Ancient woodlands are exceptional: give them ‘exceptional' protection
by Austin Brady, Director of Conservation & External Affairs
on 19 March 2017
The long-awaited Housing White Paper heralds a much-needed change to the way new homes are planned and delivered in England.
In a document so focused on housing, it’s great to see that the Housing White Paper has taken on board our call for a shift in planning policy to increase protection for ancient woodland. These new Government proposals are real progress but don’t yet go far enough.
National Planning Policy Framework
Since the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012, we’ve worked with communities up and down the country to defend ancient woods and trees from a loophole which allows development to destroy these irreplaceable habitats if "the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss".
Whilst government policy for England overall calls for no further loss of ancient woodland, the current wording in the NPPF leaves the way open for individual planning decisions that damage, destroy and gradually chip away our precious ancient woods.
At the last count, over 400 ancient woods in England are under threat from development.
Years of lobbying, campaigning and consistent presentation of the evidence has convinced the Government that the current protection for ancient woodland in England is not sufficient and should be strengthened. Whilst the Government have proposed changes to the NPPF wording with the intention to secure increased protection, they simply don’t go far enough.
The White Paper proposes adding ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees to a list of specific designations protected by restrictions on development. The list is varied, and includes National Parks, Green Belt and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, as well as Local Green Spaces and locations at risk of flooding. Each enjoys a different level of protection and has specific further wording elsewhere in the policy framework to make the restrictions clear.
Whilst adding ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees to this list is very welcome, developers and planning authorities alike are still referred back to the existing paragraph 118 for further details – and that paragraph is the home of the dreaded loophole mentioned earlier.
We are so close!
It’s heartening to see that the Government have recognised the failure of current planning policy, and accepted the need to amend it. We must make sure these initial positive steps are taken further. We need to keep pushing to secure the additional wording change that will really deliver.
Unless paragraph 118 is amended, the Government’s stated intention to increase protection will be dashed by the reality of continued loss and destruction of ancient woods on a case by case basis.
You can help
The White Paper will definitely bring about changes to planning policy - but some of those potential changes are only proposals, which means they are still up for debate and alteration. There is definitely room for improvement. The public consultation on the proposals is open until 2 May and offers us a crucial opportunity. We need your help to make this happen.
We need revised wording that makes it clear that any loss of ancient woodland would be deemed ‘wholly exceptional’, in line with the level of protection already given to heritage assets such as historic buildings, battlefields and World Heritage Sites. This view was supported in the Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s 2014 recommendations that suggested planning policy should be amended "to state that any loss of ancient woodland should be 'wholly exceptional'". This was not adopted by the Government in 2015. Thankfully it now appears there has been a rethink.
The increased protection we have been working towards for so many years is tantalisingly close. Adding your support to the consultation through our campaign can really help to convince the Government to close that loophole. Together we can give ancient woods and trees the protection they badly need.