectify its failure. If, after this period, the Commission remains unsatisfied, it may issue a "Reasoned Opinion" and then proceed with the case to the European Court of Justice.
The legal process is time consuming and arduous, but countries can face massive fines if the court decides that they are ignoring environmental legislation. Greece recently had to pay 20,000 euros (?14,000) for every day it continued to ignore a 2000 ruling against an illegal waste dump in Crete. The final fine added up to more than five million euros.
In this case, it is possible that a court judgement could result in the UK government being required to take steps such as revoking the planning permission, preventing further damage from occurring and restoring the habitat already damaged in order to avoid massive fines for every day that it fails to meet the requirements of the Habitats Directive.
The Commission's strong defence of European wildlife law is important because a number of proposed developments pose a much greater threat to specific wildlife sites (see table below for examples) . Of these, the most immediate is the proposed super-port at Dibden Bay near Southampton, which would damage four internationally designated sites. The Public Inquiry on Dibden is due to report in the next few months.
Craig Bennett, Wildlife Campaigner for Friends of the Earth said:
"The Government thought they could use this white horse to ride roughshod over European wildlife law and prepare the ground for the go-ahead for big business proposals in other places. But they appear to have fallen at the first hurdle. We hope Brussels will demand the removal of the Folkestone White Horse and full restoration of this precious habitat - and fine the UK government for every day they fail to comply. In the meantime, English Nature must seek an injunction to stop construction of this damaging beast, on the basis that it is an illegal activity.
If the Government thinks it can get away with ignoring European wildlife law, it will allow our precious wildlife sites to be replaced with ports, airports and roads".
 Supporters of the White Horse claim that it will boost civic pride and help re-generate the area. More information and recent photos from the construction site are available at: www.hows.org.uk/personal/hillfigs/folk/folk.htm
2] Chalk grassland is a rare and vulnerable habitat in Europe. Folkestone to Etchinghill Escarpment SSSI, represents one of the few remaining fragments of a once much larger tract of chalk grassland across the North Downs. The site proposed for the white horse is of national importance for its outstanding chalk grassland plants and insects, including such typical chalk grassland plants as rockrose, horseshoe vetch, salad burnett and ladies bedstraw. The chalk grassland supports an outstanding butterfly fauna including the nationally scarce adonis blue and chalkhill blue butterflies. It is of European importance on account of its orchid populations including the nationally protected late and early spider orchids [English Nature press release, 31 July 1998, Millennium Threat to Important Wildlife Site.]
In England, the statutory wildlife body English Nature proposes which sites should qualify for European nature conservation importance. Once their status has been confirmed by the UK Government, they are known as "Special Areas of Conservation" or "SACs". These are then included in the Community list of "Sites of Community Importance" or "SCI" and receive legal protection under Article 4(2) of the Habitats and Species Directive. For more information, see:
 This government department no longer exists and planning issues now fall within the remit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. See: www.local-regions.odpm.gov.uk/
 A copy of the letter sent by the European Commission to Friends of the Earth can be downloaded at: www.foe.co.uk/resource/evidence/white_horse_eu_complaint_reply.pdf
 5] European wildlife sites under threat from development
`cSAC' = "candidate Special Area of Conservation" (designated under the Habitat and Species Directive).
`SPA' = "Special Protection Area" (designated under the European Birds Directive).
More information on each site and threat is available from Friends of the Earth.
If you're a journalist looking for press information please contact the Friends of the Earth media team on 020 7566 1649.
Published by Friends of the Earth Trust
Last modified: Jun 2008