Introduction

11.1.1The natural environment of Northern Ireland is a unique asset. It shapes and sustains the landscape and biodiversity and contributes to the proper functioning of a much wider global ecosystem. Increasingly, it is being recognised that a healthy natural environment delivers real benefits in terms of improving human health and wellbeing and in facilitating sustainable economic growth, for example through tourism.

11.1.2For the purposes of the LDP, the natural environment is considered in terms of a number of component parts. These are termed natural heritage assets. Natural heritage assets include a diverse range of landscapes, habitats, species and earth science features, which together help to define the landscape quality and distinctive character of Mid and East Antrim. The iconic volcanic plug of Slemish Mountain, the rugged cliffs of the Gobbins Coast, the internationally important wetland habitat of Lough Beg and the rich heritage and excellent scenic quality of the Antrim Coast and Glens AONB are all examples of the highly distinctive natural heritage assets that make our Borough such a stimulating place in which to live and visit. There are also numerous designated sites within our Borough that are of international, national and local nature conservation importance (see District Proposals Maps) which aim to protect significant and vulnerable habitats and species. For example, the Garron Plateau is the largest intact blanket bog in Northern Ireland and its blanket bog and upland heathland (both NI Priority Habitats) provides important habitat for Hen Harrier (NI Priority Species) and other important species.

11.1.3Under the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (NI) 2011, the Council has a duty to further the conservation of biodiversity and both the EU and NI Biodiversity Strategies seek to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services by 2020. By providing policies that seek to protect our natural heritage assets, the Council will go some way to meeting its duty to further the conservation of biodiversity and support the tourism, health and wellbeing and environment aspects of our Community Plan.

11.1.4There is increasing pressure on the natural environment in Mid and East Antrim, as elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Generally, there has been a substantial reduction in the total area of semi-natural habitats due to ongoing land use intensification from agriculture and urbanisation. Pollution incidents have had detrimental impacts on water quality and the water environment. Recently, the negative impact of agricultural ammonia emissions on bogland in Mid and East Antrim has come to the fore.

11.1.5The SPPS states that natural heritage is an important and highly valued asset in our society and that sustaining and enhancing biodiversity is fundamental to furthering sustainable development. The SPPS sets out five regional strategic objectives (paragraph 6.172) intended to advance the protection, conservation and where possible enhancement of the natural environment and its assets. It also sets out a number of guidelines that should be adopted by LDPs in seeking to protect, conserve and enhance the natural environment.

Policy Aims

11.1.6The LDP strategic approach to protecting the Borough’s natural heritage is set out in our policy aims below. These policy aims fully embrace the above-mentioned regional strategic objectives and guidelines for LDPs set out in the SPPS.

  • Protect, conserve, enhance and restore the abundance, quality, diversity and distinctiveness of our Borough’s natural heritage;
  • Give appropriate protection to our Borough’s designated nature conservation or scientific sites and also habitats, species or features of natural heritage importance; and
  • Apply the precautionary principle when considering the potential impacts of development on important natural heritage resources, nature conservation sites and significant landscapes within our Borough.

Implementation

11.1.7The policy aims will be delivered primarily through the strategic policies set out in the remainder of this section. For all development proposals, Council will consider the potential and cumulative effects of development on the Borough’s natural heritage assets and landscapes. Internationally and nationally important nature conservation sites and the Antrim Coast and Glens AONB are identified in the draft Plan Strategy. (see District Proposals Maps).

Policy NAT1 European and Ramsar Sites - International

Planning permission will only be granted for a development proposal that, either individually or in combination with existing and/or proposed plans or projects, is not likely to have a significant effect on:

  1. a European Site (Special Protection Area, proposed Special Protection Area, Special Areas of Conservation, candidate Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Community Importance); or
  2. a listed or proposed Ramsar Site.

Where a development proposal is likely to have a significant effect (either alone or in combination) or reasonable scientific doubt remains, Council will carry out an appropriate assessment60 of the implications for the site in view of the site’s conservation objectives. Only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site shall Council grant planning permission with conditions to secure necessary mitigation measures.

In exceptional circumstances, a development proposal which could adversely affect the integrity of a European or Ramsar Site may only be permitted where:

  1. there are no alternative solutions; and
  2. the proposed development is required for imperative reasons of overriding public interest; and
  3. compensatory measures are agreed and fully secured.61

In such exceptional circumstances, where a European or Ramsar site hosts a priority habitat or priority species listed in Annex I or II of the Habitats Directive, a development proposal will only be permitted when:

  • it is necessary for reasons of human health or public safety or there is a beneficial consequence of primary importance to the environment; or
  • it is agreed in advance with the European Commission.

Justification and Amplification

11.1.8European designations such as SACs, SPAs and Ramsar sites are afforded the highest form of statutory protection as they are designated under European law under the auspices of the Birds Directive (which protects wild birds and their habitats) and the Habitats Directive (which protects habitats and other species of animals and plants)62. Sites which are under consideration as SPAs or SACs are referred to as pSPA (proposed) or cSAC (candidate).

A list of existing European and Ramsar sites and further information can be found at www.daera-ni.gov.uk/northern-ireland-environment-agency. Technical Supplement 10 Countryside Assessment also lists those sites currently designated or proposed within or overlapping the Mid and East Antrim council boundary.

Policy NAT2 Species Protected by Law

European Protected Species

Planning permission will only be granted for a development proposal that is not likely to harm a European protected species.

In exceptional circumstances a development proposal that is likely to harm these species may only be permitted where:

  1. there are no alternative solutions; and
  2. it is required for imperative reasons of overriding public interest; and
  3. there is no detriment to the maintenance of the population of the species at a favourable conservation status; and
  4. compensatory measures are agreed and fully secured.
National Protected Species

Planning permission will only be granted for a development proposal that is not likely to harm any other statutorily protected species and which can be adequately mitigated or compensated against.

Development proposals are required to be sensitive to all protected species, and sited and designed to protect them, their habitats and prevent deterioration and destruction of their breeding sites or resting places. Seasonal factors will also be taken into account.

Justification and Amplification

11.1.9The presence or potential presence of a legally protected species in an area, and the habitats on which they are dependant, are important considerations in formulating and assessing development proposals. The planning and design of any development which has the potential to impact on a protected species is required to take into account the level of protection afforded by legislation and any impacts must be fully considered. In addition, seasonal factors should be taken into account when assessing development proposals that could impact upon protected species, for example nesting seasons. This is also important in determining when surveys should be carried out to establish the presence of a species on site.

11.1.10Where exceptional circumstances are substantiated, adequate mitigation and compensatory measures will be secured through conditions attached to planning permission or a planning agreement.

11.1.11European protected species are listed under Annex IV of the Habitats Directive (transposed under Schedule 2 of the Habitats Regulations) and must be subject to a system of strict protection. Other national protected species are listed under the Wildlife Order under Schedules (1), (5) & (8). The granting of planning permission does not obviate the holder of ensuring legal compliance with other legislative requirements.

Policy NAT3 Sites of Nature Conservation Importance – National

Planning permission will only be granted for a development proposal that is not likely to have an adverse effect on the integrity, including the value of the site to the habitat network, or special interest of:

  • an Area of Special Scientific Interest;
  • a Nature Reserve;
  • a National Nature Reserve; or
  • a Marine Conservation Zone.

A development proposal which could adversely affect a site of national importance may only be permitted where the associated public benefits of the proposed development clearly outweigh the value of the site.

In such cases, appropriate mitigation and/or compensatory measures will be required.

Justification and Amplification

11.1.12Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs) are declared under Part IV of the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 (as amended). Nature Reserves including National Nature Reserves are declared under the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. Marine Conservation Zones – sea areas which may include parts of the intertidal zone, are designated by DAERA under Part 3 of the Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013. They are established for the conservation of marine flora and fauna, habitats and features of geographical or geomorphological interest. A list of existing national sites and their locations can be found at www.daera-ni.gov.uk. Technical Supplement 10 Countryside Assessment also lists those sites currently designated within or overlapping the Mid and East Antrim council boundary.

Policy NAT4 Sites of Nature Conservation Importance - Local

Planning permission will only be granted for a development proposal that is not likely to have a significant adverse impact on:

  • a Local Nature Reserve; or
  • a Wildlife Refuge.

A development proposal which could have a significant adverse impact on a site of local importance may only be permitted where the benefits of the proposed development outweigh the value of the site.

In such cases, appropriate mitigation and/or compensatory measures will be required.

Justification and Amplification

11.1.13Local Nature Reserves are those established by Council or the Ulster Wildlife Trust to enrich the network of important natural heritage assets in the Borough under the provisions of Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. There are currently eight Local Nature Reserves in Mid and East Antrim – see Technical Supplement 10 Countryside Assessment for further details.

11.1.14A Wildlife Refuge can be provided for under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order. This policy will apply to any Wildlife Refuge which may be designated in the future. There are no Wildlife Refuges at present in the Council area.

Policy NAT5 Habitats, Species or Features of Natural Heritage Importance

Planning permission will only be granted for a development proposal that is not likely to result in the unacceptable adverse impact on, or damage to known:

  • priority habitats;
  • priority species;
  • active peatland;
  • ancient and long-established woodland;
  • features of earth science conservation importance;
  • features of the landscape and coastline which are of major importance for wild flora and fauna;
  • rare or threatened native species;
  • wetlands (includes river corridors); or
  • other natural heritage features worthy of protection including trees and woodland.

A development proposal which is likely to result in an unacceptable adverse impact on, or damage to, habitats, species or features may only be permitted where the benefits of the proposed development outweigh the value of the habitat, species or feature.

In such cases, appropriate mitigation and/or compensatory measures will be required.

Justification and Amplification

11.1.15This policy seeks to ensure that the conservation, protection and where possible the enhancement of local biodiversity is treated as a material consideration in the determination of planning applications, irrespective of whether the species or habitats are subject to legal protection or otherwise through the LDP Natural Environment Policies.

11.1.16The NI and EU Biodiversity Strategies seek to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems services by 2020, and the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (NI) 2011 places a statutory duty on every public body to further the conservation of biodiversity. The NI Biodiversity Checklist (Version 2, Appendix 2) April 2017 provides further information on the legal framework for the protection of Northern Ireland’s biodiversity and natural heritage. It is intended to provide a ‘step-by-step’ tool for applicants to help identify if a development proposal is likely to adversely affect biodiversity and natural heritage interests and what information may be reasonably required to accompany a planning application in order to comply with the relevant legislation and planning policy. The NI Biodiversity Checklist can be viewed at: www.daera-ni.gov.uk/publications/ni-biodiversity-checklist-documents

11.1.17Council’s Local Biodiversity Action Plan (LBAP) raises awareness of biodiversity in the Borough, threats to it and ways to halt biodiversity loss. It should be noted that the LBAP does not identify the threat to active peatland arising from ammonia emissions which has become more apparent since the document was published.

  • 60 - The appropriate assessment fulfils the requirements of Regulation 43 (1) of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1995 (as amended).
  • 61 - Through conditions or a planning agreement – “legal certainty” as required by ECJ case law.
  • 62 - Directives 2009/147/EC and 92/43/EEC known as the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive.

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