A decision by the Secretary of State (SoS) on a public inquiry into residential development at land south of Wallisdown Road, Poole was published on 28th February (PINS Ref: APP/Q1255/V/10/2138124). This was a key case called in by the SoS as it involved residential and associated development within 400m of Talbot Heath, which is part of the Dorset Heaths SPA. Understandably Natural England and the RSPB had maintained an objection to the scheme throughout the planning process as this represented a significant departure from their published guidance on development near heathland sites. The decision to grant planning permission by Borough of Poole Council has been overturned by this decision.

The planning inspector’s report to the SoS is long and detailed and highlights a number of key issues that we recently covered in our Technical Note on disturbance impacts on internationally designated sites and as such is a very timely decision. From first reading of the decision the inspector acknowledges the potential of an exception to the policy basis for protecting Dorset Heaths, in particular the presumption against any residential development within 400m of the European site boundary, but concludes that the legal tests associated with an internationally designated site are not met. In coming to this view the inspector gives detailed opinion on the relative effectiveness of the mitigation measures proposed in this case to control visitor pressure, which included, among other things, cat proof fencing, a covenant on the control of pets, the diversion of public rights of way, wardening, site management, financial contributions under the interim planning guidance for the SPA and improved fire management measures.

The conversion of fields to new heathland was also considered at the inquiry, although there was some disagreement between the ecologists acting for the applicant and the planning authority on the importance of these as part of the mitigation measures.  Natural England and the RSPB emphasised the importance of basing mitigation design on a good evidence base and clear analysis of impacts and the effects of proposed mitigation rather than a strong assertion or opinion.  In particular the lack of a detailed visitor survey to ascertain how local residents might react to proposed mitigation measures was of concern to the inspector. Another major concern expressed by Natural England and the RSPB was the inconsistency of approach adopted by the competent authority (Borough of Poole Council)  in determining this particular application and how rigorously the Council had applied established guidance in the Interim Planning Framework (IPF) for the Dorset Heaths SPA. This point was considered in detail by the inspector.

We will review the case in more detail and no doubt RSPB and Natural England will also provide their views on the case. For anyone bringing forward a development proposal within 5 kilometres of the Dorset Heaths SPA or the Thames Basin Heaths SPA this decision will be important reading. In other geographical locations we have noted that consultees have raised similar concerns about the impacts of any residential or holiday development in close proximity to a European site where sensitive species are present. Consequently we would strongly recommend that you seek advice about any development that could potentially result in disturbance impacts on a European site. If you wish to discuss any issues arising from this case or disturbance issues  affecting internationally designated sites then please contact Dr Peter Shepherd at the Oxford office: 01865 883833


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