Facing the facts: A27 threat to ancient woodland

In March 2009 Hilary Benn announced that the South Downs would become England’s latest national park. With a duty to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area, a major road building project was likely not top of his agenda to help protect this magnificent area. And yet here we are.

(Photo: Lorraine Heaysman) Up to 24 hectares of ancient woodland could be lost from A27 plans
(Photo: Lorraine Heaysman) Up to 24 hectares of ancient woodland could be lost from A27 plans

Alternative options

Last month Highways England asked for comment on a long-mooted bypass at Arundel, on the southern edges of the national park. The government company – a spin off from the Department of Transport in 2015 – put forward three options, each of which will not only cleave a chunk out of the national park, but destroy large amounts of irreplaceable ancient woodland too.

Loud voices were quick to proclaim their favourite option as the best solution, settling in to long-held beliefs that road building through the ancient woodland west of the town was the only solution to the area’s congestion issues.

At the Trust we have tried to be more nuanced in our approach. We do not oppose road building per se and do not hold positions such as the view that congestion relief is unnecessary or ill-conceived as population and traffic numbers continue to grow. We argue instead that further consideration should be given to alternative solutions such as tunneling, junction improvements and investment in public transport provision. We also highlighted other route options previously considered but apparently discounted as less cost effective, even though they would see the ancient woodland preserved. Thankfully over 5,000 Woodland Trust supporters agreed, joining us in urging Highways England to think again. A huge thank you to those of you who took part.

Misinformation

Road building schemes are always going to be contentious, but the A27 Arundel Bypass has been more so than most. Sadly this disagreement has been coupled with a lot of misinformation which could easily confuse anyone trying to work out the facts of the situation. One of the most significant has been the claim that the ancient woodland that is threatened is actually recently planted woodland made up of non-native conifer trees, and that these woodlands somehow have more protection than communities. 

This is simply not the case. While some ancient woods, including Tortington Common, have had conifer trees planted within them, the unique ancient woodland soils remain. Their integrity and value endure and with careful restoration – currently being undertaken by some impressive local woodland owners – their original glory can return. The further claim that they have more protection than communities is a bizarre straw man argument designed to confuse. These woods benefit both people and place and the ever increasing logbook of 780 threatened ancient woods across the UK is case in point that they are more threatened than ever before.

What has been most disappointing with the A27 proposals though is that we are in this situation in the first place. Highways England’s Biodiversity Action Plan, the Department for Transport’s Road Investment Strategy and the Government’s commitment to further protection for ancient woodland all should have led to more holistic solutions being presented. Solutions that put ancient woodland protection at the heart of these decisions.

So as this one progresses and Highways England refine the options, let’s hope sense and reason prevail. Let’s hope they listen to the many voices of concern about the South Downs National Park, the 5,000 Trust supporters who responded about protecting ancient woodland, and government’s Forestry Commission that raised similar issues. It would be a crying shame if Arundel ended up in a similar situation to the A21 in Kent, where irreplaceable ancient woodland was overridden and paltry compensatory planting provided. The people, woods and wildlife of Arundel deserve better than that. 

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