Posted by Cain Blythe - CEnv MIEMA MCIEEM MSc BSc (Hons) on 3/10/2014
It is estimated that there are around 4,128 Sites of Specific Scientific Interest in England (SSSIs). With construction picking up across the UK there is a danger that building work and infrastructure projects could potentially disturb these sites. In the past identifying these areas and working around them could prove tricky and would require detailed assessments to be included in impact assessment. This is now aided by the introduction of a new online tool that allows developers and their consultants to see at a glance where these areas area and the risk of potential impact.
The tool assesses Impact Risk Zones (IRZ). These are areas where the proposed planned change to the environment could either create significant damage to a local SSSI or alternatively those projects could require more planning and consultation in order to avoid impacting on those sites. The assessments are made according to the particular sensitivities of the features for which the SSSI is notified and specifies the types of development that have the potential to have adverse impacts.
Any local planning authority has to consult with Natural England before they get planning permission on anything that could affect a SSSI. Given that these cover 8 per cent of the whole of England and include some of the most beautiful natural habitats in the country (for example this includes both meadows and wetlands) it is vital that developers are aware of what they are doing and whether their proposed projects cover SSSIs at any point, as well as any problems that could occur by anything proposed near SSSIs in the local area.
As Rob Cooke (Sustainable Development Director for Natural England) points out, this is not just something that can benefit people looking to preserve local wildlife and habitats. There are also benefits for developers as well “ This innovative tool should cut out the need for a number of consultations with Natural England.”
In other words this may reduce the number of consultations required with Natural England, although there are limits as the tool does not cover coastal habitats, harbours or marina developments. Projects affecting these areas will still require additional consultations until the tool can be developed to cover these.
It is also vital to emphasise that this tool is not a substitute for necessary consultation with Natural England and any project has to meet statutory requirements when it comes to any consultation period while seeking planning permission for any project.
In future we may see the tool developed further to include assessment of impacts on a wider range of sites and habitats.