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Case Study: Thames Basin Heaths

The Thames Basin Heaths (the Heaths) is home to internationally important ground nesting birds such as the Nightjar, Dartford Warbler and Woodlarks. The Heaths extend from the Thames Basin lowlands, across North Hampshire through South East Beckshire and Marlborough Downs. In 2005, it was designated as a special protection area (SPA), a designation (classification) used under the Birds’ Directive to protect wild birds and their habitats. The Ash to Brookwood Heaths in the Thames basin is a special site of scientific interest (SSCI) basin and is also classified as a special area of conservation (SAC) under the Habitats Directive because of its rare plant species.

The Heaths has experienced wide scale housing development in the last 50 years, with Natural England (NE), the conservation agency responsible for the SPA, expressing concerns that further large scale development could increase recreational pressures on the SPA area and its nesting birds. Due to these conservation concerns, plans to build 40,000 new homes within the Heaths were put on hold, until adequate mitigation measures were developed to protect the SPA. This is in line with national and international conservation laws that require assessments to be carried out, before new developments take place in an SPA area. Part of the assessment process must include the consideration of mitigating measures to protect the SPA and its wildlife.

In its draft Thames Basis Heath Delivery Plan, English Nature (now Natural England) recommended that no future new housing should be built within 400 metres of the SPA (the exclusion zone). It was recommended that proposed new developments in land between 400m and five kilometres of the SPA (the zone of influence) could be built, provided special mitigation measures were taken by developers and councils. The mitigation measures include providing residents with suitable alternative natural green space (SANG) away from the SPA and its nesting birds and plants.

The Secretary of State appointed an Assessor, Peter Burley, a principal planning inspector with the Planning Inspectorate to provide recommendations on the Heaths Draft Delivery Plan. Although recognising the need for SANGs, Burley picked issues with the zonal approach adopted in the Draft Delivery Plan and recommended less restrictive threshholds. He also recommended the setting up of a coordinated partnership for the protection of the SPAs.

Councils with the Heaths, along with the South East Regional Assembly and other partners have now established the Thames Basin Heaths Joint Strategic Partnership to guarantee the delivery of new homes and the long term protection of the SPA. Many councils in the Heaths now offer SANGs that can be used as alternative recreational grounds away from the SPA.

While recognising the progress made in protecting the Heaths SPA, the Thames Basin Heaths Joint Strategic Partnership recommended a long term strategy for the Heaths and carried out a consultative process on a strategic delivery plan. The Delivery Plan was adopted in February 2009 as the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Delivery Framework.

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