Increased penalties and powers to prevent deliberate damage are among the new measures to strengthen protection for England and Wales' most important natural habitats Environment Minister Michael Meacher announced today.
Legislation, where required, to protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) will be introduced as soon as Parliamentary time permits. Measures requiring legislation will include:
- giving the conservation agencies powers to refuse consent for damaging activities, and to introduce works orders to combat neglect;
- increased penalties for deliberate damage, and a new court power to order restoration;
- improved powers to act against cases of third-party damage;
- a statutory duty on public bodies to secure the positive management of SSSIs which they either own, or occupy.
Non-legislative measures include:
- updated guidance on areas such as planning and finance;
- encouragement for the conservation agencies to continue building bridges and working with owners and occupiers.
Mr Meacher said: "The measures I have outlined today emphasise the importance this Government attaches to protecting and enhancing our finest natural habitats. There are nearly 5,000 individual sites which cover seven per cent of the land in England and Wales. Backed by additional funds already provided for English Nature they will ensure the preservation of these important sites for many generations to come."
More than two-thirds of SSSIs are in private ownership, with nearly 25,100 individual owners and occupiers. They are identified because of the scientific importance of their fauna, flora, geological or physiographical features. Many of the sites are internationally important, and are classified under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, and under the Ramsar Convention on wetlands.
The Government's consultation paper 'Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) - Better Protection and Management' was launched in September 1998. 564 responses were received, which officials have been carefully analysing. The provisions will be for England and Wales only. Primary legislative provisions will need to be accompanied by a range of secondary legislation and administrative, policy and financial changes - all of which will be the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly in Wales. There will be some increase in the administrative costs of the conservation agencies (English Nature and Countryside Council for Wales). Some additional funds have already been made available in England following the Comprehensive Spending Review. The Government has allocated increased resources of £6.14 million to English Nature in Grant in Aid for 1999-2000. This will bring immediate benefits including the creation of new posts, funding additional recovery and enhancement projects which will increase the number of sites under positive management for conservation, and the development of further biodiversity action plans and projects.