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Building a better future for ancient woods and veteran trees

A­s readers of the more policy related Woodland Trust blogs will know, we’ve been feeling for a while that the coming together of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill (currently going through the House of Lords), the Government’s commitment to publish a 25 year plan for nature (due any time soon) and a Housing White Paper represented an important moment for woods and trees.

Not least as they coincide with the Woodland Trust reaching its highest ever number of ancient woods under threat cases - 709 in total - and the lowest tree planting rate­s for a generation.

So it’s a real pleasure therefore to share some good news with you.

Enough is Enough and a parliamentary push

We launched our Enough is Enough campaign several years ago now against a backdrop of an alarming rise in threats to ancient woodland - the existing planning protection in the National Planning Policy Framework was clearly not working. And the way in which our supporters have made their voices heard has been extremely heartening.

Alongside our collective efforts to raise public awareness we have been pushing hard to raise awareness in Parliament of the need to strengthen protection. This has been reflected in the number of interventions by members of both the Commons and the Lords but especially so through the establishment of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees co-chaired by Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane, (who even managed to raise ancient woodland protection at Prime Minister’s Questions!) and John McNally, MP for Falkirk.

In recent months, we have worked through our Chair, Baroness Young of Old Scone and Baroness Kate Parminter to try and get the Neighbourhood Planning Bill amended in the House of Lords to provide stronger protection. This culminated in a superb debate in the House of Lords Grand Committee on Monday evening with some great speeches from all sides.

The Minister, Lord Bourne, responded that the sense of ancient woodland as ‘Nature’s Cathedrals’ resonated with him and that the Government would signal its intent to address the issue in the Housing White Paper. In fact the prospect of stronger protection was trailed in Monday’s Daily Telegraph but we didn’t dare hope too much until we saw the White Paper itself.

The Housing White Paper and next steps

Well we have now seen the White Paper and the good news is that it does indeed recognise the need to strengthen national policy to better protect ancient woodland and aged or veteran trees.

Planners would have to recognise them as being as valuable as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), National Parks and green belt land meaning development which impacts them should be more definitively restricted.

Crucially, we believe it gives greater clarity to the place of ancient woods and veteran trees in the planning system.

This is the result of years of lobbying, with support from our members, allies in parliament and the public who want to see their love of woodland acted upon.

Obviously, our in-house planners and ecologists are studying the detail carefully to make sure the proposals will really do what they aspire to do. If this is the case and they are properly implemented, we would expect to see the 709 ancient woods currently under threat reduce in number without hampering progress to meet the huge need for house building.

There is now a 12 week consultation window and we will be pressing for adoption of this welcome set of proposals. We will also be urging the public to tell Government why ancient woodland matters so much and these very welcome intentions now need to become policy reality that bites on the ground.

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