Where are the European sites and why are they important?
The coast and estuaries of Liverpool City Region include Dee and Mersey Estuaries including the narrow approaches, the open coast of North Wirral, Sefton Coast, the Alt Estuary and parts of the Ribble Estuary.

European sites are protected for the vast array of rare plant and animal species and natural habitats. For example, the vast flocks of wading birds which over-winter here as part of their life cycle.

What is recreational pressure and what damage is occuring?

Echo Sanddune LitterRecreational pressure relates to the impacts public usage i.e. recreational activity has on the sensitive ecological receptors. Damage to the protected sites comes in many forms. It could be litter, erosion of sand dunes by people playing on them, trampling of rare plants by walkers, disturbance of feeding birds by dogs, fires from barbeques, deliberate acts of damage and enrichment of nutrients from dog and human waste products.

What are the impacts of recreational pressure?

Sanderling Ainsdale Beach 18 10 12As well as the visual degradation of the sites from frequent and prolonged human disturbance, the designation features of the sites, or qualifying features in European Sites, can be negatively impacted, thus having a negative effect on the integrity of the sites, e.g. human disturbance of wintering birds leading to fewer opportunities for foraging.

Why is assessment of recreational pressure required?
For those proposals located within, near or with impacts which may impact a European site, each Local Planning Authority, as a Competent Authority, must test if a plan or project proposal could significantly harm the designated features of a European site under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 as amended (known as the Habitats Regulations). The assessment, is known as a habitats regulations assessment (HRA).

Outside of the Habitats Regulations, assessment of recreational pressure impacts can also extend to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Local Wildlife Sites in relation to adherence of Local Plan policies for the protection of the natural environment.

How might a plan or project cause recreational pressure?

Growth in housing can lead to increases in human pressure through population growth, expansion and creation of new communities. Change patterns of recreation use and increasing recreation pressure must be considered for planning applications and local plans. Tourism also contributes to recreation pressure and this work will also consider how tourism impacts can be managed.

What is the Recreation Mitigation Strategy and why is a strategic response needed?

People visit European sites from across a wide geographic area. The protected sites have interconnected ecology and housing markets operate across administrative boundaries. It is much more effective to work together across local authorities boundaries to protect these sites.

MEAS is working with the Liverpool City Region Councils and West Lancashire Council to establish a long-term Recreation Mitigation Strategy. The Recreation Mitigation Strategy is a collaboration led by the Local Authorities, Mayoral Combined Authority, National Trust, Natural England and Sefton Coast Landscape Partnership which started in 2017, as a joint response to this issue. The basis of the approach is tested and tried elsewhere in England and is known to be effective.

This will provide robust and appropriate protection of and agreed mitigation pathways for designated sites. This will allow developers to ‘opt in’ to a tariff system for mitigating against recreational pressure which will ensure both a fair and quick method of securing mitigation and preventing delays in planning decisions.

The Recreation Mitigation Strategy is currently at the evidence gathering stage. In the interim, each district is finalising an Interim Approach in which each plan or project will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. 

Who is responsible for assessing recreational pressure?
It is the responsibility of any applicant to provide detailed information of a plan or project proposal with which potential impacts to designated sites can be assessed. This can include assessment of existing site conditions; construction methods and timings, including machinery and emissions and transport routes; and details of the operational phase. This information will allow the Competent Authority to undertake habitats regulations assessment (HRA) which will include assessment of potential human impacts during the operational period, including recreational pressure. Within the Liverpool City Region and West Lancashire, it is the role of MEAS to identify those plans or projects which will require assessment for recreational pressure and undertake HRA via the planning process. Natural England, as a statutory nature consultee, will be informed of the outcome of the HRA.

What are the stages of assessing recreational pressure in development management?
A plan or project can have impacts on European sites sites due to both proximity and also due to size, such as large retail or tourism infrastructure or major housing development. Assessment of the existing greenspace provision and capacity to absorb additional recreational use, along with pressures on the sensitive ecological receptors of the designated sites will be required. For European sites, the habitats regulations assessment (HRA) comprises several distinct stages:


  1. Test of Likely Significant Effects (TOLSE)- at this first stage potential impacts to European sites from a plan or project are identified;
  2. Appropriate Assessment- a more detailed assessment of the effects of impacts, including recreational pressure. This can include consideration of factors which may limit visitation to European sites and mitigation can be designed which would enable a conclusion of no adverse effect on the integrity of European sites.

Should a satisfactory conclusion of no adverse effect not be possible then further stages of HRA assessment must be undertaken.

What are the outcomes of assessment?
For European, national and local designated sites an assessment may conclude a project or plan will not contribute significantly to recreational pressure and additional mitigation will not be required.

When assessment concludes a plan or project as contributing significant impacts through recreational pressure, mitigation measures will be required in order to determine no detrimental impact to designated sites. The competent authority must secure the mitigation through either planning condition or legal agreement, such as a Section 106, the fulfilment of which are a basis of a granted planning permission.

In the case of recreational pressure, ongoing monitoring may be required to assess the ongoing appropriateness of the mitigation measures in minimising impacts from recreational use of designated sites. Monitoring can be calculated as part of a Section 106 legal agreement.

Why is it important to understand patterns and impacts of recreation?

It is very important that the patterns of recreation use and the impacts it is having on the coast and estuaries is well understood. The existing data is now a little old and patterns of use have changed due to population change and new activities becoming more popular. There were also some gaps in where data was collected. Because the final Recreation Mitigation Strategy will inform decisions on planning applications, land management and policy, it needs to be robust and recent.

We have published a draft Evidence Report as an initial step towards the Recreation Mitigation Strategy.  It describes the status of knowledge on recreation pressure in the Liverpool City Region and collates available evidence on recreation use and the impacts on protected sites.  It also describes sources of recreation pressure such as new housing development.  It is draft because, as more evidence becomes available, we will take that into account.

How may the evidence base be used and what happens next?

The draft Evidence Report is available as a downloadable report.  It is to be used as an information source for local authorities to undertake their planning tasks, for developers to consider when they are considering applying for planning permission and to assist other stakeholders such as land managers. By providing a “one-stop-shop” source of evidence we hope that it will help meet planning and environmental regulations.

 The draft Evidence Report It will also support the local plans in our area and put in place arrangements to help protect nature until the Recreation Mitigation Strategy is complete. This is expected in early 2023.

We wish to improve our understanding of the recreation uses on our coasts and estuaries as well as at non-coastal locations such as our larger Country Parks and open spaces.  For example, we need better data of where people come from and how frequently they visit.

 The next step is to update the information on patterns of recreation use and the impact it is having.  These data will be collected mainly through user questionnaire.  Surveys will take approximately a year to complete as recreation has distinct seasonal patterns as does nature. Once collated, the evidence will be used to complete the final Recreation Mitigation Strategy.

 We will provide project updates via this website.

What happens in the Interim?

The local authorities will draw on the draft Evidence Report to assist with their planning functions alongside other sources of evidence and regulatory assessments.

We are also providing information to the local authorities on responsible use of the coast and countryside. Householder Information packs have been created and are a downloadable resource.

Photo Credit: Liverpool Echo 2020, Dr P.H. Smith