Special Nature Conservation Orders: consent and 'stop notices'

How you get or challenge a Special Nature Conservation Order (SNCO), what a stop notice means, and get consent for restricted activities.

Special Nature Conservation Orders (SNCOs) protect the natural features (the range of habitats and species populations) of European sites from damage, eg by off-road driving or bait digging.

SNCOs can apply to:

  • Sites of Community Importance (SCIs)

  • Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)

  • candidate Special Areas of Conservation (cSACs)

  • Special Protection Areas (SPAs)

SNCOs limit the work and activities that can be carried out both on and near a site - including by the landowner. They can apply to land and water (including the marine or inland waterways environment).

Where there’s an SNCO, Natural England or Natural Resources Wales can issue ‘stop notices’.

Find out where there are SNCOs in England and Wales (MS Word Document, 38KB) .

If you carry out activities that are likely to damage land protected by an SNCO you’re breaking the law. You could be fined up to £5,000 and served with a ‘restoration order’ to bring the land back to its former condition.

How you get an SNCO

SNCOs are made by the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers:

  • based on the recommendation of Natural England or Natural Resources Wales

  • after consultation and an inquiry

Natural England or Natural Resources Wales can request an SNCO if their monitoring shows a site is at risk or if they agree with a request to do so from others.

They’ll only do this if:

  • the site isn’t protected by other regulations - eg planning

  • other measures - eg voluntary agreements - haven’t worked

An SNCO usually lasts for 9 months unless the minister cancels or extends it on the advice of Natural England or Natural Resources Wales.

If you own the land or you’ve been carrying out activities on it you’ll be sent a copy of the order explaining what activities might cause damage - eg driving, bonfires - and that you’ll get a stop notice if you continue to carry these out.

You have 6 weeks to object to an SNCO.

Enforcing SNCOs with ‘stop notices’

Where an SNCO is in place Natural England and Natural Resources Wales can serve a ‘stop notice’ on behalf of the minister. This is a legal notice that tells the recipient they mustn’t carry out a particular activity and what will happen if they continue to do so.

You might get a stop notice or want to have one made when every other means has been tried to protect a site. For example, a stop notice might be issued if recreational off-road driving is damaging or is likely to damage a species habitat and you’ve already asked the drivers to avoid the land.

If you’re served a stop notice

You’ll be sent a stop notice by Natural England or Natural Resources Wales if you’re planning or carrying out works or activities that aren’t allowed under an SNCO.

The notice will also be published in The London Gazette and at least one newspaper in the area of the protected land. Copies may also be displayed on or near the site.

The stop notice will state:

  • the site affected by the stop notice

  • the activity that must stop or not begin

  • a start and end date

You’re breaking the law if you don’t follow a stop notice. You could be fined up to £5,000 and made to repair any damage you cause.

A stop notice ends:

  • on the stated end date

  • if it’s cancelled by the minister

If you don’t agree with a stop notice you can either:

  • object to the SNCO (within the first 6 weeks) - if you think an activity isn’t damaging

  • ask for consent for particular works - if you know of ways to avoid or mitigate the damage, or if there’s ‘overriding public interest’

Object to an SNCO

Anyone can object to an SNCO. You must do this within 6 weeks of it being made.

You must lodge your objection with the High Court. The SNCO notice will explain what you need to do and where to send your objection.

The minister will decide one of the following:

  • your objection is invalid - you’ll be given reasons

  • your objection is valid and the SNCO can be withdrawn or relaxed

  • your objection is valid but an inquiry is needed to reach a decision

There is no charge for making an objection but you must cover your own costs - eg you might want to get expert advice if there’s an inquiry.

If there’s an inquiry

If the minister decides there should be an inquiry you’ll be told the timings, who’ll be involved and what to expect. Inquiries are run by the planning inspectorate.

After the inquiry the inspector will report to the minister, who’ll decide whether to:

  • confirm (keep) the SNCO

  • revoke (cancel) the SNCO

  • amend (change) the SNCO, eg allowing a particular activity to take place

You and others who attended will be sent a decision notice and a copy of the inspector’s report.

A complex inquiry may take several months.

You might get consent from Natural England or Natural Resources Wales to continue an activity after a stop notice is served if both of the following apply:

  • you give them written notice of the activity you propose to carry out

  • they give you written consent for the particular work, or it’s within the terms of a management agreement made after the stop notice was served

They’ll only consent if your proposed work won’t damage the site.

You must not carry out any activity specified in the stop notice unless you get consent.

You can ask Natural England or Natural Resources Wales in writing to take the issue to the minister if you’re refused consent but you believe there is ‘overriding public interest’ in you carrying out an activity.

You must do this within either:

  • 2 months of being told you’ve been refused consent

  • 3 months after you’ve applied for consent, if you haven’t had a decision about your application

If there’s ‘overriding public interest’

You might get consent from the minister or the SNCO could be cancelled if the minister agrees the work must be carried out for reasons of overriding public interest, including socio-economic reasons. The public need for the work would need to be judged to outweigh the site’s conservation interests.

The minister can only give consent if:

  • there’s no reasonable alternative or less damaging way to achieve the same outcome - eg carrying out works at a different time of year to minimise the impact on breeding birds

  • the work will benefit the broader environment more than it will damage the protected site

In addition, if the actions are likely to impact on priority habitats or species, the overriding public interest must relate to human health or public safety - eg flood defence work or the protection of key rail infrastructure.

You can ask Natural England or Natural Resources Wales for guidance on priority habitats and species.

Getting a decision

The minister will issue you a decision letter to say if you can carry out the work.

You might be given consent only if you agree to compensate for any damage caused.

There is no time limit for the minister to make a decision.

Published 17 November 2015