We are still over the moon that England's ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees got the wholly exceptional protection they deserve, but the NPPF must be read as a whole. So now it is time to delve a little deeper into the changes and what they mean for our woods and trees.
The NPPF is even more focused on housing delivery. Launching it, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire, reiterated the Government’s aim to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. The new housing delivery test puts the emphasis on the number of houses delivered rather than the number of homes planned. If local planning authorities (LPAs) do not deliver this there is a threat that their plan will be deemed unsound and the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ set out in the NPPF is applied – a big stick which will make it increasingly difficult for LPAs to refuse housing development.
Ancient woodland, ancient and veteran trees
The ancient woodland protection given by the revised NPPF although much stronger is still caveated: development should be refused unless there are ‘wholly exceptional’ reasons. But what are these wholly exceptional reasons? A footnote gives the example of infrastructure projects, specifically mentioning hybrid bills, a clear nod to HS2. It also says the public benefit should clearly outweigh the loss. The definition of both ‘public benefit’ and ‘infrastructure projects’ both instantly throw up clear areas of contention which will certainly be tested in the courts. We shall be arguing strongly that this must be considered at a national scale – localised benefits must not be deemed ‘wholly exceptional reasons’. Nonetheless we expect to see a dramatic reduction in the types of everyday applications that form our 'Woods under threat’ caseload and look forward to working with local authorities to ensure effective implementation.
High quality design
The Government has trumpeted that the NPPF will promote high quality design and make it easier for LPAs to refuse poor quality development. On the face of it the NPPF contains more warm words on encouraging early community engagement on design and expectations, i.e. they should be maintained rather than standards be allowed to slip as the planning process evolves. However, it remains to be seen how this emphasis on design will tally with the renewed emphasis on the delivery of housing numbers. This does little to empower LPAs when the risk associated with not delivering housing numbers is higher than the risk of not delivering good design.
Likewise we are disappointed that the role of woods and trees in design has not been expanded beyond simply considering it as ‘landscaping’. The importance of urban trees was recognised in the 25 Year Environment Plan so it is especially frustrating that the NPPF did not reflect this. As the climate changes, the importance of putting woods and trees at the heart of new developments is becoming increasingly clear. That is why we especially heartened by moves from Wycombe council recently to require 25% tree cover in new developments and will be watching closely as this proposal is tested at examination.