Dartford warbler, Arne RSPB reserve, Dorset

Where the Directive triumphed

Cases where the directive triumphed, including Cliffe, Kent, and Holton Heath, Purbeck.

Cliffe, Kent

The site:

Cliffe Marshes are part of the Thames Estuary and Marshes SPA, designated for its internationally important populations of wintering birds. 

The site regularly supports some 33,000 wintering waterfowl, of which avocets and ringed plovers occur in internationally important numbers in their own right. In summer, the site supports important breeding populations of avocets, marsh harriers, Mediterranean gulls and little terns. 

The proposal:  

In July 2002, as part of its strategic review for the development of airport capacity in south east England, the government identified and consulted upon an option for the construction of a new four-runway airport focussed on High Halstow Marshes, to the east of Cliffe, at the heart of the Thames Estuary and Marshes SPA. 

The idea was not only to provide additional capacity, but also to construct a new hub airport with unrestricted 24/7 operations, capable of competing with Heathrow.

The objection:  

The RSPB mounted a major campaign against the Cliffe option. Its adoption would have resulted in the biggest single act of destruction to a SSSI, SPA, Ramsar site or RSPB nature reserve in the UK ever. 

Direct land take for the runway and associated buildings would have caused loss of 2 square kilometres of the SPA. Bird strike hazard was a major issue at the site. It is likely that 62 square kilometres of the SPA would have been adversely affected by the habitat modification and bird scaring measures required to reduce the risk of collision with aircraft.

In its response to government, RSPB urged airport capacity should itself be constrained as a means of managing demand, and the precipitous approach of committing to a new runway at each of three locations in the South East at this time was neither socially or environmentally acceptable, or necessary. 

In relation to Cliffe, the RSPB asked government to explicitly rule out the Cliffe option in the Aviation White Paper. From an economic perspective, it offered a poor return on investment and was vulnerable to major cost over-runs. From an aviation perspective, it did not meet industry needs and there was no demand for it - there were significant air traffic control difficulties. 

The Cliffe option was unsafe: even with an aggressive bird hazard management programme, the hazard to aircraft posed by birds was severe: at best the hazard associated with the Cliffe option was equal to the greatest risk at any of the present top 10 UK civil airports and, at worst, the level of risk was up to 12 times higher. 

Cliffe would have caused major social disruption. More than 1,000 properties would be demolished, the most associated with any option. From an environmental perspective, the Cliffe option involved major loss to internationally important designated sites, both through airport construction and associated bird hazard management measures.

The outcome:  

In December 2003, the Government published its aviation white paper ‘The Future of Air Transport’. The strategy adopted an unconstrained, ‘predict and provide’ approach to the provision of new airport capacity; Government concluded that it did not support the option of an airport at Cliffe. 

Paragraph 11.20 of the White Paper acknowledged the importance of the SPA: ‘…the potential benefits of developing a major new airport at Cliffe would need to be considered in the context of its significant impacts on important wildlife habitats. Moreover, the internationally important status of some of the habitats under European law mean that any potentially adverse effect would require the Government to demonstrate it had considered all reasonable alternatives. In light of the consultation, the government is satisfied that there would be reasonable alternatives to Cliffe.’  

However, it would be wrong to see this as a victory for wildlife over people. The White Paper also supported concerns about the safety of the airport in relation to bird strike hazard, and its financial viability. As RSPB Chief Executive, Graham Wynne, said on hearing that the Cliffe proposal had been dropped, ‘At last the government [had] accepted the blindly obvious’.

Holton Heath, Purbeck

The site:

The Dorset Heathlands SPA is one of the most important sites for lowland heathland habitat in Europe. It supports internationally important numbers of breeding woodlarks, nightjars and Dartford warblers.

The proposed development:

In 1996, Purbeck District Council published their draft local development plan. It included an allocation of land for a new settlement of 1350 houses immediately next to the SPA at Sandford, Holton and Black Hill Heaths. 

The RSPB and other conservation organisations objected to this plan allocation, related road improvements and the subsequent planning application, on the grounds that the development would have indirect adverse impacts on the site, its habitats and the bird populations for which the site was designated.

At the Local Plan Inquiry in 2001, the key issues revolved around whether the building of the new settlement would lead to indirect adverse impacts on the SPA through increased disturbance from walkers, predation from household pets and fire risk from vandals.

The outcome:

The planning inspector ruled that the allocation was inappropriate due to the possible adverse effects on the SPA, and the fact there had been no demonstration that a future proposal would survive the tests of overriding public interest. 

It was subsequently deleted from the draft local development plan, the planning application being withdrawn before the local plan inquiry had started. This case again reconfirmed that the indirect impacts of housing development have to be taken into account where they may impact on an SPA.

Magheramorne Quarry, Co Antrim

The site:

Magheramorne Quarry lies adjacent to Larne Lough SPA. At the time of the case, Larne Lough was not fully designated, but Swan Island, in Larne Lough, was a fully designated SPA for its breeding Annex I roseate, Sandwich and common tern populations. Larne Lough pSPA was proposed as an SPA for its internationally important wintering population of pale-bellied brent goose.

The proposal:

The proposal was to fill the disused Magheramorne Quarry with waste from Belfast and surrounding boroughs for a 30-year period. Up to 300,000 tonnes of waste would be dumped at the site each year.

The objection:

The RSPB objected to the proposal due to possible adverse effects on the Swan Island SPA and Larne Lough pSPA. The Department for the Environment (NI) subsequently called in the proposal. At inquiry, the key conservation issues centred around whether leachate from the waste site would have an adverse impact on the feeding waterfowl on the Lough intertidal area, and whether gulls attracted to the waste site would disrupt the breeding tern colonies on Swan Island through predation and disturbance. Both would lead to an adverse effect on the integrity of the SPA.

The outcome:

The Department of the Environment (NI) refused planning permission for the waste site due to a probable adverse effect on the integrity of the SPA, with no demonstration of alternatives and no imperative reasons of overriding public interest.