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Seeing the woods for the trees - what do NPPF proposals really mean?

The new consultation draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)  is a mixed bag, with great news for ancient woodland but bad news for aged and veteran trees. Although the big issue driving these policy changes is housing, what are the implications for the environment generally? Let’s take a look at some of the other changes to the ‘green’ policies and consider how well they work for woods and trees.

Sustainable development

The definition of sustainable development is much clearer in the new draft. In the current NPPF, after the definition of sustainable development there is a confusing statement that says that the rest of the NPPF constitutes the Government’s view of what sustainable development in England means in practice in the planning system. Yes, the Government’s view of sustainable development excludes the definition of sustainable development! This means that in its current form, the NPPF with its strong focus on economic growth presents a seriously lopsided view on what sustainable development is.

NPPF proposals are a mixed bag for trees, woods and the wider environment (Photo: Ben Lee/WTML)
NPPF proposals are a mixed bag for trees, woods and the wider environment (Photo: Ben Lee/WTML)

The new draft sets out clearly that sustainable development has three mutually supportive objectives: economic, social and environmental. This seems a very positive approach but is undermined in paragraph 9:

'Planning policies and decisions should play an active role in guiding development towards sustainable solutions, but in doing so should take local circumstances into account, to reflect the character, needs and opportunities of each area.’

This is concerning as it seems to allow developers a little bit more wiggle room, allowing local economic circumstances to guide development rather than these overarching principles, thus risking undermining the position of the environment and more specifically woods and trees. There may be some difference between urban and rural areas, but surely the principles of sustainable development should shine through all developments. Some may just require a more creative and nuanced approach than others.   

Green belt

The outlook for the green belt appears unchanged. There were no backward steps on its protections to create new settlements. Instead it appears to maintain the status quo, formalising the existing approach of nibbling away around its edges by defining the exceptional circumstances that could justify its loss. According to a 2010 CPRE and Natural England report, 19% of England’s ancient woodland is in the green belt, so from a woods and trees point of view it is critical. Whilst the statement that local planning authorities should plan for the beneficial use of the green belt remains, it is sad to see no new great push for local authorities to be more ambitious in greening the green belt. Surely a missed opportunity.   

National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

The draft states that the scale and extent of development in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty should be limited; the first time in over a decade that national policy has said this. This represents a warmly welcomed significant shift in policy for landscape protection.

These changes are currently proposals and while they only affect England at this stage, this could set the bar for the rest of the UK. You can share your views on these areas and on protection for our ancient trees and woodland through the consultation, which is open until 10 May.

Stand up for ancient trees and woodland

Have your say in the consultation