If your development site falls within 15.4km of the Cotswold Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation (SAC) then you may have a problem on your hands. Cotswold District Council and Natural England have essentially paused granting any planning applications creating new dwellings or holiday lets.
Cotswold District Council are currently sending the following email out to current planning applications in the zone of impact:
We would like to draw your attention to an issue that has recently come to light that is relevant to your application at [SITE]. Your site falls within 15.4km of the Cotswold Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation (SAC), which is internationally important for its biodiversity. Over recent years recreational pressures from visitors to the site have increased and are now causing considerable damage to the wildlife value of the SAC. Visitor surveys have been undertaken at the Cotswold Beechwoods and this has shown that the majority of visitors come from within 15.4km of the SAC.
Under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended) and other relevant legislation and guidance, Local Planning Authorities have to assess whether any development proposal could harm the biodiversity value of an SAC. This works on the precautionary principle so in order to permit any proposals there has to be certainty that the proposals will not cause any significant likely effects (i.e. negative impacts) on that SAC either on their own or in combination with other proposals.
In order to address this issue a strategic approach is being developed by the Local Authorities around the SAC and Natural England (the government body for nature conservation). These organisations have worked together to prepare a draft strategic recreation mitigation strategy for the SAC. This includes a range of mitigation proposals to reduce recreational pressures, for example signage and additional rangers at the SAC. These proposals will need to be paid for and developers will be able to opt to pay towards the work set out in the strategic mitigation strategy, instead of preparing their own mitigation proposals. That strategy will include a cost per unit to deliver a proportionate level of mitigation. The payments are likely to be secured through the use of unilateral undertakings or similar. The strategic mitigation strategy provides a useful mechanism to help reduce the burden of preparing additional supporting evidence in support of your application.
As your development falls within that 15.4km and will provide additional accommodation (residential or holiday), there is potential for your proposal to lead to more visitors to, and thus more recreation pressures on the SAC. Therefore it is crucial that your proposals provide means to mitigate those impacts. There are currently two options as to how this can be done –
1) Submit mitigation proposals for your individual development setting out the level of impact that could be caused by your development (including in combination with other developments) and how that impact will be mitigated. Evidently putting together those mitigation proposals could be quite an onerous process. This is often done in the format of a shadow Habitats Regulations Assessment. You may find it helpful to seek further guidance on these issues from an appropriately qualified and experienced ecologist https://cieem.net/i-need/finding-a-consultant/. Or you could seek advice from Natural England using their Discretionary Advice Service. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/developers-get-environmental-advice-on-your-planning-proposals
2) Pause determination of your application until the strategic recreation mitigation strategy for the SAC, due late summer 2022, is available.
We are working with Natural England to see if we can find a more immediate and suitable alternative interim solution and we will let you know if and when that is available.
Alternatively you could simply request that we determine your application, however this is likely to result in a refusal on the basis of insufficient information to meet the requirements of the Habitat Regulations Assessment process. If the application then went to appeal, the Planning Inspectorate would also have to ensure that the Habitat Regulations Assessment process was followed.
This issue may add to the timescale for the determination of your application, but we are required by law to show adherence to the provisions of the Regulations and any decision issued where we had not demonstrably done so would leave it open to legal challenge.
Will this impact on other local authority areas?
It remains to be seen whether Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury councils follow suit.
What steps should I take?
Keep your eyes peeled for the Cotswold Beechwoods SAC Recreation Mitigation Strategy. This includes estimates on the mitigation costs, thought to be circa £187 contribution per dwelling for “Strategic Access Management & Monitoring (SAMM)” and £480 per dwelling for the “Suitable Natural Alternative Greenspace (SANGs)”.
However, these SAMM and SANGs need to be in place before funds can be taken and planning permissions granted.
Natural England and the Council are saying it should be resolved by “late summer”, but don’t be surprised if it rumbles on.
None of this necessarily impacts on your chances of securing planning permission. Our advice is still to proceed with your submissions, be patient, and and join the queue.