At last! A chance to ‘Save our ancients’
It’s official: planning policy is failing our most precious woodland habitats. Now’s the time to stop it.
February’s Housing White Paper included an unexpected but very welcome intention to ‘strengthen the rules to increase the protection’ for ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees. To do this, the Government proposes adding ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees to the list of the nation’s assets that should be explicitly protected from development, set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
We’ve always believed that housing needs can be fully delivered without negatively impacting ancient woodland and aged and veteran trees. Until now, we’ve heard many an assertion that the NPPF’s protection is ‘adequate’ but with over 400 of England’s ancient woods currently under threat from development – the highest ever caseload in our 45 year history – there’s no better time to improve protection measures.
But adding them to a list won’t change their fate – unless the specific policy relating to ancient woodland and trees is updated too.
What’s the problem?
A loophole in the relevant planning policy (paragraph 118) has led to devastating losses.
When determining planning applications, local planning authorities should aim to conserve and enhance biodiversity by applying the following principles:
- planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.
Considering these are irreplaceable habitats, that ‘unless’ wins out far more often than one might expect. Even with campaigning efforts from communities and conservation groups this loophole has effectively sanctioned loss and damage ever since the NPPF was introduced in 2012. Pressures from development (from roads to golf courses, chicken farms and even a zombie apocalypse training camp – with all sorts in between) continue to weaken their limited defences. Damaging large-scale housing proposals are waning but smaller-scale developments still chip away, away, away.
Proposing to include ancient woods and trees on the list of the nation’s assets (set out under paragraph 14 of the NPPF) is an attempt to raise their status in planning terms to that of National Parks, SSSI or Green Belt, Local Green Spaces and locations at risk of flooding and our ancients certainly deserve at least the same protection. Again, welcome. But each of these enjoys a different level of protection and paragraph 14 simply refers the reader back to the specific wording in the NPPF. For ancient woodland and trees, that’s the home of the dreaded loophole.
The Trust has responded to many consultations around other aspects of the NPPF and lobbied hard within Westminster to highlight our concerns. This White Paper will lead to changes to the NPPF. They must be effective. If we are to move intention into genuine protection, paragraph 118 must also be amended.
What to do?
Planning policy states that any loss of our most precious built heritage assets (our ‘national treasures’) should be ‘wholly exceptional’. If the Government’s desire to see ancient woods and veteran trees (our ‘natural treasures’) better protected is to be meaningful, then any loss should be viewed in the same way.
When it comes to built heritage assets, the NPPF states:
When considering the impact of a proposed development on the significance of a designated heritage asset, great weight should be given to the asset’s conservation. The more important the asset, the greater the weight should be. Significance can be harmed or lost through alteration or destruction of the heritage asset or development within its setting. As heritage assets are irreplaceable, any harm or loss should require clear and convincing justification. Substantial harm to or loss of a grade II listed building, park or garden should be exceptional. Substantial harm to or loss of designated heritage assets of the highest significance, notably scheduled monuments, protected wreck sites, battlefields, grade I and II* listed buildings, grade I and II* registered parks and gardens, and World Heritage Sites, should be wholly exceptional.
Paragraph 118 must be updated along those lines.
You can help!
Because of their cultural and historical value, ancient woods and veteran trees are increasingly recognised as ‘heritage assets’ – not least in the RSA’s 2016 Heritage Index which includes ancient woodland and ancient trees as ‘natural heritage assets’. They should have at least the same protection from development. Most people are astounded to learn they don’t already!
With the Government open (for the first time) to improving protection within planning policy and – unusually – launching a public consultation on the White Paper, there’s a formal route to propose these specific wording changes. You can respond to the consultation through our simple campaign action which also gives you the option to contact your MP. If our representatives carry the message into Westminster it will help to encourage the Government to reflect it back into formal policy and guidance, as well as demonstrate the huge public support there is behind the principle of better protection for our ancients.