New guidance for planners could help save more ancients

Natural England has just updated its Standing Advice for Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees. Welcome changes to the wording, several of which echo suggestions the Trust put forward, are also an indication that the Government is beginning to understand why ancient woodland and veteran trees need better protection.

Any planning application affecting ancient woodland and veteran trees should be sent to Natural England (NE), the statutory body responsible for protecting our environment including ancient woodland and veteran trees, for comment. Largely because of a loophole in planning policy, that amounts to an awful lot of planning applications. The Standing Advice acts as a standard response from the government advisor to a planning application, to save NE having to write bespoke responses. In theory this is a great idea. After all, the guidance will always be the same where our ancients are concerned. However, in practice we frequently see a lack of a bespoke response interpreted as an indication that NE effectively supports a proposal, or at least has no issue with the development. 

So we are delighted to see more clarity on when and how Standing Advice should be used. We have worked closely with NE for many years seeking improvements. There are several in this updated guidance which are worth highlighting, especially as this guidance is effective immediately.

Accountability

Perhaps most importantly, it is now explicit that Standing Advice 'has the same authority as an individual response' from Natural England. It is also much clearer that it is a material planning consideration; i.e. the local authority has to take its contents into account when reviewing an application for development. Two small changes, perhaps, but we believe these will really help us and others to hold local authorities to account on decisions that affect ancient woodland and special trees.

The update to Standing Advice will help to protect our precious ancient woodland and is another step in the right direction (Photo: WTML / Mark Sunderland)
The update to Standing Advice will help to protect our precious ancient woodland and is another step in the right direction (Photo: WTML / Mark Sunderland)

Translocation is not an option

Another huge step forward is that the Standing Advice now boldly states that ‘you can’t move an ancient woodland ecosystem’.  This might seem an obvious statement to make. However, our evidence shows more and more developments proposed where the ‘translocation’ of ancient woodland soils from the development site to another area is proposed as some form of compensation for the habitat that is lost. On the two HS2 phases alone, translocation is currently proposed in at least thirty separate instances. There is no evidence on the effectiveness of this process – a fact that is often used to bamboozle planning committees into believing the ancient habitat can be successfully recreated. NE has gone a long way to help dispel the myth that this could be the answer to building on these precious sites.

Indirect impacts

Not all developments affect ancient woodland directly. We frequently see planning applications for developments (usually housing) that go right up to the edge of a neighbouring ancient wood. However, altering land use so close to ancient woodland can have damaging impacts that degrade the woods over time. For example, increases in noise and lighting can impact on bird species, the creation of informal paths leads to reductions in plants species sensitive to trampling, and housing adjacent to woodland often results in increases in flytipping. While the long-term impact of these indirect effects is very difficult to quantify, what is clear is that creating a buffer between the development and the woodland is successful in reducing them. Until recently, NE had promoted the idea of a 15m buffer. This was only ever intended to be a minimum, but unfortunately it is often quoted as the requirement. It was rare to see wider buffers, despite there being an increasing body of evidence to support buffers of 50m plus in width. We're delighted to see this now reflected in the updated Standing Advice, where a 50m buffer is formally recommended in order to protect an ancient wood from pollution and trampling.

Moving in the right direction

The Standing Advice was published last week and it remains to be seen how quickly it will lead to changes in decision-making. However, it is yet another step in the right direction, giving us hope that the Government’s commitment to improving protection for ancient woodland and veteran trees can truly come to something. We’re rolling up our sleeves in preparation for the big one – the National Planning Policy Framework is due for an update and should be out for consultation early next year. We’ll need you to speak up for our ancients then – could it really be for the last time?

Planners, developers and consultants can find the updated Standing Advice here. In the meantime, we need everyone’s help to impress on the Government that people want ancient woodland and veteran trees to be given better protection. If you believe they should be considered as natural heritage assets which have shaped our history, and are crucial to our future, please add your voice to our ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign. You’ll give our ancients the voice they so badly need.

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