Sites of special scientific interest: public body responsibilities

Your responsibilities as a public body when carrying out or approving works on or near sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).

Applies to England

You must take reasonable steps to conserve and enhance the special features of sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) when:

  • carrying out your statutory duties
  • giving others permission for works, such as reviewing planning applications

This could be SSSI land that:

  • you own or manage
  • could be damaged or affected by off-site works - for example if you’re from the Environment Agency and you plan to carry out flood defence work nearby
  • could be damaged or affected by planned works by another party that you’ve been asked to approve - including work outside the boundaries of a SSSI work Responsible public bodies include:

  • government departments and their agencies
  • local authorities, including planning authorities
  • ‘statutory undertakers’ such as water and electricity companies

The notification periods in this guidance take precedence over any other statutory review periods for consulting on proposals and issuing consents.

Protecting SSSIs

You must consider the potential impact on SSSI land and any special habitats and species of activities and works:

  • you plan to carry out as a public body
  • proposed by others that you may consent to

To help you assess the impact, you can:

  • use the Designated sites system to find out which habitats and species are special features of a site, and which activities are likely to damage them
  • use the Magic map to view all designations, SSSI Impact Risk Zones, waterways and other land features
  • read specific guidance on responsibilities for protecting wild birds and their habitats - for example where bird species may be a special feature of an SSSI and could be affected by work on other land where they feed or nest

Natural England consults public bodies in writing about new SSSIs and changes to existing ones, sharing information about the sites. You can use this information to make an assessment of the potential impact of your activities and others’ plans.

When planning your work and approving that of others, you must:

  • prefer methods that cause as little damage as is reasonably practicable
  • make sure the site can be restored to its former condition, where practicable, if works do cause damage

You could be fined £20,000 in a magistrate’s court or get an unlimited fine in the Crown Court if you:

  • do not give Natural England notice of your intention to carry out or approve an activity likely to damage a SSSI
  • act before you get Natural England’s response

Public body works

You must ask for advice and approval (known as ‘assent’) from Natural England before carrying out works in line with your statutory duties that are likely to damage the condition or special features of a SSSI. This includes planned works on land outside the boundaries of a SSSI that are likely to damage it. For example, you may need to maintain a road close to a SSSI where the planned works could disrupt a species that’s a special feature. e

You do not need Natural England’s assent for works that you’ve decided are unlikely to damage a SSSI. You could be prosecuted and fined if you damage a SSSI. Contact Natural England if you’re unsure.

Request assent

You must:

Natural England may contact you if it needs:

  • more details about your request
  • to clarify any issues about your request

You must not carry out works until you get a reply from Natural England.

You can pay for Natural England to do a quick check of your notice to make sure it contains the information required for it to make a decision.

Decisions on assent applications

Natural England will usually reply to you within 28 days of the date on your notice, to give or refuse their assent. If you do not get a written response within 28 days, you should take this as a refusal of assent. You can pay for fast-track advice if you need its decision quicker than 28 days (subject to availability).

Natural England may give you advice on the impact of the proposal and give their assent with conditions. For example, it might say that the work should be carried out at a certain time of year to limit damage to the land. You may also need to apply for a licence if the work will have an impact on a protected species.

If you decide to go ahead without assent

You can still carry out works if:

  • Natural England refuses to give its assent
  • you believe the conditions attached to an assent are unacceptable

You must give Natural England written notice at least 28 days before the start of the works if you intend to go ahead without assent. You must show that you’ve:

  • taken into account any advice Natural England gave you
  • considered alternatives that could reduce the impact on the SSSI, such as using lighter vehicles to carry materials
  • weighed the balance between conflicting interests, including the special interest of the SSSI

Natural England may refer a case to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if it still has serious concerns about the potential damage to a SSSI. This can lead to a judicial review of the public body’s decision to go ahead with the works.

You could be prosecuted and made to restore the features of a SSSI if you:

  • fail to notify Natural England of the works
  • do not take account of Natural England’s advice
  • cause more damage than necessary

Emergency works

In an emergency, utility companies and other bodies may need to enter SSSI land or carry out essential works nearby. It may not be possible to ask for Natural England’s assent or give Natural England the 28 days’ notice that’s normally required before beginning work. In this situation, you should:

  • tell Natural England about the work you’re carrying out as soon as possible and preferably within 24 hours of entering a SSSI or nearby land by contacting
  • make sure the emergency work causes as little damage to the special features as possible

You cannot regard works that have included planning in advance as emergency works.

Approving works by others

If your public body is also responsible for permitting others to carry out works or hold recreational events that are likely to damage or affect SSSIs, you must ask Natural England for advice before giving permission.

For example, if Forestry England wanted to allow another organisation to hold recreational events on land they own.

If you’re a local planning authority, find out more about how to review planning applications.

Who’s responsible

You’re responsible for making decisions on proposals and asking for Natural England’s advice where a plan or project is likely to damage an SSSI unless:

  • another competent authority has already assessed a proposal, in which case you can choose to accept their decision
  • you believe it would be more appropriate for another competent authority to assess the proposal

Ask for Natural England’s advice

If you want to give permission for planned works you should first discuss this with Natural England.

You must then notify Natural England in writing or email the proposal to at least 28 days before giving your permission.

Advice and conditions

Natural England will usually reply to you within 28 days of receiving your written notice to advise you whether to give permission or not. You can assume Natural England has no comments to make if you do not hear back within 28 days.

Natural England may give you advice on the likely impact of the proposal and recommend that you give your permission only with conditions. For example, Natural England might say that it would be best to carry out the work using particular materials. You or the developer may also need to apply for a licence if the work will have an impact on a protected species.

You can still approve works if:

  • Natural England recommends you do not give permission
  • you believe the conditions Natural England suggested you attach to a permission are unacceptable

However, if you intend to do so you must again give Natural England notice.

Write to or email Natural England at least 21 days before the start of the works, including a copy of the permission you propose to give.

As with works carried out by public bodies, you must explain how:

  • you’ve taken Natural England’s advice into account
  • considered alternatives
  • assessed differing interests in order to reach your decision

Natural England may refer a case to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if it still has serious concerns about the potential damage to an SSSI. The Secretary of State may decide to stop you giving permission until your decision to approve the work has been reviewed at a public inquiry, or Natural England may ask for a judicial review of the decision.

Natural England may work with public bodies to:

  • give their assent or consent in advance for general and recurring operations that the body will carry out or consent to
  • agree ‘memoranda of understanding’ with public bodies who have large landholdings and frequently require consents, in order to speed the process in future and better protect a site’s special features

Sites of international significance

If you want to carry out or approve work on or near an SSSI that’s also a protected European or Ramsar site, such as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) or Special Protection Area (SPA), you’ll need to carry out a habitats regulations assessment (HRA).

You must include a copy of the HRA with your notice for assent or to give consent if it shows there’s a likely significant effect of the activity on the protected site.

You should still contact Natural England for advice.

If your site is a SAC or a SPA, read about your duty to protect, conserve and restore European sites.

You may also want to follow Natural England’s European sites conservation advice and marine protected areas conservation advice.

Get advice

You may be able to get free or charged advice from Natural England before submitting your proposal to carry out or approve works on or near SSSIs to help reduce delays in the assent or consent process.

Free advice

You can get free advice from Natural England:

  • to check whether your proposal will significantly affect a protected site or species
  • on what you should include with your proposal
  • about routine and repeated activities on the protected site, including routine agricultural activities
  • about activities mainly aimed at achieving favourable condition (that is habitats and features which are in a healthy state and being conserved by appropriate management)

Pay for advice

You can pay for extra advice from Natural England if what you want to do is more complicated. Natural England can:

  • help you review your survey results
  • advise on your mitigation strategies to reduce damage to the environment
  • help if you need advice quickly (in fewer than 28 days)
  • help if you need complex advice to meet a defined deadline

Contact Natural England as soon as possible if you need its advice quickly. It’ll be most useful before you submit your consent application.

How much you might pay depends on:

  • the amount of advice you require from Natural England and how complex your proposal is
  • whether or not a Natural England adviser needs to visit your site
  • how quickly you need our advice

If you want advice to avoid damage to protected sites or species, you’ll pay £110 per hour.

If you want a meeting you’ll pay:

  • £500 per adviser for a 90 minute meeting at your office or site, a Natural England office or via conference call
  • £110 per hour per adviser for each additional hour

If you want an adviser to travel to your site, you’ll pay the adviser’s:

  • travel costs at 45p per mile
  • public transport, tolls and expenses over and above the mileage at cost
  • travel time as part of the hourly rate

Get fast-track advice

You’ll pay:

  • £500 for advice on a straightforward case in less than 28 days

  • £110 per hour, per adviser on a complex case to your defined deadline

Natural England will tell you which level of advice applies to your proposal.

Use the quick check service

You’ll pay £200 for Natural England to check that your proposal contains the information required for it to make a decision. You’ll get a response within 28 days. This service is not suitable for complex cases.

Use the quick check assent request form and send it with your assent notice form to

Apply for advice

Use the:

Email the relevant completed form to:

Read Natural England’s terms and conditions for paid-for services (PDF, 140 KB, 16 pages).


If you need help contact:

SSSI enquiries

Farm and Conservation Service
Natural England
County Hall
Spetchley Road


Telephone 0300 060 3900

Published 20 July 2015
Last updated 5 August 2022 + show all updates
  1. If Natural England advises consent refusal, write to Natural England at least 21 days before the start of the works (not 21 working days).

  2. Updated the guide on getting free advice from Natural England.

  3. Updated 'Approving works by others' section to clarify public body responsibilities when allowing recreational events in sites of special scientific interest.

  4. Natural England will respond within 28 days, not 28 working days.

  5. Charged advice forms added.

  6. Amendments to section 'Obtain free or charged advice from Natural England' following introduction of chargeable advice service for protected sites consents.

  7. Added section on Natural England's free and charged advice.

  8. Beta label removed.

  9. First published.