Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area

There is a need to balance residential development against safeguarding the habitats of protected bird species on 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.

European Court of Justice ruling - April 2018

The European Court of Justice judgement in 'People Over Wind, Peter Sweetman v Coillte Teoranta C-323/17 established the legal principle that a full appropriate assessment (AA) must be carried out for all planning applications involving a net gain in residential units in areas affected by the Thames Basin Heaths SPA, and that this process cannot take into account any proposed measures to mitigate any likely impact at the assessment stage.

The applicant is responsible for providing us with sufficient information to enable a full appropriate assessment to be carried out in accordance with the requirements of The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010.

As a result of this judgement, we can no longer conclude that the assignment of, or provision of, mitigation capacity at the point of application is sufficient to remove the requirement for a full appropriate assessment. We have therefore added information sufficient to support a full appropriate assessment to our list of local requirements for information needed to support planning applications, certificate of lawfulness and prior approval submissions affected by the SPA issue. 

Natural England's view

Natural England, the government's advisory body on ecological matters, considers 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 therefore have to consider carefully the effects of residential development on the heathland.

The implication of the pdf icon 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

Because Natural England's view is that the impact on the Special Protection Area should be avoided by providing mitigation, it 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 1,000 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 pdf icon avoidance and mitigation strategy (AMS) [5Mb] 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 (SAMM) 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.

We will consider all residential planning applications against the requirements of the pdf icon avoidance and mitigation strategy [5Mb] (as amended) and Policy NE1 of the 2019 Rushmoor Local Plan.

Our avoidance and mitigation strategy

Our pdf icon avoidance and mitigation strategy [5Mb] has enabled 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. The available capacity in these three areas is now close to being completely taken up.

Arrangements are now in place to direct contributions to open space close to our borders in our neighbouring district of Hart.

During summer 2019 we will start to create a new publicly-accessible open space on the site of the former Southwood Golf Course which will provide further mitigation capacity to support housing growth.

It is at the discretion of the Head of Economy, Planning and Strategic Housing to decide how we allocate opportunities for developers to make financial contributions, taking into consideration the criteria that our Cabinet approved at its meeting on 22 August 2017 and set out in the  pdf icon avoidance and mitigation strategy [5Mb] (as amended).

Opportunities for developers

Once a proposal has been the subject of a full appropriate assessment, as set out in the requirements of The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, developers have the opportunity to address the likely impact through provision of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANGs) as part of their scheme or, subject to available capacity, contribute towards SANGs over which we have ownership or control.

Strategic Access Management and Monitoring Measures (SAMMs)

The pdf icon avoidance and mitigation strategy [5Mb] 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 advise developers, who want to overcome Natural England's objections to residential schemes by contributing to these projects, to engage in a pre-application discussionabout their proposal if they wish to support it with an allocation of mitigation capacity from that which the council owns or has a measure of control over. This pre-application submission, should include a sketch layout and a description of the number and type of units expected to be featured in the planning application.

They should explain how the scheme would address our planning policies and 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 allocate mitigation capacity to 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. This could impede the delivery of housing elsewhere 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 offer 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

Now that an adopted Local Plan policy relating to the SPA and the pdf icon avoidance and mitigation strategy [5Mb] are 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 its requirements.

Cabinet  decision - 22 August 2017

At its meeting on 22 August 2017, our Cabinet considered and accepted the recommendations of a report on a joint working arrangement to secure additional SANG capacity with Hart District Council and a revised version of the pdf icon avoidance and mitigation strategy [5Mb] to reflect this.

Potential applicants for SANG capacity

Potential applicants should also be aware 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 pdf icon Regulation 75 of the habitats regulations [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.

Permission in principle

As with permitted development, because all land in Rushmoor is close to the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA), all-housing led development is considered 'habitats development'. This means that the ability to seek permission in principle introduced in June 2018 does not apply to sites in the borough. You can find out more in National Planning Policy Guidance paragraph ID: 58-004.20180615.

Our position on planning permission

We will not recommend the grant of planning permission to a scheme that does not have an allocation of SANGs capacity unless the developer has made other arrangements to provide mitigation which satisfy Natural England's criteria and those of the habitats regulations.

Although you may seek prior approval for conversion of certain classes of property to residential use, in accordance with the provisions of the General Permitted Development Order, you will not be able to implement these schemes through permitted development rights until you have met the requirements of the Habitats Regulations by submitting, and getting approval of, an application as prescribed in Sections 75 - 78 of the The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017

We are working with other councils and Natural England to create further opportunities for SANG provision. As these arise, we will update the pdf icon avoidance and mitigation strategy [5Mb].

How to find out more about our position on the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area

For more information on our position on the Special Protection Area, please contact our Corporate Planning Manager using the contact details on this page.

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