Nature conservation site designations explained, with particular reference to the Borough of Bexley

Compiled by Chris Rose. August 2014.

[Information in this briefing comes from the DEFRA Guide to the biodiversity duties of Local Authorities, the Natural England website, Bexley Council 2013 SINCs review documentation, the Greater Thames Marshes NIA website and wikipedia].

Introduction and the situation in Bexley

Getting to grips with the various categories of nature conservation sites can look daunting because of the plethora of different designations, the ‘jargon’ (usually an abbreviation) and the fact that various kinds often overlap on the ground.

It is important to know whether or not a site is designated and, if so, what designation has been given, as this will influence the degree of legal protection, or the extent to which it may be shielded from development by Local authority planning policies.

Here in Bexley we have Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), all four categories of Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs), Local Nature Reserves (LNR), Green Belt/Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) and sites that fall within a Nature Improvement Area (NIA). These, along with the other main site designations used in the UK are listed and defined for completeness, and to assist readers with understanding the Bexley situation in a wider context.

The two SSSIs in the borough are geological sites. One of these is situated within Lesnes Abbey Woods, a Metropolitan Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, and also a Local Nature Reserve, the other in Braeburn Park, a Grade 1 SINC. Erith Marshes (Crossness) is a MSINC, all of which falls within the Greater Thames Marshes Nature Improvement Area, and part of which is a Local Nature Reserve. It is also classed as Metropolitan Open Land. Parts of clearly defined natural geographical areas, such as the Cray River valley, have different designations. The river corridor itself, and some of the valley floor, is designated as a MSINC. Other sections of the valley, such as Crayford Rough and Braeburn Park have a different grading (both Borough Grade 1 SINCs) and separate listings. These local examples illustrate the way in which different types of designated sites can wholly or partially overlap.

Having some idea of the criteria applying to the designations is also valuable, particularly in respect of SINCs, as it has been possible at the last two reviews for Bexley Natural Environment Forum to submit relevant evidence that has led to three new sites in Bexley being designated as SINCs, two existing sites being enlarged and one given a higher grading.    

The hierarchy of sites is as follows:

Natura 2000 Site Network – the EU Habitats Directive (Directive 92/43/EEC) provides for the creation of a network of protected areas across the European Union, known as ‘Natura 2000’ sites. This internationally important network consists of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), which will usually also be Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) are sites designated under the Habitats Directive 1992, established to protect natural habitats, rare and threatened species (other than birds) and habitats for these species. As of 2014 there are 666 SACs currently designated in the UK, of which 20 are offshore. There are 2 more in Gibraltar. SACs are protected under international law, and are afforded a high degree of protection in the UK.

Special Protection Area (SPA) are sites designated under the Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds (the Birds Directive) and were established to protect wild bird species and their habitats.

Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites) – Many Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas are also designated under the Ramsar Convention as wetlands of international importance. The first Ramsar sites were designated in 1976.

National Nature Reserves (NNR) – these nationally important sites were established to protect some of the best examples of habitat and geological formations in the UK. They are designated by Natural England and have a strong degree of protection. The majority also have European nature conservation designations. Almost all NNRs are publicly accessible.

There are currently 224 NNRs in England with a total area of over 94,400 hectares, which is approximately 0.6% of the country’s land surface.

Natural England manages about two thirds of England’s NNRs, whilst the remaining third are managed by organisations approved by Natural England; for example, National Trust, the Forestry Commission, RSPB, many Wildlife Trusts and Local Authorities. Of Natural England’s NNRs, about 30% are owned and almost 50% leased. The rest are held under Nature Reserve Agreements.

Nearly every type of vegetation is found in England’s NNRs, from coastal salt-marshes, dunes and cliffs to downlands, meadows and the subtle variations of our native woodlands. Scarce and threatened habitats such as chalk downs, lowland heaths and bogs and estuaries are conserved in NNRs. Many NNRs contain nationally important populations of rarer species.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) represent the best examples of our national wildlife habitats, geological features and landforms. They have been identified by scientific survey as representing the highest conservation value. They are protected under UK law. The land owner or occupier can be required to manage the land in a certain way. Where agreement on how the land should be managed cannot be reached, the relevant UK Government Conservation Body can apply for a compulsory purchase order, and where a SSSI is damaged, the land owner or occupier can be subject to a substantial fine.

Local Nature Reserves (LNR) – areas that contain wildlife or geological features that are of interest locally. There are over 1,200 LNRs in England, and all are in public ownership and there is an emphasis on access and educational usage.

Local Sites (otherwise known as Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation or SINCs for short) -These sites are selected by partnerships which include local authorities, and aim to conserve sites of regional or local importance.

There are four grades of Local Site (SINC), and examples of all of them are to be found in Bexley. They enjoy a measure of protection under the Council’s Local Development Framework policies, but are not and have not been immune from ‘development’ and other damage. Many are on Council owned land, but a significant number are in private ownership, and the Council does not have any legal powers over the way that they are managed.

* Sites of Metropolitan Importance

SMINCS are sites which contain the best examples of London’s habitats, sites which contain particularly rare species, rare assemblages of species or important populations of species, or sites which are of particular significance within otherwise heavily built-up areas of London, even though these may not reach the standard of an equivalently graded site further from the centre of the capital. They are of the highest priority for protection.

* Sites of Borough Importance (Grades 1 and 2)

These are sites which are important on a Borough level in the same way as the Metropolitan sites are important to the whole of London. Although sites of similar quality may be found elsewhere in London, damage to these sites would mean a significant loss to the Borough. As with Metropolitan sites, while protection is important, management of Borough sites should usually allow and encourage their enjoyment by people and their use for education. Since 1988 borough sites have been divided, on the basis of their quality, into two grades, but it must be stressed that they are all important on a Borough-wide view.

* Site of Local Importance

Such sites are, or may be, of particular value to people nearby (such as residents or schools). These sites may already be used for nature study or be run by management committees mainly composed of local people. Local sites are particularly important in areas otherwise deficient in nearby wildlife sites.

Full details of Bexley’s SINCS can be found here:

though at the time of writing the results of the 2013 review had still not been taken to the London Wildlife Sites Board and ‘signed off’ by Bexley Council.


Other relevant designations

(Metropolitan) Green Belt/Metropolitan Open Land (MOL)

The purpose of Green Belt is to maintain a ring of countryside around larger urban areas, in order to prevent continuous development leading to the amalgamation of cities and towns. In the green belt there is a general presumption against inappropriate development, unless very special circumstances can be demonstrated to show that the benefits of the development will outweigh the harm caused to the green belt. The National Planning Policy Framework of 2012 stated that the purposes of including land within the green belt are:

  • To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas
  • To prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another
  • To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment
  • To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns
  • To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Agriculture, forestry, nature conservation and outdoor leisure can be expected to prevail. The fundamental aim of green belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open, and consequently the most important attribute of green belts is their openness.

Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) is a designation used only in London. The MOL designation  affords the same level of protection as the Metropolitan (London) Green Belt. The designation is intended to protect areas of landscape, recreation, nature conservation and scientific interest which are strategically important. Any development of any kind on MOL must not only both be what is regarded as appropriate in the same way as Green Belt but the planning permission to carry it out cannot be granted by a London Borough acting alone, but also requires the consent of the Mayor of London and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Land designated as MOL should satisfy at least one of the following criteria:

• land that contributes to the physical structure of London by being clearly distinguishable from the built-up area

• land that includes open air facilities, especially for leisure, recreation, sport, arts and cultural activities and tourism which serve the whole or significant parts of London

• land that contains features or landscapes of historic, recreational, nature conservation or habitat interest, of value at a metropolitan or national level

• land that forms part of a Green Chain and meets one of the above criteria.

Nature Improvement Area (NIA) – NIAs are designed to deliver a network of landscape-scale initiatives to improve ecological connectivity and reverse the decline in biodiversity across England. Alongside Local Nature Partnerships they are part of the UK Government’s response to Sir John Lawton’s 2010 report “Making Space for Nature”.

NIAs are characterised by broad cross-sectoral partnerships and should  concentrate on the delivery of biodiversity gains, rather than strategic or policy matters.

In October 2011 a competition was launched by DEFRA to select twelve pilot NIAs. There were 76 entries. Those selected were announced early in 2012. One of these is the Greater Thames Marshes NIA   which includes part of Bexley.

Marine Protected Area (MPA) – These are zones of the seas and coasts where wildlife is protected from damage and disturbance. The Government is working to establish a well-managed ecologically coherent network of MPAs in UK seas, and the process of identification and designation is currently underway.

The UK has committed to establishing such a network of MPAs under several agreements including the OSPAR Convention, World Summit on Sustainable Development and Convention on Biological Diversity.

There are five kinds of designated site which, where suitably located, will together form the MPAs. These are SACs, SPAs, SSSIs, Ramsar sites and Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) which latter will protect nationally important marine habitats, species and geology.  

Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – An AONB is an area of countryside considered to have significant landscape value in England,Wales or Northern Ireland, that has been specially designated by Natural England on behalf of the United Kingdom government; Natural Resources Wales (formerly the Countryside Council for Wales) on behalf of the Welsh Government; or the Northern Ireland Environment Agency on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive.

The primary purpose of the AONB designation is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the landscape, with two secondary aims: meeting the need for quiet enjoyment of the countryside and having regard for the interests of those who live and work there. To achieve these aims, AONBs rely on planning controls and practical countryside management. The National Planning Policy Framework (2012) stated that AONBs and national parks have equal status when it comes to planning consent and other sensitive issues. National parks, however, have their own authorities with legal powers to prevent unsympathetic development.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ) World Biosphere Reserve – Brighton and Lewes Downs is the first completely new Biosphere site in the UK for almost 40 years and the first ever in south-east England. The Brighton and Lewes Downs Biosphere area covers around 390 square kilometres of land and sea in Sussex, between the Rivers Adur and Ouse and lies partly within the South Downs National Park. Extending two nautical miles out to sea, it also includes part of one of the first Marine Conservation Zones. Its ambition is to deliver the following in an innovative and integrated way:

  • Conserve and enhance nature
  • Support human development that is sustainable
  • Encourage environmental knowledge, learning and awareness and engagement.


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