Currently the framework merely gives "examples" of specific areas where development should be restricted — sites designated under birds and habitats directives, as sites of special scientific interest, green belt, local green space, areas of outstanding natural beauty, heritage coast or other heritage asset and sites within a national park or in areas at risk of flooding or coastal erosion.
The white paper proposes that such restrictions be limited to just these policies, but with the explicit addition of "ancient woodland and aged or veteran trees", and concedes: "There has been uncertainty about this aspect of national policy, so this change should provide a clearer position for both plan makers and those making decisions on [planning] applications." It goes on to describe ancient trees and woodlands as "irreplaceable habitats", adding: "We consider it important that national policy reflects the need to protect them."
During a debate on the white paper in the House of Commons, communities and local government secretary Sajid Javid said: "In the white paper I did not see why ancient woodland should have less protection than the green belt, as is the case currently. That is why we are upgrading the protection of ancient woodland to the same level." The proposals now go to a 12-week consultation before being implemented in law.
Woodland Trust chief executive Beccy Speight says: "We believe it gives much greater clarity to the place of ancient woodland and veteran trees in the planning process, which benefits all involved. This is the result of years of lobbying, with support from our members, allies in Parliament, NGOs and the public."
The trust currently lists 709 ancient woodlands threatened with development but expects the number to decline should the proposals be implemented. "We will be pressing for full adoption of this welcome set of proposals and we urge the public to tell Government why these habitats are so valuable to them," adds Speight.
Ancient Tree Forum vice chair Caroline Davis also welcomes the move but points out that the policy framework already states 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 outweighs the loss". She describes this as "clear and strong wording that supports our aim, apart from the caveat that does not correspond with the recognition of ancient and veteran trees as ‘irreplaceable’".
Standing advice neglected
Meanwhile, a survey carried out by the trust has found that more than two-thirds of planners are not using official guidance known as "standing advice", which it describes as the most important tool advising them of the value of ancient woods and trees. In addition, the Ancient Woodland Inventory is used by just 15 per cent of the survey’s 500 respondents, with its own Ancient Tree Inventory of significant trees used by only eight per cent.
"The survey has confirmed some worrying anecdotal evidence gathered by the trust over several years," says Speight. "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" — areas of tree planting still retaining ancient woodland characteristics. These make up around half of the UK’s remaining ancient woodland habitat and it is a stated Government priority to retain and restore them.
The trust will launch a report based on the survey’s findings and further research at the Local Government Association conference in July. It is also calling on the general public to support its "Enough is Enough" campaign for better protection for ancient woodlands.
Comment - green policy
"We are not advocating building on ancient woodland. However, we do believe the green belt policy should be reappraised. Let’s not allow objections to building on the green belt help further deteriorate the housing crisis."
Mark Hayward, managing director, National Association of Estate Agents