Protected Areas Committee (PAC) - Specific terms of reference

Purpose

The PAC is a standing committee of the NRW Board established in order to fulfil the delegation as a statutory committee to deal with NRW’s responsibilities pursuant to legislation concerned with nature conservation and designated landscapes. In particular, PAC deals with the notification and de-notification of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), the declaration and de-declaration of National Nature Reserves (NNR) and the duty to keep under review natural beauty, and designation, variation or revocation of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

A Site of Special Scientific Interest is defined in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) as an area of land notified by a conservation body under Section 28 of that Act as being of "special interest by reason of any of its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features".

Under Sections 28(1) and 28(5) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), where NRW is of the opinion that any area of land is of special interest NRW has a duty to notify that fact and thereafter, within nine months, either give notice withdrawing the notification or confirming the notification (with or without modifications).

In addition, NRW has powers to vary a notification, notify additional land, notify an enlargement to an SSSI and denotify an SSSI, by virtue of sections 28A – 28D of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

National Nature Reserve (NNR)

A Nature Reserve is defined in section 15 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 as land managed for conservation for the purpose of

“providing, under suitable conditions and control, special opportunities for the study of, and research into, matter relating to the fauna and flora of Great Britain and the physical conditions in which they live and for the study of geological and physiographical features of special interest in the area, or preserving flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features of special interest in the area”.

NRW has a right to declare and de-declare areas that will be, or cease to be, managed as nature reserves by virtue of Section 19 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and by Section 35(1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to declare any nature reserve which it considers to be of national importance an NNR.

Under Section 35(1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), NRW may declare any land as a National Nature Reserve where they are satisfied that the land is of national importance and is being managed as a nature reserve under an agreement entered into with NRW, is held by NRW and is being managed as a nature reserve, or is held by an approved body and is being managed.

Natural Beauty

The Countryside Functions Section 2(2) Countryside Act 1968 requires NRW to keep under review all matters relating to:

  • the provision and improvement of facilities for the enjoyment of the countryside
  • the conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside; and
  • the need to secure public access to the countryside for the purposes of open-air recreation

Allied to this, under Section 85(b) National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, NRW has a duty to inquire into and report on questions relating to natural beauty.

These general duties make provision for the evidence base to inform decision-making on NRW’s designation powers in relation to National Parks and AONBs.

National Parks

Section 5(2) National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 gives NRW the power to designate extensive tracts of country in Wales as a National Park where by reason of their natural beauty and the opportunities they afford for open-air recreation; having regard both to their character and to their position in relation to centres of population, it is especially desirable that they are made National Parks for the purposes of:

  • conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area 
  • promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those areas by the public

Section 6(1) National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 makes provision for a general duty for NRW from time to time to consider areas for designation, the order of designation and timescale.

Due to the scale of the implications of a new National Park designation, the Board requires discussion and approval of an initial assessment of whether an area qualifies for consideration for designation, and prioritisation of proposals for a new National Park designation or boundary variation. These duties are delegated to PrAC before formal approval is sought from the NRW Board to proceed with the statutory designation process. Should the NRW Board approve any statutory consultation under section 7 of the 1949 Act, it will undertake the same, and then having considered the consultation responses decide whether or not to submit a Designation Order to the Welsh Minister. Following that decision, appropriate notice as required by paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 of the 1949 Act should be given. NRW should seek to resolve objections or representations received. However, if objections or representations cannot be resolved, they should be sent with the Designation Order when it is sent to the Welsh Minister. The NRW Board may choose to delegate these functions to PrAC.

Section 11A of the 1949 Act (as amended) places a duty on NRW to have regard to the purposes of the conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; and of promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the area by the public in undertaking any functions affecting the National Parks or any land in a National Park.

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs)

Section 82(2) Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 provides NRW with the power to designate an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

PAC should discuss and approve initial assessment of whether an area qualifies for consideration for a new AONB designation or boundary variation before formal approval is sought from the NRW Board to proceed with the statutory designation process. Should the NRW Board approve any statutory consultation under section 83 of the 2000 Act, it will undertake the same, and then having considered the consultation responses decide whether or not to submit a Designation Order to the National Assembly for Wales. Following that decision, appropriate notice as required by section 83(2) of the 2000 Act should be given. NRW should seek to resolve objections or representations received. However, if objections or representations cannot be resolved, they should be sent with the Designation Order when it is sent to the National Assembly for Wales. The NRW Board may choose to delegate these functions to PAC.

Section 85 of the 2000 Act places a duty on NRW to have regard to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the AONB, in undertaking any functions in relation to or affecting land in an AONB.

Under Section 86 and 91 of the 2000 Act the National Assembly for Wales is required to consult NRW on any Order for the establishment of a Conservation Board and on the amount of any grants from the Assembly to a Conservation Board.

Scope

Decisions on land protection are made on the basis of evidence presented to the PAC and are legally enforceable.

The PAC also supports the Board and Executive Team by providing advice on strategic casework and wider protected area issues. In particular it provides a focal point for Board discussions on matters relating to protected areas including their role in mainstreaming the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (SMNR) approach.

Responsibilities

The general responsibilities of the PAC are to:

  • Take an evidence-based approach in accordance with good practice principles and guidelines on using scientific advice.
  • Support the Board and Executive Team by providing advice on wider protected area issues and strategic casework.
  • Support the Board and Executive Team by providing a focal point for Board discussions on matters relating to protected areas including their role in mainstreaming the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (SMNR) approach.
  • Receive reports and assurance on NRW’s maintenance of the protected areas register and ensure that it is published and available for public review on the NRW website.
  • Ensure that PAC members are suitably and fully briefed and receive any relevant legal guidance on the circumstances of each site.
  • Assess any new information of relevance, being aware that decisions often require assessments based on the best available data or evidence that may be limited.
  • Receive reports and advice on case law relevant to the responsibilities of the PAC.
  • Advise the Board and Chief Executive on court case attendance to defend NRW’s decision on site protection through the justice system.
  • Take account of Brexit and the consequent transition from EU to UK and Welsh legislation.

Appropriate legal training and guidance will be provided for members of the PAC and updated on a regular basis, and a record of this kept.

The responsibilities of the PAC specific to SSSIs are to:

  • Formally set and adopt appropriate procedures and standards to fulfil the Board’s delegation to PAC of discharging NRW responsibilities for the confirmation of notification, variation, additions to or enlargement of, and denotification of SSSIs where considering un-resolved objections (including arrangements for liaison and communication with owners, occupiers, and other relevant stakeholders within the expected time frames and as aligned with case law).
  • Hold meetings in public concerning individual sites in line with the time-frame set out in S28(5) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for reviewing proposals relating to protected areas.
  • Consider proposals for the confirmation of the notification, variation, additions to or enlargement of SSSIs including determining whether, in whole or in part, the site meets the criteria, qualifies, and is appropriate for notification, variation, addition to or enlargement of the SSSI, with consideration of un-resolved objections.
  • Consider proposals for the confirmation of the denotification of SSSIs, including assessing and determining whether, in whole or in part, the site meets the criteria for denotification to be appropriate, with consideration of un-resolved objections.
  • Review and test any objection for notification, variation, additions to or enlargement of or denotification of SSSI on the basis of the information available, taking the opportunity to question NRW officers, expert advisers, and stakeholders as appropriate.
  • Reach an opinion on whether or not the notification or denotification should be confirmed with or without amendments.

When approving the confirmation of any SSSI notification the PAC can:

  • correct textual errors within the documentation
  • delete aspects of the description
  • delete operations from the list of operations likely to damage the special interest of the site, or modify the wording to make them less onerous
  • delete areas of land from the SSSI where they no longer support any of the features of special interest

When approving the confirmation of any SSSI the PAC may not add:

  • any special features
  • any operations likely to damage the special interest of the site
  • any new aspects to the management statement
  • any land to the SSSI

Any such additions would require a further notification of the SSSI site.

The responsibilities of the PAC specific to National Nature Reserves (NNR) are to:

  • Formally set and adopt appropriate procedures and standards to fulfil the Board’s delegation to PAC of the discharge of NRW responsibilities for the declaration and de-declaration of NNRs.
  • Consider proposals for the declaration of land as an NNR, including determining whether, in whole or in part, the site meets the criteria, qualifies and is appropriate for declaration.
  • Consider proposals for the de-declaration of whole or part of an NNR where followed by re-declaration (for instance to enable the transfer of management between NRW and an existing Approved Body).
  • Consider approval of proposed plans to de-declare land as an NNR.

The responsibilities of the PAC specific to National Parks are to:

  • Advise the NRW Board on the consideration of the designation of a new National Park or boundary variation of an existing National Park.
  • Advise the NRW Board on whether to approve the undertaking of a statutory consultation on a draft Designation Order for a new National Park or the variation of an existing National Park boundary.
  • If requested, advise the NRW Board on whether to approve the submission of a Designation Order and representations for the designation of a new National Park or boundary variation to the Welsh Ministers for confirmation.

The responsibilities of the PAC specific to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) are to:

  • Advise the NRW Board on the consideration of the designation of a new AONB or boundary variation of an existing AONB.
  • Advise the NRW Board on whether to approve the undertaking of a statutory consultation on a draft Designation Order for a new AONB or the variation of an existing AONB boundary.
  • If requested, advise the NRW Board on whether to approve the submission of a Designation Order and representations for the designation of a new AONB or boundary variation to the National Assembly for Wales for confirmation.

Meetings

The PAC usually meets at least three times per annum and never less than once per year.

Membership

The following will routinely be invited to attend:

  • a solicitor with appropriate expertise in environmental law to provide guidance and legal advice during the meeting
  • the Executive Director of Operations
  • NRW conservation staff with expertise on the particular sites under consideration at the meeting
  • others with knowledge and expertise relevant to the particular sites under consideration at the meeting

Terms of Reference agreed: May 2020

Next review date: May 2021

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