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Special Area of Conservation
here are 608 SACs in the United Kingdom (August 2007). SPAs, and SACs together form a network of protected sites across the EU called "Natura 2000". Compared with other designations SACs tend to be large, often covering a number of separate but related sites, and sometimes including areas of developed land. In fact, the boundaries of some SACs are not very clearly defined, and some are still under discussion. Unlike other designations, SACs can stretch beyond the low tide mark into the marine environment. In fact, some are almost all marine in extent.
Selection of Special Areas of Conservation in the UK:
Because the EU threatened to take legal action against the UK on the grounds that insufficient areas were designated it is likely that some extra SACs will be designated in the UK in the future.
Almost all UK SACs are based on SSSIs (although SSSIs cannot extend beyond low tide and SACs can). In planning law, they are effectively afforded the highest possible protection.
The extent to which this new(ish) designation is heeded varies greatly. In theory, SACs have a very high degree of protection - certainly higher than a SSSI. A key difference is that for an SSSI, planning authorities have considerable discretion to decide whether or not an application will affect a site, and act accordingly. For an SAC, by contrast, if as a result of an application there is 'likely to be a significant effect' on the designated features of the SAC (i.e. almost anything, including things not within the boundaries of the SAC and the cumulative effect of several separate applications) then the planning authority must obtain an 'appropriate assessment' of the application and its likely effect. However, only if there is 'likely to be a significant effect' on the designated features of the SAC is an appropriate assessment required. This is important, as the features of many SACs represent only a small proportion of the wildlife within the SAC - this is particularly the case for single species sites. Creating an 'appropriate assessment' invariably includes taking the advice of the appropriate government agency (eg Natural England), and to ignore such advice a planning authority would need to have some very strong reason. Unless this assessment shows that the application is utterly benign then the freedom to accept an application is much more constrained than it is for SSSIs. However, in practice this has sometimes not been strictly enforced, sometimes apparently because of ignorance on the part of the planning authority and even government agencies.
The whole process is very complex, and much of it has not been tried and tested. In particular, as there are few such applications and the SAC designation is of relatively recent origin there are few historical decisions to refer to to make comparisons when planning applications affect an SAC. The result of this is that decisions can be slow, often controversial, and hard to predict. This creates some difficult problems almost anywhere where an SAC is affected or potentially affected by development.
Natural England is the body responsible for advising on SACs in England. The bodies responsible for advising on SACs in Wales and Scotland are the Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage respectively.
The EC Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) (Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora) agreed at the Environment Council in December 1991 was adopted in May 1992. Each member state must compile a list of areas containing the habitat types and species listed in the Directive. These areas are to be protected for the purpose of conserving Europe's rarest flora and fauna species and habitat type; and may be designated both on land and at sea. Most are likely to be drawn from the existing SSSI network. Most of these areas will in due course be designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), to ensure that they are protected from deterioration and damage.
The EU Habitats Directive (Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora), 1992 complements the EU Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds and covers species other than birds. Habitats and species of "community interest" are identified, according to certain criteria, and these must be maintained at "favourable conservation status", again as specified by particular criteria. The mechanism for protection is through designation of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), both for habitats and for certain species. There are also measures for the protection of certain species which were not previously protected by other legislation. The legal instrument for implementing the Directive in the UK is the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations, 1994. These provide (a) for the protection of species listed in the Habitats Directive, and (b) for the conservation of habitats, namely the SACs designated under the Habitats Directive and the SPAs designated under the Birds Directive. As noted, this protection could be somewhat stronger than that afforded to SSSIs, particularly as regards existing planning permissions. Conservation bodies have pointed out loopholes, however, in both species and habitat protection. Further changes are likely, so check the latest position if it's important to you.