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Good news for ancient woodland but work still to do

What a day for ancient woodland! In front of the media’s flash bulbs and the great “who’s who” of the planning world, the Prime Minister launched the consultation draft of the National Planning Policy Framework this week – and with it greatly improved  planning protection for the last remnants of England’s ancient woodland.  

What does this new protection look like?

Finally, the ‘paragraph 118’ loophole has been tightened. Thanks to our campaigning and our supporters’ tireless efforts (over 15,000 spoke up for our ancients in the last consultation, thank you!) the current proposals set out that only ‘wholly exceptional’ development will be permitted in  ancient woodland. 

It’s fantastic news! And exactly what we hoped for following on from our call to give ancient habitats protection that is on a par with the best of our man-made heritage, such as World Heritage Sites and scheduled monuments.

The Prime Minister Theresa May launching the Revised Draft NPPF on 5 March 2018 (Photo: Victoria Bankes Price)
The Prime Minister Theresa May launching the Revised Draft NPPF on 5 March 2018 (Photo: Victoria Bankes Price)

What difference will this make?

So what would constitute ‘wholly exceptional’ circumstances? Helpfully the document sets out some pointers in footnote 49:

For example, infrastructure projects (including nationally significant infrastructure projects, orders under the Transport and Works Act and hybrid bills), where the public benefit would clearly outweigh the loss or deterioration of habitat.

Our evidence shows England is losing huge amounts of ancient woodland to infrastructure projects. HS2 alone currently threatens 98 ancient woodlands, and untold amounts of ancient or veteran trees. So on first sight this change is disappointing when it comes to those threats. But schemes like HS2 and Nationally Significant Infrastructure are assessed under different processes that fall outside the NPPF: HS2 for example is being decided by an act of parliament and Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) have their own process and are assessed directly by the Planning Inspectorate.

The change will make a huge difference to smaller, not spatially dependent, developments, for example those that do not have to be built in a specific location, like housing developments, scrapyards and campsites - essentially developments that could be sited elsewhere. 

Unfortunately, the Government chose not to extend improved protection to all of England’s ancient wooded habitats (Photo: WTML)
Unfortunately, the Government chose not to extend improved protection to all of England’s ancient wooded habitats (Photo: WTML)

What about ancient trees?

Unfortunately and inexplicably, while improving protection for ancient woodland the Government chose not to extend this to all of England’s ancient wooded habitats.

For the first time, the policy separates ancient woodland from aged and veteran trees, essentially lowering the status of these incredible natural monuments by setting out in the text that aged and veteran trees are not irreplaceable habitats. This is clarified in a footnote and the glossary which explicitly states in the irreplaceable habitats definition:

'For the specific purpose of paragraph 173c of this Framework it does not include individual aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland.'

This approach runs contrary to Natural England and the Forestry Commission’s standing advice ‘Ancient woodland and veteran trees: protecting them from development’ (last updated January 2018), which states: 

'Ancient woodland, and trees classed as ‘ancient’, ‘veteran’ or ‘aged’ are irreplaceable.'

Aged and veteran trees must be recognised as irreplaceable habitats within the NPPF and they must enjoy the same ‘wholly exceptional’ protection as ancient woodland and other irreplaceable habitats.

This downgrading of the status for our most special trees doesn’t make sense from a Government so bent on building our way out of the housing crisis. When properly considered and planned for, our ancient trees can provide a focal point in new developments, which are  fascinating and biodiverse portals into past land uses and cultures.

This is a big problem and must be addressed. The impacts this could have on how planning policy safeguards our most precious trees will be serious. 

The Government has asked for the public’s views and we hope you will respond. We need people to support the proposed changes for ancient woodland, and urge the Government to rethink its neglect of aged and veteran trees.

The fight for our ancients continues!  Watch out for our new campaign, which will help you to tell the Government exactly what you think of its revisions - the good the bad and the ugly! 

As our thinking evolves we’ll look at the wider implications for the environment beyond woods and trees.  Please check back for more detail and to find out how you can get involved.

Stand up for ancient trees and woods

Have your say in the consultation