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Welsh Government misses a trick on protection for ancient woodland

“Planning Policy Wales must be clear and firm in supporting ancient woodland and all of Wales’ important habitats if we are to protect them for future generations”, says the naturalist Iolo Williams

The Woodland Trust (Coed Cadw) has expressed concern that the new version of Planning Policy Wales (1), the planning Bible for authority planning decisions, will fail to increase the protection for ancient woodland. The new wording creates a loophole around the protection previously provided for the small areas of ancient woodland remaining in Wales.(2)

Ancient woods are our richest land-based habitat for wildlife. They are home to more threatened species than any other habitat, and some woods may even be remnants of the original wildwood that covered the UK after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. Yet today, ancient woodland covers only around 4.5% of Wales’. Ancient woods only occur on soils that have gradually co-evolved with trees over thousands of years. Damage to these ancient woodland soils not only destroys their unique ecology but also their capacity to regenerate the wildlife as well as inspire literature, language, art, history and personal experiences.

Weakening protection

The apparent weakening of protection for irreplaceable ancient woodland comes despite reassurance from the Welsh Government that this was not their intention. The Woodland Trust received a letter on 26th March offering reassurance “that it is not the intention to weaken the strong support for ancient woodland through the planning system.”

Natalie Buttriss, Director of Wales at the charity says: “We greatly welcome the general approach that the new Planning Policy brings, especially the addition of protection for ancient trees. However the Welsh Government now has two major pieces of legislation, the Environment Act 2016 and the Well-being of Future Generations Act. So changing the wording of the previous policy (which was already strong) from fully protecting woodland to ‘protection… unless’ opens the door for misinterpretation at a practical level and goes against the Government‘s stated intentions to enhance biodiversity. The Welsh Government agrees with us that weakening protection for ancient woodland would be contrary to both of these Acts. But we fear that these words may not be what happens in reality.”

The previous version of Planning Policy Wales, edition 9, stated clearly that: “Ancient and semi-natural woodlands are irreplaceable habitats of high biodiversity value which should be protected from development that would result in significant damage”(3). The new edition 10 (4) adds a qualifier that suggests damage is acceptable if “there are significant and clearly defined public benefits”. The qualification has been added specifically to the policy on ancient woodland, but there is no clear definition of ‘public benefit’, thus creating a loophole in the policy. This also suggests that short-term gains could justify further erosion of Wales’ irreplaceable heritage.

The firm protection for ancient woodland in Wales in Planning Policy Wales had stood since 2002, when it was introduced by the then Environment Minister Sue Essex. Ironically, a similar loophole was quashed in England earlier this year, when better protection for ancient woodland was introduced into the National Planning Policy Framework. English planning policy now says very clearly that: “development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons.” The Trust would like to see such explicit wording applied in Wales.

The Woodland Trust has welcomed the fact that Planning Policy Wales 104 includes specific protection for ancient, veteran and heritage trees for the first time, something for which the Trust had been campaigning for many years. The charity also welcomes the fact that the policy states that ancient trees and ancient woodland “should be afforded protection from development which would result in their loss or deterioration”, where the reference to ‘deterioration’ is new.

Ancient woodland under threat

One person who is hugely concerned about the weakening of protection for ancient woodland is Mr Robert Hodgkinson, a farmer from Flintshire who owns Leadbrook Wood, an ancient woodland between Northop and Flint, through which the Welsh Government is currently planning to drive a new four lane highway. He says: "The plan would be very destructive. The flora and fauna in the wood have established themselves over the centuries and are irreplaceable. We are told almost daily that the catastrophic loss of Welsh wildlife is mainly due to the constant reduction of natural habitat, so it beggars belief to discover that the Welsh Government is prepared to weaken its protection of ancient woodland in order to make political gains."

The Welsh naturalist and broadcaster Iolo Williams has also spoken out very clearly on this issue. He says: “Planning Policy Wales must be clear and firm in supporting ancient woodland and all of Wales’ important habitats if we are to protect them for future generations”

The Woodland Trust has already defended 70 individual Ancient woods in Wales from planning applications in Wales this year, dealing with 437 woods under threat since 1999.

Notes:

1. Edition 10, published on 5 December 2018.
2. Ancient woodland in Wales is woodland that has been continuously wooded since at least 1600. Natural Resources Wales maintain an inventory of land falling into this category. Figures are given in “Woodlands in Wales: a quick guide”, published by the Assembly Research Service
3. Paragraph 5.2.9 of the previous Planning Policy Wales 9 states: “Ancient and semi-natural woodlands are irreplaceable habitats of high biodiversity value which should be protected from development that would result in significant damage.”
4. Section 6.4.26 of the new Planning Policy Wales 10 states: “Ancient woodland and semi-natural woodlands and individual ancient, veteran and heritage trees are irreplaceable natural resources, and have significant landscape, biodiversity and cultural value. Such trees and woodlands should be afforded protection from development which would result in their loss or deterioration unless there are significant and clearly defined public benefits; this protection should prevent potentially damaging operations and their unnecessary loss. In the case of a site recorded on the Ancient Woodland Inventory, authorities should consider the advice of NRW. Planning authorities should also have regard to the Ancient Tree Inventory.”