A new Scottish Register, recording details of all Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Scotland, is to be launched shortly. The enabling regulations will come into force at the end of June, and a date that the register itself will be operational should be made available later this summer.
During the 1970s the UK saw a great increase in the amount of land being used for forestry and agriculture. Using the land in this way resulted in a significant loss of ancient forest, grasslands and moorlands. In an attempt to control these losses the Government introduced the concept of an SSSI within the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Within Scotland, the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 took over from the 1981 Act, and with it brought the idea of a publicly accessible electronic Register of Sites of Special Scientific Interest to be kept by the Registers of Scotland so as to ensure that the existence of an SSSI is easily and reliably ascertainable.
What is an SSSI?
SSSIs represent the best examples of Scotland's natural heritage. An SSSI is any area of land that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) recognises as worthy of being an SSSI because of its natural features such as flora or fauna, rocks or land formations, habitats or any other natural characteristics. SNH was established in 1991 under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991 and is the agency responsible for advising central and local Government on all aspects of Scotland's natural heritage. The Act puts the SNH under an obligation to ensure that any development and use of land affecting national heritage is conducted in a sustainable and sympathetic manner.
Within Scotland over 1,400 areas have been designated as SSSIs covering over one million hectares of land, around 12.5% of the total area of Scotland.
Significance of an area of land being designated as an SSSI
The purpose of SNH designating a site as an SSSI is to safeguard the area from unsympathetic change. This is in order to ensure that the important natural features found there are conserved for the public as a whole and where possible are even enhanced. Whenever an application is submitted to the planning authorities, if it relates to a development that may have an impact on an SSSI the case must be referred to SNH for consideration and the planning authority must have regard to the advice given by SNH when determining the result of such an application.
Although the designation of a site as an SSSI is an important material planning consideration, it does not mean development is precluded by such a designation. Permission for development will still be granted where either the objectives of the designation and the overall integrity of the area will not be compromised, or in the situation where the social and economic benefits of development outweigh the adverse effects on the land. It is a criminal offence to act in a way that deliberately or recklessly damages an SSSI, punishable by a fine.
When an area of land is designated as an SSSI it is clear that the owner's right to develop and use the land is restricted. When a new SSSI is designated, SNH is obliged to notify the owner of the land. If the designation impacts on the established use of the land, then compensation will be made available for the landowner. However when ownership of the designated land passes, SNH is under no obligation to contact the new owners and inform them of the fact their land is designated as an SSSI. It is the previous owners that owe a duty to the new owners to inform them of the existence of the SSSI.
A register of SSSIs is not a new concept. A register was originally put in place under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Within Scotland, the 2004 Act empowered SNH to maintain a register in the interim period while the new register was being created. However it is only a register of paper documents in the form of an SSSI notification registered against the title of the property. Because changes are not always notified, errors and inaccuracies can appear, so that it is not always possible to be confident that its contents are reliable.
Considering the amount of land that is designated as SSSIs in Scotland and the severity of the effect designation has on the owners of the land, the creation of an authoritative electronic register is good news for all those wishing to purchase land. New landowners will no longer be relying on the previous owner to inform them of the existence of an SSSI. They will be able to conduct an online search to ascertain whether or not the land is a designated SSSI and to what extent this will impact on their plans for developing and using the land, before they have purchased it.
The register will be kept by the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland and it will be available online to the public. Searching within the register will be free, giving access to all relevant information on all of the SSSIs that exist in Scotland, including maps and information on the legal status of an SSSI. Having this type of information so easily accessible will provide a further layer of certainty surrounding land information.
See: The Register of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (Scotland) Regulations 2008
See: The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004