Sites of special scientific interest: public body responsibilities
Find out about public body responsibilities when carrying out or approving works on or near sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).
As a public body you must take reasonable steps to conserve and enhance the special features of sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) both when carrying out your statutory duties and when giving others permission for works, such as reviewing planning applications.
This could be SSSI land:
- you as the public body own or manage
- that 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
- that could be damaged or affected by planned works by another party (including work outside the SSSI boundaries) that you’ve been asked to approve
Responsible public bodies include:
- the Secretary of State, government departments and 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.
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, impact risk zones, waterways and other land features
- read specific guidance on responsibilities for protecting wild birds and their habitats, for example where birds species may be a special feature of an SSSI and could be affected by work on other land where they feed or nest
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:
- don’t give Natural England notice of your intention to carry out or approve an activity likely to damage an SSSI
- act before you get Natural England’s response
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.
Public body works
As a public body you must ask for advice and ‘assent’ (approval) from Natural England before carrying out works in line with your statutory duties that are likely to damage the condition or special features of an SSSI. This includes planned works on land outside the boundaries of an SSSI but likely to damage it. For example, a local council may need to maintain a road close to an SSSI and the planned works could disrupt a species that’s a special feature.
You don’t need Natural England’s assent for works you’ve decided are unlikely to damage an SSSI. However, if you’re unsure you should speak to your Natural England SSSI adviser. You could be prosecuted and fined if you damage an SSSI.
- Discuss planned works with your Natural England SSSI adviser.
- Ask for Natural England’s assent in writing or email your proposal to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t carry out works until you hear back from Natural England.
Decisions on assent
Natural England will usually reply to you within 28 days of the date on your notice, to give or refuse their assent. If you don’t get a written response within 28 days, you should take this as a refusal of assent. You can pay for the fast-track advice service, if you need advice 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, they 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, or if you believe conditions they’ve attached to an assent are unacceptable. However, if you intend to do so you must again give Natural England written notice, at least 28 days before the start of the works.
You must also:
- explain how you’ve taken into account any advice Natural England gave you - for example to carry out the work at a different time of year
- show that you’ve considered alternatives that could reduce the impact on the SSSI - such as using lighter vehicles to carry materials
- demonstrate how you’ve assessed differing interests (including the special interests of the SSSI) in deciding to go ahead with the works - for example public interest and access to a site assessed against temporary damage to a habitat
If Natural England still has serious concerns about the potential damage to an SSSI it may refer a case to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. 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 an SSSI if:
- you fail to notify Natural England of the works
- you don’t take account of Natural England’s advice
- you cause more damage than necessary
In an emergency, utility companies and other bodies may need to enter SSSI land or carry out essential works nearby. In these situations such as unexpected natural events, it may not be possible to ask for assent or give Natural England the 28 days’ notice that’s normally required before beginning work. However, you should:
- tell Natural England about the works you’re carrying out as soon as possible, and preferably within 24 hours of entering the SSSI or nearby land
- make sure the emergency work causes as little damage to the special features as is reasonably practicable
You must check if you need Natural England’s permission if you own or occupy SSSI land as a public body and plan to carry out only non-statutory works, such as agricultural or recreational activities.
Read the guidance for owners and occupiers of SSSI land to find out when you need Natural England’s consent and how to ask for it in this situation.
Approving works by others
Some public bodies, such as planning authorities, national park authorities, the Forestry Commission and Historic England, are also responsible for permitting others to carry out works that are likely to damage or affect SSSIs. However, they must ask for Natural England’s advice before giving any permission.
Find out more about how to review planning applications.
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 your Natural England SSSI adviser.
Advice and conditions
Natural England will usually reply to you within 28 days of the date on your notice to advise you on whether or not to give permission, with or without conditions.
If you don’t hear back from Natural England within 28 days you can assume it has no comments to make.
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, they might say it would be best that the work is carried out 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.
If Natural England refuses consent
You can still approve works if Natural England recommends you don’t give permission, or if you believe the conditions they’ve 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, and assessed differing interests in order to reach your decision.
Where Natural England still has serious concerns about the potential damage to the SSSI it may refer a case to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Secretary of State may decide to stop you giving the permission until your decision to approve the works has been reviewed at a public inquiry, or Natural England may ask for a judicial review of the decision.
When assent or consent is frequently needed
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. You should still get advice from Natural England.
Get free or charged advice from Natural England
Get advice from Natural England before submitting your proposal to carry out or approve works on or near SSSIs. This will reduce delays in the assent or approval process.
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)
In all cases you’ll get an initial free consultation from Natural England.
Pay for advice
You can pay for additional 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 less than 28 days)
Contact your SSSI adviser as soon as possible if you need our advice quickly.
You should find this advice most useful if you seek it before you submit your assent.
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 reduce 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
For quick advice you’ll need to pay £500 for our fast-track service.
Read Natural England’s terms and conditions for paid-for services (PDF, 140KB, 16 pages) .
Contact Natural England
Published: 20 July 2015
Updated: 1 November 2016
- Amendments to section 'Obtain free or charged advice from Natural England' following introduction of chargeable advice service for protected sites consents.
- Added section on Natural England's free and charged advice.
- Beta label removed.
- First published.
From: Natural England
Related guides: Developers: get environmental advice on your planning proposals