With the imminent publication of a long-awaited Government White Paper on housing the Woodland Trust is calling for an urgent review of policies which are failing to protect ancient woodland from inappropriately sited development.
The conservation charity’s caseload of threatened ancient woods has risen to 709, the highest in its 45-year history.
The Trust, and allies in the House of Lords, have been championing an amendment to national planning policy to add the words ‘wholly exceptional’ to the criteria when assessing proposals for development which impacts ancient woodland, to match the consideration currently given to the built environment.
The charity believes the publication of the housing White Paper, the Neighbourhood Planning Bill currently going through Parliament, and the soon to be released ‘25 year plan for improving the environment’ provides the perfect opportunity for ministers to take what would be a straightforward and popular action for the UK’s natural heritage, whilst also offering far greater clarity for communities and developers.
Beccy Speight, Woodland Trust Chief Executive, said, “Reflecting the role ancient woodland and ancient trees play in our culture and history by mirroring the wording used in planning policy for the outstanding examples of our built environment – which can only be developed in ‘wholly exceptional’ circumstances – is a very simple update to make but it’s one that is urgently needed.
“Ancient woods and trees are nature’s cathedrals; beautiful, precious and in the case of ancient woodland, irreplaceable.”
“We welcome the recognition in the housing White Paper of the importance of access to green space and building with respect to the environment. This simple change will make that commitment a reality rather than more fine words.”
A survey carried out by the Trust has also found that more than two thirds of planners are not using official guidance known as ‘Standing Advice’ which is the most important tool advising them of the value of ancient woods and trees when considering development proposals.
The charity also asked planners whether they were aware of two key tools which can help establish whether an application will impact ancient woods or special trees. The Ancient Woodland Inventory, which identifies areas of woodland which are hundreds of years old, is used by just 15% of the 500 respondents. And the charity’s own Ancient Tree Inventory, which records the location of significant trees, is used by only 8%.
Beccy Speight continued, “Because of the current lack of adequate policy protection, planners play a hugely important role in ensuring our irreplaceable ancient woods and cherished individual trees are safeguarded.
“The survey has confirmed some worrying anecdotal evidence gathered by the Trust over several years. It is crucial, while under incredible pressure to speed up the delivery of the government’s housing and growth aspirations, that planners have access to the best possible advice and guidance so they can make swift but sound decisions for our natural heritage.”
Almost three quarters of responses also revealed a lack of understanding of the significance of areas known as Planted Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS). These areas of damaged ancient woodland, which can often be successfully restored, make up around half of the UK’s remaining ancient woodland habitat.
The Trust will launch a report based on the survey’s findings and further research at the 2017 Local Government Association conference. Members of the public can also add their voice to the charity’s efforts to improve protection for ancient woods and trees by supporting its ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign.