Bristol Port in a storm over conservation

Roger Pearson reports on an economics versus environment dispute concerning the future of a section of the Severn Estuary.

A battle over plans to designate a part of the Severn Estuary – which is earmarked for development – as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is to be fought out in the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Mr Justice Laws has ruled in the High Court that the possible preservation of the area – opposed by the Bristol Port Company which is behind expansion plans – raises questions of Euro-conservation law which can only be decided by the ECJ. But it seems unlikely there will be any speedy resolution to the matter.

Mr Justice Laws has given leave for the case to return to the High Court once it has been to Europe – which could take up to two years – so that the port company can continue with its challenge to designation in the light of the ECJ's ruling.

Bristol Port is seeking judicial review of moves by the Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions to declare the area an SAC.

It argues that cultural requirements and regional and local characteristics are not being properly taken into account. It also claims that if the area is preserved it will jeopardise proposals to expand the port and have economic implications for the area. It says that those considerations outweigh the ecological attributes of the site.

Bristol Port claims that the site is of little ecological value, particularly because of the harsh conditions there, and that the economic value to the area of the scheme outstrips any ecological value of the site.

In granting leave for Bristol Port to seek judicial review after the matter has been referred to the ECJ, Mr Justice Laws said he considered the case of the port company was "plainly arguable".

The application on behalf of the Port of Bristol was led by Gerald Barling QC instructed by Tite & Lewis with Richard Drabble appearing for the Secretary of State.