18 September 1998

SSSI compensation for loss of profits faces the chop

By Jonathan Riley

THE government is proposing to abolish the "profits foregone" system of compensation payments for producers who lose income through having land designated as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

Launching the consultation document, Sites of Special Scientific Interest – Better Protection and Management, environment minister, Michael Meacher, said the existing system gave no incentive for farmers to manage sites and the scheme had little scope to deal with damage caused by neglect. In its place, the government wants a system which pays the 25,000 landowners with SSSIs on their land to take an active role in managing the sites.

"The only way producers will get paid is if the site is managed in accordance with a management statement," Mr Meacher said. And payments would then be on a scale according to how much capital was required to manage the site. He also announced that government wanted to review subsidy payments for flax which, at £570/ha (£230/acre), tempted farmers to plough up SSSIs. Mr Meacher added that the current level of fines imposed on landowners damaging SSSIs was ludicrously low and in many cases did not cover the cost of clean up and restoration.

"Fines need to be increased to a level that acts as a deterrent to landowners considering damaging a site." And he said legal measures requiring restoration of damaged sites could be adopted by revising the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

English Nature, governments conservation adviser, recommended earlier this year that fines of up to £20,000 should be introduced for landowners who damaged SSSIs. It welcomed the consultation document.

But the Country Landowners Association has told government that it should provide more funds to landowners to encourage positive management of SSSIs rather than introduce more legislation.

The CLA said English Nature had itself estimated in 1991 that almost one third of SSSIs would lose their scientific interest within 10 to 15 years, often resulting from the collapse of the low input livestock enterprises needed to maintain them.

"It is, therefore, more urgent to find the resources needed to cover the costs of maintaining uneconomic farming as a fair reward for the work landowners carry out in the public interest to maintain SSSIs," said CLA environment adviser, Alan Woods.

NFU environment adviser, Andrew Clark, said the unions main concern was that farmers and land-owners received a fair reward for the additional costs imposed. &#42