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Planning review strengthens protection for irreplaceable ancient woodland

Prime Minister Theresa May has announced plans to overhaul England’s planning policy that will afford ancient woodland far more robust protection.

The Woodland Trust has led the charge for decades for ancient woods to be given the same protection as our manmade heritage.  It is now proposed that the National Planning Policy Framework will state “development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons.”

Beccy Speight, Woodland Trust CEO, said: “At last! The Government’s decision to amend planning policy to robustly – finally – protect ancient woodland is great news, and not before time. The proposed change will make the words on ancient woodland protection contained in the recent 25 year plan for the environment a reality.

“Our natural heritage and our wildlife have been sold off too cheaply and easily in the past and we’re delighted to see the Government is waking up to this and taking action.

“England has been haemorrhaging these incredible irreplaceable habitats for decades, in many cases due to the lack of clarity in the policy wording. Short-term decisions based on weak policy have allowed huge chunks of our best woodland to be lost forever, for development which is simply not necessary in that location – such as car parks, holiday lodges, golf courses and paintballing centres – despite often staunch local opposition.

“Last year, the Woodland Trust had to respond to more ancient woods under threat from inappropriately sited development than ever before in our 45 year history. This came in the same year as England in particular stalled on tree planting rates, forcing us to reveal that the country was surely slipping unnoticed into a state of deforestation.

“So this is potentially a huge step forward and one that the Government must be given due credit for, following through on its manifesto commitment. We notice, however, that ancient and veteran trees haven’t been included in today’s policy amendments and we will be making a strong case for strengthening their protection via the consultation process.

“The period of consultation gives communities in  England the Government’s ear. We’ll be asking people to join us in responding to ensure the proposed policy is made permanent and not watered down.”

This opportunity has the chance to be a momentous game changer for ancient woodland habitat (Photo: Judith Parry/WTML)
This opportunity has the chance to be a momentous game changer for ancient woodland habitat (Photo: Judith Parry/WTML)

Context

The news for ancient woodland comes as part of the Government’s vision for planning reform and its ability to meet housing numbers.

Strengthened protection for ancient woodland will not hinder the Government’s housing targets.

Our experience from the data we record and monitor is that large scale housing developments generally do not directly destroy ancient woodland. Their impact is usually indirect through the isolating of woods in the landscape or by putting too much pressure on this sensitive habitat by directly abutting it – light, pollution. A shift to our preferred wording of ‘wholly exceptional’ in the NPPF, as proposed today,  will compel developers to be more considerate in their approach, concentrating more on the design and layouts of the proposed developments to minimise impacts on ancient woodland. Design and clear advice is the obvious remedy.

Statistics show that much of the pressure on ancient woodland and resulting loss is not housing. Numerous small developments such as those associated with phone masts, leisure activities, waste disposal, holiday lodges, siting of caravans to name just a few, are clearly not spatially dependent – in other words, there is no reason why they must be in that location and nor are they of national significance. They are often put forward to be sited in ancient woodland because it is generally 50% cheaper to purchase woodland sites than to buy agricultural land.

But developments of this nature do impact the housing system by slowing down the planning process. The great benefit of this proposed change of wording of the NPPF is that it will provide greater clarity for local planning authorities; developers, communities and NGOs alike. It will speed up decision making and save resources by heading off inappropriate applications and subsequent long drawn out campaigns against them.

This opportunity has the chance to be a momentous game changer for ancient woodland habitat which we want to ensure survives the consultation and becomes law.

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Notes to editors

IMAGES – selection of ancient woodland images available here 

For further information contact the Woodland Trust press office on 01476 581121 or email nataliestephenson@woodlandtrust.org.uk

The Woodland Trust is the largest woodland conservation charity in the UK. It has over 500,000 supporters. It wants to see a UK rich in native woods and trees for people and wildlife.

The Trust has three key aims: i) protect ancient woodland which is rare, unique and irreplaceable, ii) restoration of damaged ancient woodland, bringing precious pieces of our natural history back to life, iii) plant native trees and woods with the aim of creating resilient landscapes for people and wildlife.

Established in 1972, the Woodland Trust now has over 1,000 sites in its care covering over 22,500 hectares. Access to its woods is free.