Moorland in snow

Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are classified for the populations of wild birds that they support. Due to an administrative muddle between three parts of government regarding SPA designations (note that there is no dispute on the science behind SPA selection criteria), the planning policy that will dictate the development of Bradford for the next two decades is being forged on an SPA citation that is 14 years out of date. This confusion is potentially widespread, as Andrew Baker’s experience at the recent Examination in Public (EiP) made clear.

Andrew recently gave evidence on behalf of Commercial Estates Group (CEG) at the EiP into the Bradford Core Strategy concerning the restrictions placed upon new house building figures by Bradford Council ostensibly due to the nearby South Pennine Moors SPA (Phase 2). The inspector agreed with Andrew’s evidence at the outset, finding the Core Strategy’s Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA) to be wanting and instructing the Council to revisit the assessment. Although this revised HRA is still pending, the case highlighted important issues relating to the designation of SPAs and the interest features of these sites.

Moorland in snow

Moorland in snow

The history of this is complex, but is summarised below:

  • Prior to 1998, SPAs were designed by English Nature (Natural England’s predecessor) on a somewhat adhoc basis
  • In 1999, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), which has overall responsibility for identifying UK SPAs, produced a set of site selection criteria to formalise this process
  • In 2001, JNCC reviewed all SPAs against the 1999 selection criteria and publicised their recommended changes in a review that was formally submitted to Government (as supported by English Nature, the RSPB and the BTO) and, JNCC claim, the European Commission
  • The review process was not implemented by Natural England and, in all but a handful of cases, the pre-2001 citations are the only documents with legal status
  • Natural England claim that Government didn’t instruct them to implement the review, although DEFRA conversely blame Natural England.

So why does this matter? The South Pennine Moors SPA and the HRA of the Bradford Core Strategy provide a good example. Legally, any plan or project likely to have a significant effect upon an SPA is subject to an HRA, which must assess impacts upon the interest features. The HRA in this instance used the SPA’s original interest features from the 1998 citation, which includes an assemblage of breeding birds, as well as a number of birds that are specifically listed. However, breeding birds assemblages were not included as a reason for SPA site selection in the 1999 selection criteria, which led to breeding bird assemblages being removed from the South Pennine Moors’ interest features in the 2001 review. Furthermore, the 2001 review added additional species to interest lists and, in the case of the South Pennine Moors, the Peregine Falcon was added.

Therefore, in the case of the Bradford Core Strategy, the assessment is being made against the 1998 citation, which includes interest features (in this case, breeding birds assemblages) that JNCC does not consider as a reason for designating the area an SPA. Furthermore, the assessment does not protect species that JNCC consider to be in need of protection (in this case, Peregrine Falcon).

During the EiP, HRAs from other Development Plans within the area were also reviewed and it was found that not one reflected what Natural England regard as the legal definition of the South Pennine Moors SPA (Phase 2).

JNCC is in the process of carrying out another review of the SPA suite and we hope that Natural England’s response to this update will rectify these issues.