Select Committee on European Communities Eighteenth Report


27th JULY 1999

By the Select Committee appointed to consider Community proposals, whether in draft or otherwise, to obtain all necessary information about them, and to make reports on those which, in the opinion of the Committee, raise important questions of policy or principle, and on other questions to which the Committee considers that the special attention of the House should be drawn.


Biodiversity in the European Union: Interim Report United Kingdom Measures


The background to the Inquiry

  1.  In February 1998 the European Commission issued a Communication entitled A European Community Biodiversity Strategy.[1] Sub­Committee C (Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection) considered the Communication at the time of its deposit with Parliament in March 1998. The Sub­Committee was then engaged on other work which precluded detailed examination of the proposals; it noted however that EU biodiversity policy would be a strong candidate for a future inquiry, particularly with the approach of the millennium and the importance of reviewing progress on the establishment of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites of Community importance—a crucial component of the EU's strategy for biodiversity (see paragraph 11 below). It also felt that it would be appropriate to revisit the 1992 Habitats and Species Directive[2], the draft of which had been the subject of a Report in 1988, following an inquiry by the then Sub­Committee F (Environment).[3]

The scope of this Report

  2.  The Committee has decided to report in two stages: first, with the present Interim Report, which focuses on issues relevant to the implementation of the Birds[4] and Habitats Directives in the United Kingdom, on the effectiveness of UK wildlife and countryside legislation, and on measures which may help with the achievement of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and its component plans. It is accompanied by the bulk of the written and oral evidence received up to the middle of July 1999.

  3.  In the autumn, before the end of the current Parliamentary session, the Committee will be producing a Final Report. This will look at the wider picture in Europe, drawing on evidence from visits and on further analysis of earlier evidence, and will attempt comparisons between Member States in relation to progress towards Natura 2000 and implementation of the EC Biodiversity Action Strategy.

What is "Biodiversity"?

  4.  Biological diversity, or biodiversity, is the variety of life forms in the environment. It embraces the whole range of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and other invertebrates, plants, fungi, and micro-organisms, including viruses and bacteria. Diversity in this all-embracing sense includes diversity between and within ecosystems and habitats, diversity of species, and genetic variation within species.

The 1992 Earth Summit and Convention

  5.  The importance of biodiversity was recognised at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the "Earth Summit"), held in Rio de Janeiro. For example, Agenda 21 (the world-wide programme of action for sustainable development adopted at Rio) includes the passage:

 "Our planet's essential goods and services depend on the variety and variability of genes, species, populations and ecosystems. Biological resources feed and clothe us and provide housing, medicines and spiritual nourishment. The natural ecosystems of forests, savannahs, pastures and rangelands, deserts, tundras, rivers, lakes and seas contain most of the Earth's biodiversity. Farmers' fields and gardens are also of great importance, while gene banks, botanical gardens, zoos and other germplasm repositories make a small but significant contribution. The current decline in biodiversity is largely the result of human activity and represents a serious threat to human development."

  6.  Another major component of the Earth Summit was the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, signed at Rio by over 150 countries, including the European Community and its Member States. Article 6A of the Convention requires each Contracting Party to "develop national strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity or adapt for this purpose existing strategies, plans or programmes which shall reflect, inter alia, the measures set out in this Convention relevant to the Contracting Party concerned", and to "integrate as far as possible and as appropriate the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies".

The European Community's Biodiversity Strategy

  7.  The strategy (see paragraph 1) emphasises the Community's obligation to ensure that its own policies and instruments contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. It stresses the link with the EC Fifth Environmental Action Programme and the implications of Article 174 (ex 130r) of the EC Treaty, in particular the need to integrate environmental concerns into other sectoral policies. Four strategic themes are identified, and specific objectives are detailed within eight policy areas.

EC Biodiversity Strategy: Themes and Policy Areas

Themes  Conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity

    Sharing of benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources

    Research, identification, monitoring and exchange of information

    Education, training and awareness

Policy Areas  Conservation of natural resources



    Regional policies and spatial planning


    Energy and transport


    Development and economic co-operation

  8.  The strategies, plans and programmes prepared by States Parties to the Convention are generally known as "Biodiversity Action Plans" (BAPs). As the Community is a signatory to the Convention in its own right, the Community Biodiversity Strategy will be more than a synthesis of Member States' BAPs. Later in 1998 the Commission published an account of progress with the strategy, in its First Report on the Implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity by the European Community. We shall be returning to this in more detail in a Final Report next autumn (see paragraphs 2-3 above).

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan

  9.  Following signature of the Biodiversity Convention, the United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP) was launched in January 1994 by the then Secretary of State for the Environment (The Rt Hon John Gummer MP).[5] A Biodiversity Steering Group was established, with representatives drawn from key sectors and chaired by the Department of the Environment, to oversee the following tasks:

  ·  Developing costed targets and individual action plans for key species and habitats;

  ·  Suggesting ways of improving the accessibility and co-ordination of information on biodiversity;

  ·  Recommending ways of increasing public awareness and involvement in conserving biodiversity;

  ·  Recommending ways of ensuring that commitments in the Plan were properly monitored and carried out; and

  ·  Publishing findings before the end of 1995.

  10.  The present Government has been taking forward detailed implementation of the UKBAP on the lines envisaged by its predecessor, the lead role now being taken by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR). In its recent White Paper on Sustainable Development, A Better Quality of Life,[6] the Government reported that specific action plans for 45 priority habitats and for over 400 priority species would be in place by summer 1999. These plans, prepared with the active involvement of wildlife and nature conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs), identify actions and targets for government departments and agencies, integrated with other policy areas. The Government is also encouraging local communities to draw up Local Biodiversity Action Plans, of which over 100 already exist, and to integrate biodiversity with Local Agenda 21 plans. The UK Biodiversity Group plans to publish towards the end of 2000 a Biodiversity Millennium Report on the progress of national and local policies and plans.

Natura 2000

  11.  A major plank of the EC Biodiversity Strategy is the creation of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites for habitats and species considered to be of outstanding international significance and therefore of importance to the maintenance of biodiversity in the European Union. These protected areas are selected by Member States to conserve priority species and habitats listed in Annexes to the Birds and Habitats Directives. The emphasis is placed upon species which are endemic or largely restricted to Europe, or which have undergone rapid recent declines, or which are rare in absolute terms for example top level predators. For birds the importance of Europe as a staging and wintering area for migratory species is emphasised. This site-based approach is complemented by requirements to protect the listed species and habitats through a variety of other measures throughout the Member States' territories. Establishment of the Natura 2000 network is being delayed by the slow progress of Member States in implementing the Directives (see below).

The Birds and Habitats Directives

  12.  The Birds Directive[7] was adopted in 1979. It provides for the protection, management and control of all species of naturally occurring wild birds in the European territory of the Member States; it requires Member States to take measures to preserve a sufficient diversity of habitats in order to maintain populations at ecologically and scientifically sound levels, and requires special measures to be taken in respect of rare and migratory species.

  13.  The Habitats and Species Directive was adopted in 1992. This Directive lists, in its Annexes, habitats and species (other than birds) for which Member States are required to take special measures to maintain or restore natural habitats and wild species at a "favourable conservation status" in the Community. The Directive also updates and strengthens the site protection measures required under the Birds Directive.

  14.  Both Directives require Member States to classify or designate[8] areas of special protection for habitats and species ("Special Protection Areas"—SPAs—under the Birds Directive and "Special Areas of Conservation"—SACs—under the Habitats Directive). These areas, collectively known as Natura 2000 sites, are to become a coherent network of sites throughout the European Union hosting listed habitats and species. Particular emphasis is placed on scarce, declining and migratory species within the EU, and on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora of Community interest occurring in the European territory of Member States.

  15.  The processes for establishing Natura 2000 sites differ as between the Birds and Habitats Directives, although the end results are the same. SPAs are designated by Member States, who then forward lists to the Commission. For SACs, Member States propose lists of candidate SACs covering Annex I habitat types and Annex II species. The Commission decides—in consultation with Member States and on the advice of the European Environment Agency and its Nature Conservation Topic Centre, based on review by biogeographic region—which sites from both lists should be regarded as Sites of Community Importance (SCIs). The SCIs are then formally adopted, and the SACs are designated by the Member States.

  16.  According to the timetable of the Habitats Directive, Member States were supposed to submit their lists of candidate SACs within three years, i.e. by June 1995, but all of them have fallen well short of that target. The process of review by biogeographic region has only just begun. The preliminary review of candidate sites for the Atlantic Region (which includes the whole of the British Isles) will be the subject of a conference in Ireland in September 1999.

Implementation of the Directives in the United Kingdom

  17.  Those Member States that had prior national systems of nature conservation have tended to adapt these to the Directives. This is the case in the UK, where government policy has been to rely on the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest[9] (SSSIs; ASSIs in Northern Ireland), first introduced under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, as the legal basis for SPAs and SACs. Proposals for the notification of SSSIs, and for the selection of appropriate ones as SPAs or SACs, is the responsibility of the statutory nature conservation agencies—English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW); in Northern Ireland the Secretary of State is advised by the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) of the Department of the Environment, Northern Ireland. Whilst the responsibility for selection of SPAs and candidate SACs rests with the devolved administrations (advised by the nature conservation agencies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)[10]), ultimately the UK Government is responsible for ensuring compliance with the Directives' requirements for selection of sites .

  18.  In the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 the UK Government included provisions which were intended to implement the Birds Directive; equivalent legislation for Northern Ireland was enacted in 1985. The 1981 Act strengthened the protection afforded to SSSIs, and introduced other measures to benefit certain scarce species. In general, however, the provisions of the 1949 Act remained unaffected.

  19.  Primary legislation for the purposes of implementing the Habitats Directive was not considered to be necessary. Instead, Regulations were made in 1994 under Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972.[11] The Regulations among other things defined the duties and responsibilities of "competent authorities"[12] for the purposes of both Directives—in particular the statutory nature conservation agencies, but also the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), local planning authorities and others. The competent authorities are required inter alia to review the consents already issued to third parties for activities which may impact on SPAs or SACs, with a view to amending or revoking them where necessary to ensure protection of the special interests for which the areas have been selected. The role of the statutory nature conservation agencies in advising other competent authorities on the rigorous tests contained in the Regulations is critical, and we have heard evidence that advice may not have been provided on a consistent basis.

  20.  The Birds Directive required Member States to implement its provisions within two years (1981), but it lacked a specific timetable and contained no criteria for identifying SPAs. As a result, progress in identifying and declaring sites has been generally slow, particularly in the early years. In the UK, the lack of progress in declaring SPAs provoked a complaint from the Commission in 1990. Progress has since improved, but nearly 80 eligible UK sites remain to be classified as SPAs some 20 years after the Directive was adopted.

  21.  The Habitats Directive, in contrast to the Birds Directive, established a staged process with a precise timetable for the identification and designation of sites. The Government decided that as the information available in the UK was extensive and sound that it would be possible to identify SACs without substantial new survey. Some 280 possible SACs were consulted upon in March 1995. The Government submitted 136 candidate sites to the European Commission in June 1995. Further tranches have followed, and the final list bringing the total to 340 candidate SACs, was submitted in June 1999. The Government accepts that the designation of marine sites poses special problems.

The Inquiry

  22.  The Members of Sub-Committee C who carried out the inquiry are listed in Appendix 1. The Specialist Adviser was Mr Stuart Housden, Director for Scotland of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Oral and written evidence was received from, and other assistance and information provided by, the bodies and individuals listed in Appendix 2. The Sub-Committee's invitation for evidence, issued in March 1999, is reproduced at Appendix 3.

  23.  The Committee wishes to record its thanks to Mr Housden, to the various witnesses and to all others who have helped with the enquiry so far.

1  COM (1998) 42 Final, 4 February 1998; the Communication was adopted by the Council in June 1998. Back
2  92/43/EEC: Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora, OJ L206, 22 July 1992. In this Report we generally refer to it as the "Birds Directive". Back
3  House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities, 15th Report, 1988-89, Habitat and Species Protection, 18 July 1989, HL Paper 72. Back
4  See paragraph 12 Back
5  Biodiversity: The UK Action Plan, Cm 2428. Back
6  A Better Quality of Life: A Strategy for Sustainable Development for the UK, Cm 4345, May 1999. Back
7  79/409/EEC: Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds, OJ L103, 25 April 1979 (referred to in this Report as the "Birds Directive"). Back
8  Strictly speaking, in the language of the Directives, SPAs are "classified" and SACs are "designated". For the purposes of this Report we have not observed the distinction very rigorously. Since it is UK policy to treat all SPAs and SACs as protected from the time they have first been identified, we use the term "classified (or designated) as SPAs/SACs" to refer to all such sites irrespective of whether the process of formal classification or designation has been completed. Back
9  Any area of land which in the opinion of a statutory nature conservation agency is "of special interest by reason of its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features" (see Section 28 (1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). Back
10  The JNCC is a statutory committee, established under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, comprising the three statutory nature conservation agencies in Great Britain-English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales-with responsibility inter alia for advising on nature conservation issues which affect the whole of Great Britain. Back
11  The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, SI 1994 No. 2716 (referred to in this Report as the "1994 Habitats Regulations"). Back
12  Regulation 6 defines "competent authority" as including "any Minister, government department, public or statutory undertaker, public body of any description or person holding a public office". Back

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