Sites of Special Scientific Interest are not just about protecting the birds and the bees (although that is, of course, very important). SSSIs can have far reaching consequences for all types of landowner – not just those seeking to develop.
This summer, Natural England bought a prosecution against a Yorkshire farmer for offences relating to a SSSI in the North York Moors. Breaching the rules around SSSIs, including intentionally or recklessly damaging as SSSI, can amount to a criminal offence. Not everyone appreciates just how restrictive this land designation can be.
Where an SSSI applies, certain routine farming activities require consent from Natural England or Natural Resources Wales. In the case above, the farmer pleaded guilty to breaches under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for simply creating a new farm track and removing vegetation without Natural England’s consent. The result was a fine and payment of Natural England’s costs. Other cases have resulted in fines of over £400,000 plus costs, and the conservation organisations also have other powers of enforcement at their disposal.
If your land is subject to (or close to) a SSSI please consider the below pointers, to avoid being stung:
What is an SSSI? An area or habitat that is of special interest due to the flora or fauna present, or the geological make up or the area.
Where are the SSSIs? There are over 4,100 SSSI areas in England and 1,000 in Wales. The land designations can be broad, covering 8% of England and 12% of Wales. When a new SSSI is designated, a notification letter is sent to the landowner setting out the rules that apply.
Does this affect me? The application of the SSSI may be wider than just the specific plant, habitat or feature that it protects, potentially preventing you from using the surrounding land as you wish. You should review the formal designation terms and the plan attached to the notification letter to check the extent. SSSI designations can be extending onto neighbouring land, so it’s important to explore what is happening nearby.
How does this affect me? Natural England and Natural Resources Wales are the regulators of SSSIs. When making a notification of a new designation, the landowner will be given a list of operations that require formal consent, such as: ploughing, grazing, mowing, drainage operations, application of pesticides or building work. So even just working the land in line with normal agricultural practices could put you in breach.
Will this stop me from selling? If you sell or let land subject to an SSSI you must notify Natural England or Natural Resources Wales within 28 days and provide details of the new owner or occupier. It goes without saying that an SSSI will make obtaining planning permission to develop or build on the land tricky to obtain. The future potential uses of the land are therefore very limited.
What’s the worst that can happen? If an SSSI is not managed properly, the conservation agencies have the power to step in and intervene – including the power to compulsory purchase the land if required. As the case above shows, the agencies take their responsibilities seriously and will prosecute those who breach the rules.
Can I fight an SSSI designation? You have four months from receiving notification of a designation to object to the designation of your land as an SSSI. Perhaps you believe the application is too wide, and that the designation will deprive you of your farming income or inflict hardship on you. In addition, if Natural England agree, an existing SSSI can be withdrawn via ‘de-notification’ – but this is rare.
How can I find out more? Natural England have a searchable database of SSSIs in England and Wales have a similar list where you can search for information about existing SSSIs and other areas designated of special environmental protection.
In summary, SSSIs can impact on both immediate farming operations and any long-term aspirations for development or change of use. If you are acquiring rural land, we recommend that all appropriate searches are carried out, and that specific enquiries are raised of the seller to flush out issues such as this. A purchaser needs to fully understand the implications and limitations that apply to an SSSI – to avoid stepping into a hornets’ nest!
Our specialist agriculture and rural business team are very experienced in dealing with the diverse and unique matters that crop up when working and living in the countryside. Please get in touch to find out how we can help you.
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