OTTERS AND THE PLANNING SYSTEM
Developers should be aware that planning authorities are required to take account of protected species and their habitats when they consider planning applications. Furthermore, as otters are European Protected Species, they are afforded a higher level of protection than many other species (such as those listed in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). This fact has implications with respect to both planning and licensing procedures. National Planning Policy Guideline (NPPG) 14 defines Government policy on the natural heritage and land use planning in Scotland, and provides guidance to local authorities on how consideration of these interests should be reflected within the planning system. NPPG 14 states that the presence of a protected species is a material consideration when determining a planning application. Planners and developers are therefore strongly advised to contact SNH as soon as possible if they know of an otter shelter, or of any other significant aspect of otter habitat, which is likely to be affected by their proposals.
Otters are sufficiently widespread in Scotland that planners and developers would be expected to consider them as a matter of course in relation to almost every development project affecting riverine or coastal environments. (Throughout most of Scotland some degree of otter activity is detectable at about 90% of sites investigated during national surveys). Furthermore, the onus is on the developer not only to demonstrate that he/she had no prior knowledge of a holt or couch, but that reasonable steps to check for their presence on the site had been taken and, if present, the necessary authority had been obtained prior to the development proceeding. In order to provide this level of information, the planning authority may ask for a survey to be undertaken, paid for by the developer. This enables the authority, in consultation with SNH, to take account of the presence of otters, by considering the importance of a holt, couch or other significant aspect of otter habitat and the implications of its loss or disturbance, as well as the likely effects of any development on the animals themselves.
When considering proposed large scale industrial and/or housing developments in flood-plains, developers and planners need to take an holistic approach and consider the possible effects of the proposals on the river catchment as a whole. Loss of flood-plain area can result in changes to river flow characteristics, more extreme flood events, scouring of the riverbed and associated changes to the invertebrate and fish populations. All of these can have detrimental effects on otters.
The various stages involved in developing land where otters may be present.
European Sites and the EC Habitats Directive
In addition to the protection afforded to otters throughout their range, the Government has designated a suite of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), 44 of which have been selected in Scotland for their otter interest – see Otter SACs.
Where the proposed development is likely to have a significant effect on such a site (either alone or in combination with other plans and projects) and is not directly connected with or necessary to the management of the site, the competent authority is obliged to undertake an appropriate assessment of the implications of the development against the conservation objectives for that site. This process helps the authority come to a decision over the issue of granting consent for the development. SNH must be consulted in such cases. Where it cannot be ascertained that there would not be an adverse effect on the integrity of these sites a development may only be permitted where:
- there is no alternative solution, and
- there are imperative reasons of over-riding public interest, including those of a social or economic nature
Any proposal that will affect an otter SAC must address the legislative requirements of both the SAC and the wider protection afforded this species in the Habitats Regulations.
The Government has advised that proposals demonstrating such reasons for justifying adverse effects on an SAC are likely to be of at least regional, and probably national, significance and must pass the most stringent tests. Such proposals are likely to be few and would require compensatory measures to be taken by the developer to offset the damage caused to the otter interest of the site.