Center Parcs ancient woodland plans are not warranted
Woodland Trust President
Oldhouse Warren is under threat from Center Parcs, who want to build a holiday resort within its woods – ancient woodlands which are supposed to be protected from development and damage by the recently established National Planning Policy Framework. How can this be? Do Center Parcs know something we don’t know?
Oldhouse Warren, near Crawley in Sussex, is part of Worth Forest, in what is designated as the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It consists of more than 500 acres of ancient woodland – by definition, somewhere which has had trees growing on it for at least 400 years. It takes that sort of time for the full ecology of a woodland to develop. Woodland is not just trees. All sorts of wildlife thrives in the trees’ bark, branches and leaves, and in the soil around their roots. Birds, bugs and bees, fur, flowers and fungi. In fact, ancient woodland is home to more threatened species than any other terrestrial habitat. Woods of the sort you can find in Oldhouse Warren are particularly precious. And once lost, they are irreplaceable. In this country we have already chopped down, damaged or destroyed almost all of them. Nowadays ancient woodlands account for less than 3% of the UK’s land cover.
Like many an ancient wood, Oldhouse Warren has suffered some damage already. Some of the native deciduous trees have been replaced by fast growing conifers planted for timber in time of need. But with careful restoration the area can be improved, the ecology restored. Species lying dormant in the ancient soils can be revived. A sort of paradise regained.
Center Parcs are not proposing careful restoration.
They are proposing to construct 900 lodges, a swimming pool, roads, restaurants and all the other structures to create what would be their sixth holiday resort in this country. To this end they have secured an option agreement to acquire the privately owned woodland and have announced their intention to make a formal planning application.
So they appear to be confident that they will get their way, even though on the face of it, the application should not have much chance of success. Under the National Planning Policy Framework – reformed just three years ago when Michael Gove was Environment Secretary - an application for a development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats such as an ancient woodland, 'should be refused', unless there are 'wholly exceptional reasons'. A major railway such as HS2 or even an airport might give rise to wholly exceptional reasons if it were to be regarded as in the national interest – but a holiday village?
The Woodland Trust, local conservation groups, NGOs and others are dismayed to discover that anybody or any company would argue that a leisure development such this could be regarded as an exceptional reason within the rules. Granting planning permission for this scarcely exceptional project, would open up a loophole which, if exploited elsewhere, could make the hard-won legal protection for ancient woodland all but meaningless: a dead letter leading to dead woods.
The proposed planning application has surprised and shocked the Woodland Trust and other concerned organisations. It threatens to undermine the protections built in to planning policy, putting all remaining ancient woods at risk from any similar development somebody might come up with.
So, it is not just one wood. And the preservation of the natural world and the storage of carbon, both of which are improved by conserving ancient woodlands, is not just a local issue. In June, 50 of the world’s leading scientists concluded that actions to fight the climate crisis and the ongoing threat to nature must include ending the loss of species-rich ecosystems. Our ancient woodlands have been given protection for just this sort of reason. It is important the protection is not punctured so soon after it has been put in place.
Notes to editors
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The Woodland Trust is the largest woodland conservation charity in the UK. It has over 500,000 supporters.
The Trust has three key aims:
- protect ancient woodland which is rare, unique and irreplaceable
- restoration of damaged ancient woodland, bringing precious pieces of our natural history back to life
- 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 29,000 hectares. Access to its woods is free.