Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area
We need to balance the need for residential development and the need to protect the habitats of protected bird species in the Thames Basin Heaths.
The Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA) is made up of areas of heathland covered by several local authority areas across Hampshire, Berkshire and Surrey, including Rushmoor. It supports important populations of vulnerable ground-nesting birds and has a designated status in European Law.
Natural England's view
Natural England, the government's advisory body on ecological matters, has expressed concern that residential developments close to the heathland increase the risk of disturbance from recreational activity, such as dog-walking.
Natural England believes that the impact of new residential development results in increased recreational activity that could affect the breeding success of important bird species. We have to consider carefully the effects of residential development on the heathland.
The implication of the habitats regulations [401kb] is that we can only grant planning permission for new residential development where there would be no likelihood of significant impact on the Special Protection Area, taking into account proposed mitigation or avoidance measures. We are responsible for assessing the likelihood of such impact.
Natural England's approach
The view of Natural England is that the impact on the Special Protection Area should be avoided by providing mitigation. Natural England recommends an approach based on two forms of mitigation:
- The provision of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) or alternative public recreation areas at an agreed standard of eight hectares per 1000 new residents
- The delivery of Strategic Access Management and Monitoring Measures (SAMM), to be funded by developer contributions
Natural England also recommends that no new housing should be built in an 'exclusion zone' (land within 400 metres of the SPA). In Rushmoor, little of the built-up area lies in this zone, and it is considered that the scope for redevelopment there is limited.
How we are addressing the Special Protection Area issue in Rushmoor
We support the conservation of natural habitats, the protection of endangered species and the aim of increasing the amount of land available for outdoor public recreation.
However, we have a statutory obligation to decide planning applications on their merits, taking into account national and local planning policy and meeting housing demand.
We have adopted an avoidance and mitigation strategy [4Mb] setting out the approach we will follow to reduce harm to the heathlands from additional residential development. This involves two parts:
- Provision of Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space (SANG)
- Provision of Strategic Access and Monitoring Measures (SAMMS) to reduce the impact of visitors to the SPA
The important tracts of heathland which affect Rushmoor are:
- Bourley/Long Valley and Eelmoor Marsh to the west
- Thursley, Ash, Pirbright and Chobham Commons to the east
- Hawley Common to the north west
The whole of Rushmoor is within five kilometres (approximately three miles) of the SPA boundary.
Our avoidance and mitigation strategy
We put in place the avoidance and mitigation strategy in March 2011. This enables us to collect contributions from developers to help provide and improve publicly accessible open space at Hawley Meadows in the Blackwater Valley, Southwood Woodland and Rowhill Nature Reserve. These three sites provide enough capacity to support the level of housing set out in our core strategy but we have recently experienced increasing pressure to allocate this limited capacity to 'windfall' sites, which were not anticipated by the core strategy and some of which have acquired the potential to be used as housing sites because of changes to Government legislation, which post-date the core strategy .
It is at the discretion of the Head of Planning to decide how we allocate these opportunities for developers to make financial contributions, taking into consideration the criteria approved by our Cabinet on 17 June 2014 [282kb] and set out in the avoidance and mitigation strategy [4Mb] (as amended).
Opportunities for developers
Developers have the opportunity to provide either Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANGs) as part of their scheme or, subject to available capacity, contribute towards SANGs we have facilitated at Hawley Meadows, Southwood Woodland, and Rowhill Nature Reserve.
Strategic Access Management and Monitoring Measures (SAMMs)
The avoidance and mitigation strategy also sets out our approach to developers' contributions towards SAMMs. This requires a contribution towards managing and monitoring the effectiveness of SANGs which is calculated on proposed property sizes.
Advice for developers who want to overcome Natural England's objections to residential schemes
Before applying for planning permission, we would ask developers who want to overcome Natural England's objections to residential schemes by contributing to these projects to make a request in writing to the Head of Planning. This should include a basic sketch layout and a description of the number and type of units likely to be featured in the planning application.
They should explain how the scheme would address the allocation criteria and, in particular, give precise details of when the development will take place and the housing provided, if we grant planning permission.
Considering requests from developers for mitigation capacity
We will not allow proposals that are unlikely to be implemented within a reasonable period of time because of complex land ownership or tenancy issues, or which are submitted as part of a valuation exercise, to prevent the delivery of housing by locking up SANG capacity for extended periods.
Developers will commit to providing funding by a section 106 undertaking or agreement and the allocation will reflect the life of the planning permission.
Allocation of mitigation capacity
If we allocate mitigation capacity to a planning permission, which expires without being implemented, the developer cannot assume we will award mitigation again.
We will continue to assess each case on its merits, in our role as set out in the habitat regulations.
Implementing the avoidance and mitigation strategy
In a small number of cases in the past, developers have provided sufficient objective evidence that their scheme would not have a significant impact on the Thames Basin Special Protection Area (SPA). Now that we have an adopted core strategy policy relating to the SPA and the first and second stages of an avoidance and mitigation strategy in place, we will be making sure that we implement the avoidance strategy effectively. This means that we are unlikely to consider favourably schemes that do not meet the requirement of the strategy.
Limited mitigation capacity and future opportunities
The mitigation capacity of the three SANGs, together with the specific SANG land to be provided as part of the Aldershot Urban Extension 'Wellesley' development are sufficient to support the delivery of housing set out in the our core strategy.
From the implementation of the strategy up to April 2014, we allocated approximately one third of the SANG capacity in our control to implemented developments, with the required contributions having been paid. Of the remaining capacity, most are the subject of offers for development schemes, for which we have granted planning permission but which have not yet been carried out, or which we have still to determine.
This means we cannot meet all requests by prospective developers for the allocation of existing capacity on demand. This situation can change if we refuse planning permission for some schemes, others are withdrawn or some planning permissions expire without having been implemented.
Cabinet decision - 17 June 2014
Our Cabinet on 17 June 2014 [282kb] considered and accepted the recommendations of a report on how to manage the demand for mitigation capacity within the council's ownership or control.
We will set out fully the changes arising from this decision shortly in a revised version of the avoidance and mitigation strategy, which we will publish on this page.
The main and most immediate effects of these changes are:
- We will place credible development proposals, for which capacity is not currently available, on a waiting list and inform the applicants if, and when, we can offer sufficient capacity
- Planning permission for residential developments using SANG capacity that we have allocated will last one year to ensure early implementation and housing delivery. Schemes which are not implemented within this period will, on expiry, lose their allocation to schemes on the waiting list
- We will relax the geographical restraint on allocation of SANG capacity to development proposals of fewer than ten units to make better use of the remaining capacity
Potential applicants should also note that we will not allocate SANG capacity to developers who are clearly seeking to sub-divide sites or buildings into parcels of fewer than ten units in an attempt to secure SANG capacity in small stages in advance of other schemes.
Prior approval applications - 'permitted development' for conversions to residential use
Developers pursuing schemes to convert buildings to residential use as 'permitted development' by submitting applications for prior approval under recent changes to planning legislation will have to satisfy the habitats regulations by submitting an application under Regulation 75, [401kb] and providing mitigation through a section106 undertaking. A requirement of such agreements will be that the proposal is implemented within one year to reflect the same constraint imposed on planning permissions.
Our position on planning permission
We will not recommend the grant of planning permission or give prior approval to a scheme that does not have an allocation from one of our SANGs unless the developer has made other arrangements to provide mitigation which satisfies Natural England's criteria and those of the habitats regulations.
We are working with other councils and Natural England to explore further opportunities for SANG provision. As these arise, we will update the avoidance and mitigation strategy.
How to find out more about our position on the Special Protection Area
For more information on our position on the Special Protection Area, please contact our development manager using the contact details on this page.