Leading article: A worthy environmental vision

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The raison d'etre of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee is to challenge government expenditure. So the committee is perfectly entitled to cast a beady eye over the growing numbers of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The scheme, it argues, needs a review to identify those sites which no longer need protection.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest is the kind of name that only a technocrat could love. It hardly generates feelings of warmth and protection from the ordinary public. But the scheme does represent one of the more far-sighted visions of public good to have emerged from post-war politics.

The idea was to designate certain areas as having special importance for their wildlife. But since the inception of the scheme 60 years ago, the number of SSSI sites in England has increased to 4,000, and spending on them has more than doubled from £35.6m in 2001 to £85.4m today.

Money well spent? Not in every case, as the committee reports; there are sites which have lost their lustre or their relevance. The Government is also struggling to keep all the sites in a "favourable condition".

It cannot be said, either, that the designation of a site necessarily protects it from development. We know from the experience of Twyford Down that all the protections in the world cannot save the "special" from being overridden by the "general" need. But that is, to some extent, the point of SSSIs. They are not absolute protections. They may seem less formidable than the Special Conservation and Protection Centres now defined under European Union regulations. But they do put down a marker which developers must challenge and landowners can call in aid.

Let the system be rationalised by all means. And let those SSSIs which no longer merit the protection be stripped of their designation. But to dismantle the system entirely would be a mistake. And for heaven's sake, can't we come up with a catchier and more inspiring name? National Preserves, perhaps, or Saved for the Future?

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