Increased spending has been accompanied by an improvement in the condition of England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), according to a report released today by the National Audit Office. The assessment of the condition of SSSIs, however, has fallen behind and there is a risk that Natural England is not detecting all sites that are in decline or those where recovery is complete.
In 2000, the government set a target of getting 95 per cent of all SSSI land in England into a healthy or improving condition by 2010. In 2002 around 52 per cent of SSSI land was in target condition. Since then, the reported condition of SSSIs has improved and by March 2008, 83 per cent of the land area of SSSIs covering 888,706 hectares was in target condition. 45 per cent was in a healthy condition. A further 38 per cent was improving in condition, though it may take some years to reach a healthy condition.
Nearly £400 million of public money has been spent on improving the condition of SSSIs since 2000, equivalent to about £50 per hectare per year. During this period Natural England has identified the condition of all SSSIs and the actions needed to bring them into a healthy condition. Defra and Natural England have worked with major landowners and occupiers to improve the condition of SSSI land.
This expenditure and the progress made needs to be supported by improving the administrative and oversight functions of Natural England. All SSSIs are supposed to be subject to assessments every six years, but Natural England is behind with the task. About 25 per cent of units have not been assessed within the required six year period. Around a third of sites do not have conservation objectives in place which describe the conservation needed and allow changes in condition to be judged.
Natural England is responsible for ensuring that landowners manage SSSI land in a way that conserves it. Where Natural England makes payments to encourage landowners to care for their land, it should record more consistently that it carries out effective checks to ensure that public money is being spent well. Where landowners fail to manage land appropriately, Natural England has the power to use the court system to enforce compliance, but has not yet used this power.