The UK’s international obligations to biodiversity require our rarest and most irreplaceable wildlife sites – those of international importance – to be stringently protected. This includes sites protected for their habitats and species (Special Areas of Conservation, “SACs”), bird populations (Special Protection Areas, “SPAs”) and wetlands (Ramsar sites).
To meet the UK international commitments means preserving these sites except in cases of overriding national need, so evidence provided must be “beyond all reasonable doubt” of no harm; otherwise permission can be refused under the so-called “precautionary principle”. Where this evidence is absent, the usual National Planning Policy Framework para 14 presumption in favour of development no longer applies and is replaced by para 119.
Where development plans or policies do potentially affect these sites, the effects are considered via a Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA). An HRA involves screening, scoping and consideration of alternatives – similar to an Environmental Impact Assessment. However, an HRA focuses tightly upon the “integrity” of the site – those features for which the site is designated.
Norfolk Wildlife Services (NWS) has a long track record of dealing with HRAs: as a county Norfolk 8.5% is designated SPA, 5% SACs and 4.2% Ramsar. Within HRAs we often consider hydrology, emissions and recreational disturbance and cumulative and in-combination effects.
Responsibility to complete the HRA rests with the “competent authority” – either the planning authority or the inspector. Ecological effects on international sites are a complex area and frequent showstoppers for developers since the responsibility is on the applicant to provide the proof.
Evidence supplied via a “shadow” HRA supplied by NWS is often used to assist these decisions. Altering site design later is often difficult later on so early advice from NWS is advisable to fully understand the options and whether effects can be avoided.