European Court strengthens environmental protection

The European Court of Justice has ruled that EU Member States may not use economic, social or cultural requirements, or regional or local characteristics to delete sites listed for special protection.

The judgement deals with a dispute between the UK government and the operator of Bristol docks, First Corporate Shipping, which had objected to the estuary being nominated to join Natura 2000, sites of ecological interest protected under the Habitats Directive. FCS owns a great deal of land around the port and has invested, in partnership with others, nearly £220 million in developing its facilities.

Community law lays down rules that are intended to contribute towards ensuring bio-diversity through the conservation of natural habitats in all the Member States. Under the directive, Member State have to propose to the European Commission a list of sites indicating which natural habitat types and which native species the sites host at national level. The Commission then, in agreement with each Member State, produces a draft list of sites of Community importance, based on the Member States’ lists. Once the list of sites selected has been drawn up by the Commission, the sites must be designated as special areas of conservation (SAC) by the Member State concerned, becoming part of the Natura 2000 network.

As the UK government intended to propose the Severn Estuary as an SAC, FCS applied to the High Court for a judicial review, arguing that under Community rules the Secretary of State was obliged to take economic, social and cultural requirements into account when proposing sites to the Commission.

The High Court forwarded a question to the Court of Justice on whether non-environmental criteria, in particular social and economic criteria, could be taken into account in Member States’ proposals to the Commission. The Court of Justice rejected FCS’ argument, pointing out that the criteria for selecting eligible SACs are “defined exclusively in relation to the objective of the conservation of natural habitats and wild fauna and flora”.

The judgement says that when a member states draws up its national list “it is not in a position to have precise detailed knowledge of the situation of habitats in the other member states”. Therefore, “it cannot of its own accord, whether because of economic, social or cultural requirements or because of regional or local characteristics, delete sites which at national level have an ecological interest”. The Court added: “Community law does not provide for other requirements to be taken into account at this stage of the procedure, which is concerned with producing a draft list of sites, so that the Commission may have available an exhaustive list of sites of ecological interest.”

The Court considered that if that were not the case, it would not be possible for the Commission to set up the coherent European ecological network which is the ultimate aim of the Community rules in question.

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