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Outstanding advice for ancient woodland

Natural England's revised Standing Advice for Ancient Woodland is now available.

Natural England first published its excellent Standing Advice for Ancient Woodland back in May 2012 and the Trust has found it outstanding for planning casework in the South-east, the only region to which it then applied. However, a revision was originally scheduled for February 2013 and we’re delighted to see this finally published, especially as it now applies to all planning authorities in England.

Download the revised advice from the Forestry Commission website.

Natural England (NE), as the Government’s statutory advisor on nature conservation, issues advice to a wide range of bodies, including specific advice to planning authorities. My biggest fear was that the Government would lean on NE to reduce the length of this revised advice, and in doing so its potency for protection. Therefore the Trust lobbied hard for this advice to be published (and cover all of England) and to retain its full strength. We included this as one of our eight steps towards real change in our Enough is Enough campaign for better protection for ancient woodland, and I was asked for comments on the final draft as a “critical friend”.

Ancient woodland is an irreplaceable resource of great importance

I’m delighted to say that not only does the advice have a range of strong references for ancient woodland protection, it also brings ancient trees and wood pasture under its protective wing.

The advice sets out its purpose early on:

“Ancient woodland is an irreplaceable resource of great importance for its wildlife, soils, recreation, cultural value, history and the contribution it makes to our diverse landscapes. It is a scarce resource, covering only 3% of England’s land area. Veteran trees can be hundreds of years old, provide habitat for many different species and are a part of our landscape and cultural heritage. Local authorities have a vital role in ensuring the protection and conservation of ancient woodland and veteran trees, in particular through the planning system.”

I used the previous advice in appeal evidence when talking about the planning balance in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), so I’m also pleased the advice contains clear advice on when to consider mitigation and compensation:

“The irreplaceable nature of ancient woodland and veteran trees means that loss or damage cannot simply be rectified by mitigation and compensation measures. Therefore, where measures seek to address issues of loss or deterioration of ancient woodland or veteran trees, through for instance, attempting to minimise the area of ancient woodland affected (mitigation), or through the provision of replacement habitat (compensation), our advice is that these should be issues for consideration only after it has been judged that the wider benefits of a proposed development clearly outweigh the loss or damage of ancient woodland.”

An ancient woodland ecosystem cannot be moved

All too often I’ve seen development proposals that include woodland translocation as part of the compensation package, usually in a way that implies ancient woodland can effectively be removed from a site and re-established elsewhere. However, the revised Standing Advice continues to state emphatically that “An ancient woodland ecosystem cannot be moved” and “Whilst the translocation of ancient woodland soil to a new site is sometimes proposed as a compensation measure for the loss of ancient woodland, it is not possible to replicate the same conditions at another site; it will no longer be ancient woodland.”

The streamlined advice now directs local planning authorities to a page on the Forestry Commission website for the assessment guide, to help fully consider the assessment of impacts before deciding whether or not to grant planning permission. The website will have some key appeal decisions to help inform the planning balance, though neither of these will be there until the end of April.

Not only does the advice now cover veteran trees and wood pasture, it credits the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Hunt dataset as “currently the only record of the locations of some veteran trees“!

Highways Agency and infrastructure schemes left out 

There is one quirk remaining – the advice doesn’t apply to Highways Agency schemes, nor other infrastructure schemes such as HS2. It does seem bizarre that the planning legislation and advice that applies to the local authorities (who may want to widen their roads), in whose area the Highways Agency are working, doesn’t apply to the Agency!

I raised this with NE during the run-up to the A21 Public Inquiry, but was told their “ability to issue Standing Advice is granted under ODPM circular 08/2005 and only applies to consultations under the Planning Acts hence the reason our Standing Advice only references Local Planning Authorities and not other statutory bodies.”

However, NE did take on board my concerns and helpfully suggested “the principles of Standing Advice are equally relevant to other decision making processes, even if the Standing Advice is not a “material consideration” as it is for planning applications. We will look to see how we can raise the profile of our Standing Advice when it has been revised, with other bodies, like the Highways Agency so that they can make use of it too.”

The Trust will try to help spread the word about this advice to planning and other authorities, and is already looking at how we can help NE improve the Ancient Woodland Inventory.

While disappointed that this review wasn’t published until after the consultation on the HS2 proposals, we hope the HS2 Committee, and others, will note the strong support for protecting ancient woodland, particularly in the light of the Environmental Audit Committee’s report published on Monday.