This is a marked change from a previous draft earlier this year and appears to be the result of a concerted campaigning effort by the Woodland Trust and others. The trust’s chief executive Beccy Speight says: "It’s absolutely right that ancient woodland is afforded the highest possible protection. It is one of our top wildlife habitats and there is so little of it left."
The new policy "makes it clear that from now on loss or damage should only be considered in ‘wholly exceptional’ circumstances, putting them on a par with our best built heritage", she says, but cautions: "Effective local enforcement will be key. The new changes come into effect immediately and we now expect to see a shift down in number from the current 586 damaging live applications in play as planners and developers take this change into account."
However, the exception in the guidance for "nationally significant infrastructure projects" appears to give the Government a get-out on the HS2 rail project, which the trust has described as "the biggest single threat from development to ancient woodland", threatening loss or damage to nearly 100 such woods.
As well as its oversight of contentious planning applications, the Woodland Trust has recorded nearly 100,000 trees on its Ancient Tree Inventory, which is recognised by Natural England as the most up-to-date resource for developers and planning authorities to use when preparing applications.
Also welcoming the move, a representative of the Ancient Tree Forum (ATF), which was among those campaigning for greater protection, says: "Ancient and veteran trees are now better protected than ever before for their cultural, heritage value and as irreplaceable habitat. We look forward to working with Natural England and partners to provide guidance on identification of ancient and veteran trees to ensure that this policy advice achieves its aim of protecting irreplaceable habitats and England’s unique tree heritage."
Rebecca Pow MP, chair of the recently formed All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ancient Woodland & Veteran Trees, has led the campaign for greater protection in Parliament and addressed the ATF’s conference last year. She says: "This is great news for these exceptionally precious and irreplaceable habitats which are such an important part of our natural history and yet regularly face threats from unnecessary and insensitive development. I am delighted that this Government is standing by its commitment to leave the environment in a better place than we found it."
The Arboricultural Association was also among those calling for greater protection of ancient and veteran trees during a consultation on the NPPF earlier this year, but also sought to include urban trees in the framework. "So while the news is a step forward, we're disappointed that urban trees were not included having argued strongly for them," says a representative.
"Trees in urban areas are being neglected and removed to save money for other services," he adds. "The revised NPPF was a great opportunity to reflect the value of urban trees and in turn empower LPAs [local planning authorities] to recognise this in robust planning policies and decisions."
Robert Crussell, an arboricultural consultant with the Environmental Dimension Partnership in Oxford, describes the NPPF as "a practising consultant’s most effective tool for protecting ancient woodland and veteran trees from the threats of new development".
He explains: "Previously, developments only had to demonstrate that the benefits outweighed the losses, which incorporates a substantial level of subjectivity, especially given the political pressure for affordable housing. Only time will tell, but we might reasonably expect a greater level of protection to be afforded under the new NPPF."
This now includes a requirement for compensation if "wholly exceptional" circumstances have allowed for the loss or detriment of "irreplaceable habitat", he points out. "What form compensation strategies will take is unclear, as irreplaceable habitats are, as the name suggests, irreplaceable. It may just be paying lip service to ancient and veteran trees, but the establishment of new woodland, for instance, is better than nothing."
The new NPPF wording
The revised National Planning Policy Framework now instructs local planning authorities that "development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons" for which "a suitable compensation strategy exists".
It makes exceptions for "infrastructure projects (including nationally significant infrastructure projects, orders under the Transport & Works Act and hybrid bills), where the public benefit would clearly outweigh the loss or deterioration of habitat".
It also introduces a definition of "ancient tree" as one "which, because of its age, size and condition, is of exceptional biodiversity, cultural or heritage value", and explains: "Not all veteran trees are old enough to be ancient but are old relative to other trees of the same species."