Natural England’s SSSI Designation

by Stephen Horscroft

As expected, Natural England has designated parts of the Penwith moors as an SSSI following an at times stormy meeting in St. Ives on June 28th. The reasoning is tagged as ’30 by 30’: for the UK to make an international contribution to the protection of at least 30% of its land for nature by 2030. Officers explained at the meeting that this can then support nature recovery to spread beyond designation.

The problem, though, made clear in the introduction to the day by NE officers is that SSSI designation does not currently attract a payment to farmers and landowners and that they were currently giving advice to DEFRA to ensure that people were ‘properly rewarded’.  The Board made clear that they were not present for a rubber-stamping exercise and listened to objectors and supporters of the proposed designation during the day. This resulted in some challenging questions from the Board for their own officers.The officer response to objection submissions (and reiterated on the day by the Board) was that socio-economic considerations were not within their remit for consideration when deciding on the designation. This is despite the fact that social, economic, and environmental are the triple heads of what is ‘sustainability’ and that the impact on productive farming was acknowledged and that future paid schemes were ‘unclear’ but that a gap before implementation was not ‘anticipated’. 

Based on the response to the consultation, officers confirmed that if designated the area would be known as ‘West Penwith Moors, Downs and SSSI’ and that around 100ha of the originally planned designation would be reduced.

Objectors from the floor were concerned about the age and methodology of survey data. Some habitat and condition survey data were over a decade old and there were refuted claims that officers had surveyed parcels of land only from their car. There was also unresolved disagreement about the hydrology survey work versus other informed data claims from the floor. While no evaluation of the consultation was undertaken there were clearly ‘lessons learned’ from a Board and officer perspective. There were unresolved claims of objector submissions going missing and landowners not receiving letters but also in terms of the language used to communicate. CLA verbal evidence made the point that farmers cannot afford to employ people or have the time to look at and translate complex, voluble material and that challenging NE’s scientifically led analysis could only be ‘made’ if farmers could afford a £3,500 survey which (when done) had sometimes challenged officer conclusions. Brexit required a premium payment linked to SSSI designation to be an imperative. Bolitho Estates also offered objection evidence. Again (like CPRE Cornwall’s) that socio economic evidence and impact was not considered but also that longer term partnership support (such as farmers and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust working together) may not be funded for another year.

I gave verbal evidence for CPRE Cornwall, building on our written submission, which acknowledged the beauty and environment of the moors which had been shaped by agricultural activity for thousands of years and generations of Cornish family farmers. On the ground support for farmers to continue to make a living and, indeed, supply affordable and local food was essential and how partnerships are nurtured, and financially supported is now the imperative to be able to develop incomes. Phrasing is important: there ‘may’ be an impact on incomes, we have ‘no plans’ to CPO. This sort of language can alarm.There was certainly a grey area with supports for designation. One contributor noted that there was a need to continue to engage communities and businesses, Andrew George (local Cornwall Councillor and Parliamentary Candidate) that the full five years need to be taken for implementation and that methods of communication need to be improved. Nick Bruce Wright (RSPB) gave preamble to his evidence that their support should not be mistaken for lack of understanding or sympathy with the farming community. Grazing was needed, for example, to support the Dartford Warbler: a bird species now doing well compared to be almost extinct over 50 years ago. While the concern that five years was not enough time for farmers to be able to adapt, the RSPB voiced their concern that pesticides will continue to be used in the meantime. Clearly many in the farming community of west Cornwall are angry and upset with the designation and the overall approach taken to get to this point. We need to understand what their next steps might be and be supportive to both them and Natural England in the difficult position it finds itself. With Brexit, a government that has a list of other problems and issues and a potential change of Government in the next eighteen months the five-year transition period looks likely to be eaten into. In addition, squeezed budgets under any Government may mean that payments to farmers for environmental management schemes may not be at the top of the political agenda and there does not seem to be adequate or long-term gap funding available. On the other hand, planning and development continues to put the Cornish countryside under pressure so the designation offers protection in terms of setting and encroachment; especially as we move toward the next Local Plan post 2030. CPRE Cornwall’s role is to keep a watching brief, work with others and support all of those interested in a living, working and truly sustainable environment as we move toward implementation of the designation.

Photo Credit: Rowena Swallow