Paul Vernon · Surveyor (retired)
You may come across one of a variety of acronyms when you are house hunting that relate to ecological designations. One of these is SSSI which stands for a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” or ASSI (“Area of Special Scientific Interest”) in Northern Ireland. This is an area of land that has been designated by the National Environment body for special protection measures when they believe that the location has features of special interest, such as its wildlife, geology, or landform. In practice, the landowner usually had limited say in the designation of such sites, and when the land was designated, the national body will have provided the landowner with details of the designation process and his rights, including what he they must follow when he manages his land within a SSSI/ASSI.
You might also encounter Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation or Ramsar sites. These are ecological designations of such importance that are considered practically to be international ecological designations. For our purposes, I’ll say little more about them as my experience is that to be awarded one of these designations, a site has to be a SSSI/ASSI first. Additionally there is also a network of National Nature Reserves (NNR’s) which were set up to conserve and to allow people to study their wildlife, habitats or geological features of special interest. Many of these are open to everyone to explore, to learn about and to enjoy.
There are separate bodies for England (Natural England), Wales (Natural Resources Wales) , Scotland (Scottish Natural Heritage) and Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland Environment Agency) and whilst there will be differences in approach etc, they will not be relevant from the perspective of this article.
There are local designations, known variously as “Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation” (SINCs) or “Local Wildlife Sites” - the terms are interchangeable. They are locally designated for their importance for wildlife particularly with regard to planning and land management decision making and might or might not be SSSI’s.
Finally, there are also Nature Reserves (not National). These come in a variety of forms, they might be managed by a Wildlife Trust, a council or even an individual. They may often have no statutory protection, but will be worth being aware of and like SINC’s and especially SSSI’s/ASSI’s, they will have relevance in any Planning Consultation.
Is it an issue?
After that long introduction, this should be fairly brief. If you think about these locations, they are hardly likely to overlap with many private dwellings, although I do know of one fairly large SSSI in Wales that has an industrial estate superimposed on it! You might be talking about places that are remote, maybe marshy, hilly or obviously “natural” or at the other extreme, they may appear to be derelict sites. If the home you are looking for is in one of these, then you are likely to be the sort of person who has directed their house search in this direction, for whom such a location is already an attraction. However, the issue for most people is when the property they are looking at is close or next to such a site. If that is the case, then there might be consenting challenges if you wish to alter or extend your property. There may be ways in which the site is managed (for the benefit or enhancement of nature) that you might not be enthusiastic about. For example, there may be limits on the grazing regime, so the land might appear unkempt, or public access may be encouraged. On the other hand, I can think of plenty of people who would find such a neighbour highly desirable. We are all different!
Would I buy a house within an ecological site?
I might, with caution, but it would really depend on why it was designated and how it was managed, but I’d do my research very carefully and make sure that my solicitor was fully conversant with the issues that might arise.
Would I buy a house near to an ecological site?
I might, and I would be much more relaxed than if it were actually within such a site.