Protected sites and areas: how to review planning applications

As a planning authority, find out how to review applications that might affect protected sites and areas.

Applies to England

You must consider whether a proposed development might affect a protected site or area when reviewing a planning application.

Types of protected sites and areas

You’ll need to check if the proposed development is on, or might affect any of the following.

An internationally or European protected site:

  • special area of conservation (SAC)
  • special protection area (SPA)
  • Ramsar wetland
  • potential SPA, possible SAC or proposed Ramsar wetland

A nationally protected site:

  • site of special scientific interest (SSSI)
  • marine conservation zone (MCZ)

A locally protected site:

  • local nature reserve
  • local wildlife site
  • local geological site

A protected area:

  • national park or the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads
  • area of outstanding natural beauty
  • heritage coast

You need to assess the impact on protected sites and areas and make sure they’re protected in line with their status. Where more than one type of protected site is affected, internationally protected sites have the highest status, then national, then local.

Check if a protected site is affected

Use Magic Map to check if the planning proposal relates to land on or near a protected site. Search for the location then select the ‘Designations’ option.

For SSSIs, SPAs, SACs or Ramsar wetlands, expand the ‘Land-Based Designations’ and ‘Statutory’ options and select:

  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest (England)
  • Special Protection Areas (England)
  • Special Areas of Conservation (England)
  • Ramsar Sites (England)
  • SSSI Impact Risk Zones

You may need to zoom to see the boundaries of Impact Risk Zones.

For marine SPAs, SACs or MCZs, expand the ‘Marine Designations’ and ‘Statutory’ options and select:

  • Marine Conservation Zones (England)
  • Special Protection Area (Marine) (GB)
  • Special Area of Conservation (Inshore) (GB)
  • Special Area of Conservation (Offshore) (GB)

Find out more information by selecting the ‘i’ icon in the ‘Feature tools’ and then select the location on the map.

If the proposals fall within the ‘SSSI Impact Risk Zone’, click the ‘Site Check’ button to help you decide if a SSSI, SAC, SPA or Ramsar wetland might be affected. For SSSIs, you should also check the Designated Sites database to find out about the activities that are likely to damage a specific site.

You can also download the SSSI impact risk zone and marine conservation zone data to use with your geographic information system software.

Local sites information (including location and protected features) is held by each local authority.

When a protected site is affected

Consult Natural England if you believe the proposed development is:

  • in or likely to affect a SSSI
  • likely to have significant effects on a SAC, SPA or Ramsar wetland (or a potential SPA, a possible SAC or a proposed Ramsar wetland)
  • likely to significantly affect the objectives of a MCZ

You’ll also need to do a habitats regulations assessment to check the effects of the development against the site’s conservation objectives for:

  • SACs
  • SPAs
  • Ramsar wetlands
  • potential SPAs, possible SACs or proposed Ramsar wetlands

Check if a protected area is affected

Use Magic Map to check if the proposal could affect a protected area. Search for the location then select the ‘Designations’ option.

For national parks, the Norfolk or Suffolk Broads or an area of outstanding natural beauty:

  • expand the ‘Land-Based Designations’ and ‘Statutory’ options
  • select the ‘National Parks’ and ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ options

For heritage coasts:

  • expand the ‘Land-Based Designations’ and ‘Non-Statutory’ options
  • select the ‘Heritage Coast’ option

Find out more information by selecting the ‘i’ icon in the ‘Feature tools’ and then select the location on the map.

When a protected area is affected

You can consult Natural England if you need advice to help you make a decision on a planning application that might have a significant impact on a protected area.

Assess planning proposals

If you identify that a planning application relates to land that is on or could affect a protected site or area, you’ll need to investigate the potential impact.

Use the National Planning Policy Framework to find out how to assess planning proposals that affect protected sites or areas. You can also get advice from the environmental agencies.

For specialist information on particular types of site, you should read:

Make a decision

Make sure you consider the following issues before you make a decision on planning proposals.

Check risks are minimised

Check that the applicant has included plans to avoid affecting a protected site or area.

When it isn’t possible to avoid affecting protected sites or areas, applicants should have a mitigation strategy to:

  • reduce the negative effects of their proposal
  • show how they will implement risk reduction measures

Use Natural England’s conservation advice for land-based protected sites and marine protected areas to understand how to reduce the impact on special wildlife sites.

Natural England can object to a planning application if mitigation measures aren’t acceptable. Make sure the mitigation strategy:

  • is effective against the predicted impact of the proposed development on a protected site or area
  • is reliable, carried out at the right time and followed through to completion
  • will be in place in the long term

As a last resort, you may need to request that appropriate compensation measures are included (such as habitat creation on another site) if it isn’t possible to minimise the risks to the protected site.

Agree mitigation and compensation measures

You’ll need to agree any mitigation or compensatory measures as part of the proposal.

To make sure that the agreed measures are effective when granting planning permission, you may have to consider including a:

  • planning condition or planning obligation (known as a ‘section 106 agreement’) to impose requirements on the developer, such as to get the developer to pay for long-term management, monitoring or maintenance of the site or restrict development
  • review plan to adjust measures if necessary

Consult Natural England

Email planning applications to:

Natural England Consultation Service
Hornbeam House
Electra Way
Crewe Business Park

Published 5 August 2016