Judgment of the Court of 11 July 1996. - Regina v Secretary of State for the Environment, ex parte: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. - Reference for a preliminary ruling: House of Lords - United Kingdom. - Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds - Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of the natural habitats of wild fauna and flora - Delimitation of Special Protection Areas - Discretion enjoyed by the Member States - Economic and social considerations. http://europa.eu.int/eur-lex/lex/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:61995J0044:EN:HTML
Lappel Bank is an area of inter-tidal mudflat immediately adjoining, at its northern end, the Port of Sheerness and falling geographically within the bounds of the Medway Estuary and Marshes. Medway Estuary and Marshes are an area of wetland of international importance covering 4 681 hectares on the north coast of Kent and listed under the Ramsar Convention. They are used by a number of wildfowl and wader species as a breeding and wintering area and as a staging post during spring and autumn migration. The site also supports breeding populations of the avocet and the little tern, which are listed in Annex I to the Birds Directive. The Port of Sheerness is at present the fifth largest in the United Kingdom for cargo and freight handling. It is a flourishing commercial undertaking, well located for sea traffic and access to its main domestic markets. The Port, which is also a significant employer in an area with a serious unemployment problem, plans extended facilities for car storage and value added activities on vehicles and in the fruit and paper product market, in order better to compete with continental ports offering similar facilities. Lappel Bank is the only area into which the Port of Sheerness can realistically envisage expanding.
On 15 December 1993, the Secretary of State decided to designate the Medway Estuary and Marshes as a Special Protection Area (hereinafter "SPA"). Accordingly, taking the view that the need not to inhibit the viability of the port and the significant contribution that expansion into the area of Lappel Bank would make to the local and national economy outweighed its nature conservation value, the Secretary of State decided to exclude area of about 22 hectares known as Lappel Bank from the Medway SPA. Lappel Bank shares several of the important ornithological qualities of the area as a whole. Although it does not support any of the species referred to in Article 4(1) of the Birds Directive, some of the bird species of the area are represented in significantly greater numbers than elsewhere in the Medway SPA. Lappel Bank is an important component of the overall estuarine ecosystem and the loss of that inter-tidal area would probably result in a reduction in the wader and wildfowl populations of the Medway Estuary and Marshes.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (hereinafter "RSPB") applied to the Divisional Court of the Queen' s Bench Division to have the Secretary of State' s decision quashed on the ground that he was not entitled, by virtue of the Birds Directive, to have regard to economic considerations when classifying an SPA. The Divisional Court found against the RSPB. On appeal by the RSPB, the Court of Appeal upheld that judgment. The RSPB therefore appealed to the House of Lords. Uncertain as to how the Directive should be interpreted, the House of Lords stayed proceedings pending a preliminary ruling from the Court of Justice on the following questions:
Is a Member State entitled to take account of economic and recreational requirements in classification of an area as a Special Protection Area and/or in defining the boundaries of such an area pursuant to Article 4(1) and/or 4(2) of that Directive?
If the answer to Question 1 is 'no', may a Member State nevertheless take account of economic and recreational requirements in the classification process in so far as:
(a) they amount to a general interest which is superior to the general interest which is represented by the ecological objective of the Directive, i.e. the test which the European Court has laid down in, for example, Commission v Germany ('Leybucht Dykes' ) Case 57/89, for derogation from the requirements of Article 4(4); or
(b) they amount to imperative reasons of overriding public interest such as might be taken into account under Article 6(4) of Habitats Directive?
As a preliminary point, it must be borne in mind that, according to the ninth recital in the preamble to the Birds Directive, "the preservation, maintenance or restoration of a sufficient diversity and area of habitats is essential to the conservation of all species of birds [covered by the Directive]", that "certain species of birds should be the subject of special conservation measures concerning their habitats in order to ensure their survival and reproduction in their area of distribution", and, finally, that "such measures must also take account of migratory species". That recital is formally reflected in Articles 3 and 4. In its judgment in Case C-355/90 Commission v Spain (hereinafter "Santoa Marshes") the Court pointed out that the first of those provisions imposes obligations of a general character, namely the obligation to ensure a sufficient diversity and area of habitats forPage 66 all the birds referred to in the Directive, while the second contains specific obligations with regard to the species of birds listed in Annex I and the migratory species not listed in that Annex.
According to the United Kingdom Government and the Port of Sheerness Limited, Article 4 cannot be considered in isolation from Article 3. They state that Article 4 provides, in relation to certain species of particular interest, for the specific application of the general obligation imposed by Article 3. Since the latter provision allows account to be taken of economic requirements, the same should apply to Article 4(1) and (2). In its written observation the French Government reaches the same conclusion, observing that, when an SPA is created, the Member States take account of all the criteria mentioned in Article 2 of the Birds Directive, which is general in scope, and, therefore, inter alia, of economic requirements.
According to the Court, those arguments cannot be upheld. Article 4 of the Birds Directive lays down a protection regime which is specifically targeted and reinforced both for the species listed in Annex I and for migratory species, an approach justified by the fact that they are, respectively, the most endangered species and the species constituting a common heritage of the Community. Whilst Article 3 of the Birds Directive provides for account to be taken of the economic and recreational requirements mentioned in Article 2 for the implementation of general conservation measures, including the creation of protection areas, Article 4 makes no such reference for the implementation of special conservation measures, in particular the creation of SPAs. Consequently, having regard to the aim of special protection pursued by Article 4 and the fact that, according to settled case-law, Article 2 does not constitute an autonomous derogation from the general system of protection established by the Directive, it must be held that the ecological requirements laid down by the former provision do not have to be balanced against the interests listed in the latter, in particular economic requirements. It is the criteria laid down in paragraphs (1) and (2) of Article 4 which are to guide the Member States in designating and defining the boundaries of SPAs. It is clear from Santoa Marshes that, notwithstanding the divergences between the various language versions of the last subparagraph of Article 4(1), the criteria in question are ornithological criteria.
In view of the foregoing, the answer to the first question must be that Article 4(1) or (2) of the Birds Directive is to be interpreted as meaning that a Member State is not authorized to take account of the economic requirements mentioned in Article 2 thereof when designating an SPA and defining its boundaries.
The first part of the second question
By this part of the question, the national court seeks to ascertain whether Article 4(1) or (2) of the Birds Directive must be interpreted as allowing a Member State, when designating an SPA and defining its boundaries, to take account of economic requirements as constituting a general interest superior to that represented by the ecological objective of that Directive.
In its judgment in Case C-57/89 Commission v Germany (hereinafter "Leybucht Dykes"), the Court held that the Member States may, in the context of Article 4(4) of the Birds Directive, reduce the extent of a SPA only on exceptional grounds, being grounds corresponding to a general interest superior to the general interest represented by the ecological objective of the Directive. It was held that economic requirements cannot be invoked in that context. It is also clear from Santoa Marshes that, in the context of Article 4 of that Directive, considered as a whole, economic requirements cannot on any view correspond to a general interest superior to that represented by the ecological objective of the Directive.
Accordingly, without its being necessary to rule on the possible relevance of the grounds corresponding to a superior general interest for the purpose of classifying an SPA, the answer to the first part of the second question must be that Article 4(1) or (2) of the Birds Directive is to be interpreted as meaning that a Member State may not, when designating an SPA and defining its boundaries, take account of economic requirements as constituting a general interest superior to that represented by the ecological objective of that Directive.
The second part of the second question
By this part of the question, the House of Lords asks essentially whether Article 4(1) or (2) of the Birds Directive is to be interpreted as meaning that a Member State may, when designating an SPA and defining its boundaries, take account of economic requirements to the extent that they reflect imperative reasons of overriding public interest of the kind referred to in Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive.
According to the Court, it is important first to bear in mind that Article 7 of the Habitats Directive provides in particular that the obligations arising under Article 6(4) thereof are to apply, in place of any obligations arising under the first sentence of Article 4(4) of the Birds Directive, to the areas classified under Article 4(1) orPage 67 similarly recognized under Article 4(2) of that Directive as from the date of implementation of the Habitats Directive or the date of classification or recognition by a Member State under the Birds Directive, whichever is the later. Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive, as inserted in the Birds Directive, has, following Leybucht Dykes where the point in issue was the reduction of an area already classified, widened the range of grounds justifying encroachment upon SPAs by expressly including therein reasons of a social or economic nature. Thus, the imperative reasons of overriding public interest which may, pursuant to Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive, justify a plan or project which would significantly affect an SPA in any event include grounds relating to a superior general interest of the kind identified in Leybucht Dykes and may where appropriate include grounds of a social or economic nature. Next, although Article 6(3) and (4) of the Habitats Directive, in so far as it amended the first sentence of Article 4(4) of the Birds Directive, established a procedure enabling the Member States to adopt, for imperative reasons of overriding public interest and subject to certain conditions, a plan or a project adversely affecting an SPA and so made it possible to go back on a decision classifying such an area by reducing its extent, it nevertheless did not make any amendments regarding the initial stage of classification of an area as an SPA referred to in Article 4(1) and (2) of the Birds Directive. It follows that, even under the Habitats Directive, the classification of sites as SPAs must in all circumstances be carried out in accordance with the criteria permitted under Article 4(1) and (2) of the Birds Directive. Economic requirements, as an imperative reason of overriding public interest allowing a derogation from the obligation to classify a site according to its ecological value, cannot enter into consideration at that stage. But that does not mean that they cannot be taken into account at a later stage under the procedure provided for by Article 6(3) and (4) of the Habitats Directive.
The answer to the second part of the second question must therefore be that Article 4(1) or (2) of the Birds Directive is to be interpreted as meaning that a Member State may not, when designating an SPA and defining its boundaries, take account of economic requirements which may constitute imperative reasons of overriding public interest of the kind referred to in Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive.