Guidance

Sites of special scientific interest: public body responsibilities

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

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

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, 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:

  • 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

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 an SSSI. This includes planned works on land outside the boundaries of an SSSI that are likely to damage it. For example, you may need to maintain a road close to an SSSI where the planned works could disrupt a species that’s a special feature.

You don’t need Natural England’s assent for works that you’ve decided are unlikely to damage an SSSI. You could be prosecuted and fined if you damage an SSSI. Speak to your Natural England SSSI adviser if you’re unsure.

Request assent

  1. Discuss planned works with your Natural England SSSI adviser.
  2. Ask for Natural England’s assent in writing or email your proposal to enquiries@naturalengland.org.uk.

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 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, 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 an 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 an SSSI if you:

  • fail to notify Natural England of the works
  • don’t 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 works you’re carrying out as soon as possible and preferably within 24 hours of entering an SSSI or nearby land
  • make sure the emergency work causes as little damage to the special features as possible

Non-statutory activities

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

Other 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.

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 your Natural England SSSI adviser.

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

Advice and conditions

Natural England will usually reply to you within 28 days of the date on your notice to advise you whether to give permission or not. You can assume Natural England has no comments to make if you don’t 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 don’t 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 works 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 or Special Protection Area, you’ll need to carry out a habitats regulations assessment. You should still get advice from Natural England.

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

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.

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)

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.

Complete the assent advice request form and email it to consultations@naturalengland.org.uk.

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

Contact Natural England

Enquiries

Natural England
County Hall, Spetchley Road
Worcester
WR5 2NP

Opening times: 8:30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays)

Find out about call charges at www.gov.uk/call-charges.

Published 20 July 2015
Last updated 1 November 2016 + show all updates
  1. Amendments to section 'Obtain free or charged advice from Natural England' following introduction of chargeable advice service for protected sites consents.
  2. Added section on Natural England's free and charged advice.
  3. Beta label removed.
  4. First published.