As the red carpet was rolled out for the Chinese President and MPs geared up for a heated debate about tax credits, Tuesday was perhaps an even busier day than usual at Westminster.
With this in mind, we were pleased to see a good turnout at the inaugural meeting of the proposed All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees.
Hundreds of you emailed your MP to encourage them to attend the meeting, and despite fierce competition for their attention, sufficient MPs and Peers turned up so that the group could formally be established.
Open to all members of both Houses of Parliament, and with the Trust acting as secretariat, the APPG will now meet several times a year to raise the profile of ancient woodland, at a time when more ancient woods are under threat from development than ever before. Indeed, just hours before the start of the meeting, we were disappointed to learn about the granting of permission to destroy part of the beautiful and ancient Bluebell Wood near Maidstone.
With this in mind, members agreed on the following statement of purpose of the APPG:
To raise awareness of the UK’s unique and irreplaceable ancient woodland habitat; to discuss the threats it faces and steps necessary to protect it; and to discuss how to better value and protect the nation’s veteran and special trees.
We were delighted to see Rebecca Pow elected Chair of the new group. Rebecca is the newly elected Conservative MP for Taunton Deane, and currently sits on the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, and the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) – both do important work to hold the Government to account on its environmental policies and are therefore key committees for the Woodland Trust’s advocacy work. Indeed, Rebecca wasted no time in mentioning the new APPG to Environment (DEFRA) ministers meeting at a session of the EFRA committee the day after the event!
Also elected as officers of the APPG were:
- Huw Irranca-Davies, the Labour MP for Ogmore and Chair of the influential EAC;
- Mark Spencer, the Conservative MP for Sherwood (and Parliamentary Private Secretary to Environment Secretary Liz Truss), who was elected as the group’s Secretary;
- Plaid Cymru’s Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP, Liz Saville Roberts, who was elected Treasurer; and
- Conservative MPs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) and Michael Fabricant (Lichfield), who both took up positions as Vice-Chairs.
Other members we were pleased to see at the meeting were Baroness Young of Old Scone, who is a Member of the House of Lords’ new Built Environment Committee, vocal tree enthusiast Lord Framlingham, and representatives from the offices of: Reserves Minister Julian Brazier (MP for Canterbury); Lady Sylvia Hermon (MP for North Down); and Victoria Prentis (MP for Banbury).
A handful of other MPs and Lords also said they would like to become members of the group, even though they couldn’t make the first meeting.
MPs were given copies of our new publication – Woodland Indicators by Parliamentary Constituency (PDF, 3.6MB) – which includes data on the threats to ancient woodland that the Trust happens to know about (there are likely to be many more that we don’t).
Action to improve protection
As well as the election of officers and agreement on the statement of purpose, the meeting involved a presentation (PPT, 13MB) from Richard Barnes, Senior Conservation Advisor at the Woodland Trust, who explained the importance of ancient woodland, the variety of threats it faces, and next steps for improving protection.
Richard drew particular attention to the need to improve the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which currently allows for the destruction of ancient woodland in England if the “need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”. He urged members of the new APPG to endorse the recommendation of the Communities and Local Government Committee (PDF, 0.6MB) in the last parliament that this wording be altered to state that loss should be “wholly exceptional”.
Richard also talked about Natural England’s Standing Advice, which for a while provided welcome guidance to Local Authorities about how to consider ancient woodland and veteran trees in the planning system, but which has recently been archived and replaced with insufficient and muddled advice which is impacting on these precious habitats.
As a first step towards protection, the new group agreed to draft a letter to DEFRA outlining their concerns and the need to reinstate the full Standing Advice as soon as possible.
Watch this space
A second meeting will be planned for early in the New Year, with the specific theme and format to be decided.
We would like to say a big thank you to all who alerted their MP to this first meeting – you made a huge difference in terms of raising awareness, as many MPs subsequently contacted us to express their support and interest in the work of the group, even if they were unable to attend because of their busy schedules.
Now that the group has been formally established, we have an important forum in which to regularly engage MPs and Peers on the importance of protecting ancient woods.