Why is there a need for mitigation?
The Designated Habitat sites along the Essex coast have strong legal protection and local Councils with developments within the identified Zone of Influence must not grant planning permission, unless any harmful effects on these sites are fully mitigated. The Zone of Influence was calculated by ranking the distances travelled by visitors to the coast based on their home town postcode data to identify the distance which new residents are likely to travel to the Essex coast Habitat sites for recreation. Over 80,000 new homes are planned to be built across Essex over the next 15-20 years. Cumulatively these could have a considerable impact on the Designated Habitat sites, with each new home contributing to that cumulative impact. One of these potential impacts is increased recreational activity on the estuaries, coast and heath resulting from population increases associated with the new homes.
What are we protecting?
The Designated Habitat sites (Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation and Ramsar sites) were designated primarily to protect these waders and wildfowl, many of which travel thousands of miles to over-winter on the estuaries. The additional population from the building of new homes will mean an increase in recreational activity on the estuaries, heathland and at the coast. Recreational activity such as people walking, cycling and jogging, and the presence of dogs, often disturbs the birds. Disturbance reduces the birds’ opportunities to feed which can mean they have insufficient energy to survive the winter or to complete their migratory journey to their breeding sites, leading to a reduction in the bird population.
Why do we have to do this?
The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 (known as the ‘Habitats Regulations’) set out how Local Planning Authorities must deal with planning applications that have potential to impact on European wildlife sites. By law, we must not grant consent for a development which would, either alone or in-combination with other developments, have a likely significant effect on a Designated Habitat sites, unless full mitigation is provided.
Who does it apply to?
The identified Zone of Influence covers all of net new residential development including new dwellings created through the subdivision of properties and new dwellings created as a result of approval granted under the General Permitted Development Order. The Zone of Influence can be viewed on the MAGIC mapping website under the heading ‘SSSI Impact Risk Zones’ (under the drop down option ‘land-based designations-statutory’).
Why are so many organisations involved in the RAMS?
Research has shown that development in one local authority area can have a recreational impact at Designated Habitat sites in another authority’s area. In addition, the Habitats Regulations require the impact of one development to be assessed in combination with other developments, some of which will be in neighbouring authorities. Consequently, the Essex LPAs have worked together to produce the RAMS.
Has this been done elsewhere?
Yes. Thames Basin Heaths, the Solent, Birdwise Kent and Exe Estuary/Dawlish Warren. Strategies are also currently being prepared in North Norfolk and Suffolk in the Eastern Region and in many other areas across the country.
Does this accord with the NPPF? Isn’t the requirement for a developer contribution contrary to the Government’s presumption in favour of development?
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) 2019 contains a presumption in favour of sustainable development, but paragraph 177 states that this presumption does not apply where the development requires an Appropriate Assessment (the second stage of a Habitats Regulations Assessment).
In late 2014, the Government announced a national threshold beneath which local authorities affordable housing and tariff style contributions should not be sought. Doesn’t this mean that small schemes should be exempt from the mitigation contribution?
‘Tariff-style contributions’ are planning obligations into pooled funding pots intended to fund the provision of general infrastructure in the wider area. The RAMS mitigation measures are focused on visitor management and are not defined as ‘infrastructure’ in Regulation 123 of the Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations. On that basis, the Government’s policy change does not affect developer contributions for mitigation on the Essex coast. Moreover, paragraph 020 of the Government’s Planning Practice Guidance Planning Obligations states that for sites below the threshold, authorities may still “seek contributions to fund measures with the purpose of facilitating development that would otherwise be unable to proceed because of regulatory or EU Directive requirements”.
What about Permitted Development?
The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 allows certain development as Permitted Development in Schedule 2 of the Order. However, this is subject to regulations 73 to 77 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 which override this stating that if the appropriate habitat mitigation is not provided then the development cannot be permitted development.
When deciding on a planning application, what weight is being placed by the local planning authority on this mitigation issue?
The impact of development on a Designated Habitat sites is not part of the planning judgement whereby material considerations are weighed up by the planning authority in reaching a decision on a planning application. So it is not a matter of what weight will be placed on the mitigation issue. Rather it is a ‘yes/no’ question of whether the proposed development is legally compliant with the Habitats Regulations.
Is it only residential developments that are likely to have harmful effects on the European wildlife sites?
No. Applications for other development types, which create a recreational impact on sites outlined above, or non-recreational impacts, e.g. Infrastructure projects which would cause disturbance during construction, will all require individual Appropriate Assessments before a decision can be issued. If any mitigation is required this will be separate from the RAMS, for example, mitigation required for any large road/rail schemes and the England Coast Path. The local planning authority, with advice from Natural England, will consider the mitigation requirements for such development proposals on a case-by-case basis.
What if I’m only building one dwelling?
A lot of single dwellings and developments of only a few homes are built each year within the identified Zone of Influence of the Designated Habitat sites. Cumulatively, they will have a significant impact, so it is only right that each dwelling makes a contribution to mitigate the impact. The legislation requires that the impact of individual developments must be assessed in combination with other development proposed around the Designated Habitat sites.
My development site is several kilometres from the European wildlife sites. How will it affect them?
The research which underpins the RAMS shows that some people travel quite long distances to access the estuaries, coasts and heaths in question. The Strategy requires a developer contribution towards mitigation measures from all new dwellings built within the identified Zone of Influence of these, based on the research finding that 75% of all visitors to the Designated Habitat sites originate within 20.8 kilometres of the sites themselves. The use of a 75% figure for defining the zone mirrors the approach which was adopted for the Thames Basin Heaths and Dorset Heathland Special Protection Areas after careful scrutiny and public examination and the approach taken for the Solent and Suffolk strategies.
How much do I pay?
The Strategy states that this figure will be updated on 1 April each year in line with the Retail Price Index. As of April 2023, the RAMS tariff fee is £156.76 per dwelling.