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Designated Sites and Habitats Regulations Assessment

1. Designated sites – introduction

Vale of White Horse has a rich range of specially protected sites, which together form a core network of the most important places in the District for biodiversity. These designated sites vary from international to local importance and include:

  • Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) – International importance
  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) – National importance
  • National Nature Reserves (NNRs) – National importance
  • Local Nature Reserves (LNRs) – Local importance
  • Local Wildlife Sites (LWS) – Local importance

In general, the Council expects developers to avoid impacts on designated sites, in line with the Local Plan. You should be aware that impacts on designated sites may not be limited to direct loss of, or damage to the site within the footprint of a development. Many designated sites within the District protect species or habitats that are vulnerable to indirect habitats that can occur some distance away from a development, such as:

  • Water pollution or air pollution (including from increased road traffic)
  • Dust or noise during construction nearby
  • Disturbance of species during construction
  • Predation of species by increased numbers of pets (such as cats) caused by new housing
  • Effects of increased recreational pressure caused by more residents, such as vandalism, littering, dog fouling, path erosion, trampling and disturbance of species.

You should consider these and any other relevant types of impacts in the information provided with a planning application. Impacts on designated sites should be assessed relative to the site’s importance. Proposals with potential impacts (“significant effects”) on SACs must demonstrate that the integrity of the SAC is not compromised and will require special consideration using a specific method, “Habitats Regulations Assessment” or HRA. This may include effects on SACs outside the boundaries of Vale of White Horse. For more details about the Council’s requirements for HRA, see below.

Development impacts on SSSIs and NNRs are also only justifiable in exceptional circumstances. Impacts must be avoided, and where this is not possible you must supply a clear justification for why a less damaging alternative for the development could not be pursued. The Council will require a comprehensive assessment of impacts and a thorough scheme to mitigate or compensate these. The remaining sites are of local or county importance: projects with potential adverse impacts on locally designated sites will still need to justify why a less damaging alternative could not be followed, include an assessment of impacts and describe any necessary measures to protect or restore the integrity of the site.

For more information on Local Wildlife Sites, many of which are under private ownership, see the dedicated LWS page.

Developments in the south-west of the District may have impacts on the River Lambourn SAC. This protected area covers an internationally important chalk river and is outside the District in West Berkshire, but is vulnerable to increases in dissolved nutrients within the river catchment, part of which is within Vale of White Horse. Developments within the catchment that involve a net increase in residential units, and some other types of development, will need to demonstrate Nutrient Neutrality. For more information, see the dedicated page.

2. European Designated Sites

What are European Designated Sites?

The small number of SACs within the District are “European Designated Sites” – they protect habitats or species of international value and are of the very highest importance for nature conservation. Together with SACs elsewhere (and other types of European designated Sites not found within the District), they form part of the “National Site Network”. European Designated Sites are protected under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended). These regulations are referred to throughout this page as “The Habitats Regulations”.

Two SACs are found within the District:

  • Hackpen Hill SAC
  • Cothill Fen SAC

In addition to these two SACs, two additional sites are located outside the District, but are sufficiently close to the District boundary that there may be impacts on them from certain types of development:

  • Oxford Meadows SAC (Within Oxford City, Cherwell District and West Oxfordshire District)
  • River Lambourn SAC (Within West Berkshire)

In the case of the River Lambourn SAC, there are specific requirements for assessment and mitigation, which are described on a separate page. 

The map above shows the locations of the SACs within the District. You can click on the map to open a larger version in a new tab. For more information on the characteristics of the SACs and the ecological features for which they are designated, see Natural England’s Designated sites viewer.

3. HRA: The Council’s responsibility

Like other designated sites, European designated sites are a material consideration under planning within the Local Plan (see the main page on biodiversity and planning). Under the Habitats Regulations, the Council has a specific duty as a “Competent Authority” to ensure that European designated sites are protected, conserved and restored, during the normal exercise of its duties. If any plan (such as a Local Plan) or project (such as a planning application) is likely to affect a European designated site such as an SAC, the Council must carry out a formal assessment process called Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA).

HRA is specifically designed to determine whether a plan or project will have a “significant effect” – an impact which will specifically harm the “integrity” of the European site by undermining the conservation objectives for the site. The HRA process must consider significant effects of the plan or project in isolation or in combination with other plans/projects.

As the Competent Authority, it is the Council’s responsibility to make an assessment under the HRA process.  However, as an applicant for planning permission, you will need to provide sufficient information to inform this process at each of its stages. The HRA process has two main stages, Screening and Appropriate Assessment

4. The HRA process: Screening

Screening is intended to filter out proposals which are obviously unlikely to impact a European designated site at an early stage. During screening, the Council will consider whether:

  • The proposals are directly related to the management and/or enhancement of the international designated site. If so, they are likely to have no significant effect and the proposal can be screened out of further assessment.
  • A proposal is likely to have any significant effects on the designated site. If no reasonable impact pathways can be identified (for instance, if the development site is distant from any SAC, there is no ecological connectivity, and if the scope of the project is small), then it can be concluded that there will be no likely significant effect.

For the purposes of the second screening criterion above, the proposal will be considered in isolation from any specific SAC mitigation measures included within the scheme. If the proposals do not pass the above criteria or rely on mitigation to avoid significant effects, a significant effect is “likely” (i.e. it cannot be excluded on the basis of objective evidence), and the project must be taken forward to Appropriate Assessment.

5. The HRA Process: Appropriate Assessment

Appropriate Assessment is more detailed than screening and will consider all types of possible significant effect of the proposals, with and without any proposed mitigation measures, and alone or in combination with any other plans or projects. This can include Local Plans: for instance, will an additional housing development that has no significant effect in isolation actually cause a significant effect in combination with nearby allocations in the Local Plan?

If the Appropriate Assessment concludes that there will be a significant effect on the integrity of the European Designated Site, even accounting for mitigation, the “Integrity Test” has been failed and planning permission will typically be refused.

6. The HRA process: exemptions for developments which have failed the Integrity test:

In certain circumstances, proposals may be allowed even if they have failed the “Integrity Test”. All three of the following further tests must be met, in order:

  • There are no feasible alternative solutions that would be less damaging or avoid damage to the site.
  • The proposal needs to be carried out for imperative reasons of overriding public interest.
  • The necessary compensatory measures can be secured and are sufficient.

Where proposals have failed the Integrity Test, careful further consideration against these further tests will be made by the Council, with detailed discussion conducted with applicants and with statutory consultees, including Natural England.

7. HRA: What you need to do

Due to the large variety of types of planning application and the different characters and sensitivities of the District’s SACs, there is no “one size fits all approach”. It is not possible to provide standardised guidance about whether a specific project is likely to trigger the need for HRA (with the exception of developments within the River Lambourn Catchment, see dedicated page) or to give specific advice about what information should be presented to inform the HRA process. Due to the specialist ecological knowledge required, it is recommended that an ecologist is consulted to advise whether a project is likely to be screened into HRA. Applicants and their ecologists are recommended to use the HRA reports commissioned by the Council for the adopted Local Plan and for the emerging Joint Local Plan (screening report) for guidance. These list the following types of potential impacts that could give rise to a significant effect on the District’s SACs, although they are not necessarily exhaustive:

  • Atmospheric pollution from roads, industry and agricultural sources. Air pollution can be increased above baseline levels by increased road use or the construction of new industry or agricultural facilities, and can affect SACs by changing soil fertility and vegetation composition.
  • Recreational disturbance from increased numbers of visitors to an SAC. This can include physical damage such as path erosion, vandalism, littering and dog fouling; as well as indirect effects such as disturbance of animals within an SAC.
  • Hydrological changes and water pollution within an upstream drainage catchment of an SAC. These effects can include altered water flows or levels and increased levels of nutrients or chemical pollutants within water entering an SAC. These changes can affect water quality and vegetation composition in aquatic habitats.

At a minimum and as a general guide, the Council recommends developments within 10 km of an SAC should demonstrate that they have considered whether an HRA is required. Many developments within this area will demonstrably be too limited in scope and/or too distant from an SAC to be screened in. In these cases, it may be sufficient to include a simple statement within the ecology report to confirm that a significant effect is unlikely and providing brief justification for screening a proposal out of HRA. In more complicated situations, a standalone report is likely to be necessary, presenting a more detailed and evidenced screening opinion and (where necessary) Appropriate Assessment. Such a report should inform the Council’s HRA by:

  • Describing the SAC(s) with potential to be affected by the proposals, listing their features (habitats and species) with respect to published information
  • Systematically identifying different possible impact pathways on each feature within each SAC and assessing which are likely to constitute significant effects.
  • Incorporating assessment of the potential for in-combination effects
  • Assessing the degree to which the integrity of the SAC(s) is likely to be affected.
  • Presenting measures to mitigate the effects.

You should also note that in some cases there may be impacts on SACs greater than 10 km away from the development site. This could occur where a development causes a large increase on traffic on a major road that passes close to a more distant SAC (a particular concern with the Oxford Meadows and Aston Rowant SACs, which are close to or bisected by major trunk routes). A screening distance greater than 10 km may also be appropriate where a development is within a hydrological catchment of a more distant SAC (such as the River Lambourn SAC, see separate page).