Spelman sets terms for European protected site review

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has announced the terms of reference for an investigation into whether European wildlife rules are unnecessarily holding back development schemes.

The move follows chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, which said that the government would ensure that compliance with the European Union habitats and wild birds directives "does not lead to unnecessary costs and delays to development".

DEFRA said that the review would focus on obligations under the directives that "that affect the authorisation process for proposed development, with a view to reducing the burdens on businesses while maintaining the integrity of the purpose of the directives".

DEFRA, which has promised to involve stakeholders in the review, said it will look at the way judgements are reached on schemes that could have significant or adverse impacts on protected sites and species, mitigation options, alternative solutions, and situations where "imperative reasons of overriding public interest" are argued in favour of developments.

The review will explore whether the regulations are being applied too rigorously or not rigorously enough. Advice provided by government agencies Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee will face the same test, DEFRA said.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman said: "We strongly support the aims of these directives. We want them to continue to be effective in protecting these very important wildlife sites and species. The vast majority of development cases do successfully meet the directives’ requirements, but a small number raise particularly complex issues which give rise to unnecessary costs and delays."

She added: "There’s also the possibility that the directives are being used in ways for which they were not intended. These issues risk undermining the reputation of the directives and the valuable protection they provide. That is why I am looking forward to seeing recommendations on dealing with any overly bureaucratic or long, drawn-out examples of implementation, without compromising the current levels of environmental protection."

The review is due for completion in time for next spring’s Budget. DEFRA said it might also extend to other parts of the regulations through which the directives are implemented, including designation of sites and management agreements.

The protected sites covered by the review are special areas of conservation (SACs) designated under the habitats directive and special protection areas (SPAs) under the birds directive. There are currently 251 SACs and 84 SPAs in England, covering about six per cent of the land surface and 24 per cent of inshore waters.

The terms of reference are available here.

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