Are we making progress on better protection for ancient woodland?

As we head towards the Easter break there is a real feel that spring is properly here, although it’s perhaps a little too early to talk of summer (climate change notwithstanding). But, in those places where an institutionalised approach to term-times reigns supreme (places like schools and the Houses of Parliament), the time is right for an end of spring-term report and to dust off the PE kit ready for the summer term.

One of the Government’s current environmental challenges, and one that certainly merits a progress report, is its response to the growing chorus of criticism over its poor performance in protecting our irreplaceable ancient woodland.

school report

Our end of term ‘school report’ acknowledges good effort and sets out where Government must try harder

Our ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign is aimed at holding the Government to account on its poor performance and seeks to draw it to the table to discuss those areas where it really must try harder. A bit like a ‘Parents’ Evening’ session at this early stage in the year (when it’s not too late for the capable pupil to ‘pull their finger out’ and come good before the real exams kick in). For a full breakdown against the eight key areas of concern, read the ‘school report’ (PDF, 1 MB – opens in a new window).

Many of us will be familiar with the long winded and formulaic approaches that sometimes inhabit the modern school report – gone are the days of deciphering eight different sets of handwriting (although that did feel a bit more personal, at least). But, let’s cut to the chase. How are they doing against the curriculum that we have set out? How responsive are they to our efforts to lead them through it?

Well, we have got them to come to the table, starting with a meeting scheduled with the Secretary of State for the Environment in early May. As you might expect, we will offer modest praise as well as criticism, but also (we hope) real and constructive dialogue about what working together and trying harder can achieve.

So, along the way, we have had to deal with the usual distractions; lapses of concentration, a little plagiarism, some forgetfulness, some trips down cul-de-sacs of understanding and some slowness of pace – but also some bright flashes of real application and understanding that bode well for the future. It’s all there in the full progress report.

We have got this far because our challenge is being carried forward by the voices of 45,000 others. In twelve weeks, people have joined our call to the Prime Minister for better protection of our precious ancient woodland at an average rate of over 500 every day. It’s not too late to add your support, email the Prime Minister now.

So, here’s to a well earned rest over Easter – then back in refreshed and ready for more.

Austin Brady, Director of Conservation

Posted in Austin's blog, AWPR, Campaigning, Conservation, Consultation, Defra, England, Government Affairs, Planning, Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS), Protection, Woods Under Threat | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t let it fade away

In October 2012 I posted a blog in alarm and consternation when the Grassland Trust went into liquidation. Grassland forms a critical part of the ecology and the economy of the UK. It supports vital natural resources such as bees and other pollinators, but also a wealth of other invertebrates, small mammals, wild flowers and grasses and iconic species such as the barn owl. With the Grassland Trust gone, who would stand up for this vital part of the British countryside?

Hay meadow at Kingcombe (Grassland Trust)

Hay meadow at Kingcombe (Grassland Trust)

Last week the Wildlife Trusts launched a campaign to highlight the plight of important grasslands – such as ancient meadows, traditional pastures and road verges – which continue to decline. ‘Save our vanishing grasslands’ lays out a five-point plan for greater protection of environmentally important grasslands:

  1. Improve existing laws and policies and enforce them
  2. Support wildlife-rich grasslands on farmland
  3. Award statutory protection to more grassland sites
  4. Set up a national grassland inventory
  5. Restore more wildlife-rich grasslands

Why should the Woodland Trust be worried about grassland? Well, in part because we manage, within and around some of our woods, remnants of grassland habitat. This is often along the sides of woodland rides or in small patches within woods that have escaped agricultural improvement.

Perhaps more significantly though, all habitats contribute to creating a diverse and better connected natural environment. When we lose areas of wildlife rich habitat such as ancient meadows or ancient woodland, the ecological resilience of the landscape is undermined.

Ecological resilience – the capacity of the natural environment to absorb and adapt to change – comes from diverse habitats, connected across landscapes which can support the adaptation and movement of species, particularly in response to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published at the end of March painted a desperate picture of the fate of many species unless we put in place measures to support wildlife. Climate change is shifting the suitable climate ranges for many species, meaning they may have to move north or to higher altitudes to accommodate changing conditions.

Many of the measures needed were laid out in the review of nature conservation areas by Sir John Lawton in 2010. The review – ‘Making Space for Nature‘ – called for bigger, better and more connected wildlife sites that would allow wildlife to adapt and to move.

Research shows that these sorts of diverse landscapes are not only beneficial for biodiversity but are also most effective in supporting natural control of crop pests and providing vital pollination services. Diverse landscapes can also provide wider benefits for flood mitigation, water quality, carbon storage and visual beauty. Ancient woodland, ancient meadows, heathland and hedgerows, streams and wetlands, are all vital parts of a diverse landscape. Protecting that which survives and creating greater connectivity between remaining patches is vital, not just to the wildlife they support, but to all of us.

Mike Townsend, Principal Adviser

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

NPPF Inquiry: two years on, how is the new planning framework performing?

The Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Select Committee launched an Inquiry into the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) last Friday. The Committee, chaired by Clive Betts MP aims to scrutinise the operation of the NPPF on three key areas:

  • Planning for housing;
  • Town centres; and
  • Planning for energy infrastructure (excluding energy infrastructure covered by National Policy Statements).
Clive Betts MP Chair of the DCLG Select Committee

Clive Betts MP Chair of the DCLG Select Committee

Central to the Committee’s investigations will be consideration of a review published by the Centre for Housing and Planning Research at Cambridge University. This newly published research commissioned by the Committee sets out that many Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) are focussing too much on Government-set targets, rather than delivery on the ground. For example, applications are being refused and resubmitted just to fit in better with LPA deadlines. For those of us that have worked in planning for a while this is nothing new, it is a practice that has gone on for years but it does seem to be a wake-up call for the Committee.

We hope that this research will be taken as a need to focus on the quality of outcomes rather than just sheer quantity. Development Control (processing planning applications) should not just be about officers ploughing through paperwork and ticking the boxes. We want planning officers to be able to work positively with applicants to create better places. It should be about producing quality sustainable places where people really want to live, work and play.

Central to this, the Woodland Trust will be submitting evidence on how woods and trees can contribute positively to our day to day life. We will also be continuing our fight to improve the NPPF’s protection of ancient woodland by pushing for the tightening of the loophole.

If you would like to submit evidence to the inquiry please see the Inquiry page. The deadline is 5pm 8th May 2014.

Victoria Bankes Price, Planning Adviser

Posted in Campaigning, Climate Change, Government Affairs, Planning, Protection | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Independent committee pushes HS2 to take environmental responsibility

It’s less than 3 weeks since I gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), yet the Committee has done an excellent job to produce an authoritative report ahead of the Second Reading of the High Speed Two (HS2) Hybrid Bill. The Committee asked pertinent and searching questions to tease out vital evidence from the panels they invited to give evidence, and I’m delighted to say their report reflects their rigour during the committee sessions.

A key concern we highlighted with the Committee was that due to incomplete surveying of ancient woodland, the Environmental Statement gives only a partial picture of the true environmental impact of HS2, a concern which was backed up by the HS2 Ecology Technical Group (a coalition of ecological experts from the councils affected and NGOs) written evidence, and agreed by Natural England during their evidence session. We dispute the claim made in the Environmental Statement that 19 ancient woods will be directly effected in the construction of the scheme. Our in-depth analysis has demonstrated that 27 ancient woods are directly affected, with a further 21 ancient woods likely to suffer damage from noise, vibration, changes to lighting and dust. In addition, we have found a further 23 woods which will be impacted which we believe to be ancient but are not listed on the Ancient Woodland Inventory.

South Cubbington Wood (Image credit: F.Wilmot)

South Cubbington Wood (Image credit: F.Wilmot – fwilmot@open-air.biz)

The Committee echoed concerns about the quality of the ES’s baseline data and have recommended that:

“HS2 Ltd must carry out outstanding environmental surveys as soon as possible. It should focus particularly on cataloguing all ancient woodland and protected animal species, and as much as possible of the 40% of the route yet to be examined by involving local wildlife groups where possible”.

In both our written and oral evidence we highlighted the need for Government to strictly follow the mitigation hierarchy, the Committee strongly supported this and noted that:

“Damage to ancient woodland, an irreplaceable resource, also raises the questions of proper application of the environmental ‘mitigation hierarchy’: compensation measures should only be implemented as a last resort, if adverse effects cannot be avoided or mitigated. The Committee calls upon Parliament to ensure that the mitigation hierarchy will be followed fully”.

We also outlined a core concern that mitigation and compensation are consistently used incorrectly within the ES with regard to ancient woodland, which is irreplaceable and, as such, any attempt to compensate will only ever be just that – no amount of new planting will ever fully replace what has been lost. Addressing this, the Committee have recommended:

The HS2 Environmental Statement must be revised to distinguish clearly between ‘mitigation’ and ‘compensation’ measures in respect of biodiversity, and to explain the factors determining in which cases these should be applied. If biodiversity loss is genuinely unavoidable and also cannot be mitigated, compensation measures should be applied to the fullest extent possible.”

The Committee supported our concerns that any future drive to cut the overall budget for HS2 will have a disproportional impact on environmental outcomes, as these will be seen as non-essential. They have recommended that:

“There needs to be a separate ring-fenced budget for these safeguards and for compensation, separate from the rest of the HS2 budget, to prevent the environment being squeezed if HS2 costs grow”.

We highlighted our concerns about a lack of long term strategy to monitor and maintain planted sites. The Committee took this on board and recommended that:

“Government should establish a process to monitor all aspects of the environmental protections needed for HS2 for the 60 years following the start of construction and operation of the railway, including biodiversity mitigations, compensations and offsets. This process must be managed by an independent body, which should be tasked with monitoring and publicly reporting progress against the ‘no net biodiversity loss’ objective”.

The Committee also shared our concerns about HS2 Limited’s proposals to include Ancient Woodland within the scope of their offsetting proposals. The Committee recommend that:

“If the offsetting metric is used to determine compensation for ancient woodlands on the HS2 route, these habitats should receive the maximum score possible on all criteria (distinctiveness, condition and position within ecological networks) to recognise their irreplaceability and to maximise the extent of the offsetting provided. But ancient woodlands should be treated separately from the overall biodiversity ‘no net loss’ calculation”.

It seems appropriate to end with a quote from Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, which sums up perfectly the Committee’s core concerns:

“The Government needs to show real commitment to dealing with the impact that HS2 will have on our countryside and wildlife. Ancient woodlands and other hard to replace sites of natural value should not be subordinated to crude economic calculations of cost and benefit.”

You can read our press statement in full on our website. HS2 demonstrates that ancient woodland is not adequately protected and is not treated with sufficient respect in big national planning cases. Even if you are not directly affected by HS2, you can still give a voice to precious ancient woodland by taking action and joining us in telling David Cameron “enough is enough!” – ancient woodland must be given the protection it deserves.

Posted in Campaigning, Conservation, Government Affairs, Protection | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

There is a hole in the NPPF bigger than in Homer’s do-nut!

Donut

Every time the Woodland Trust talks about the threats to ancient woodland – whether through campaigners sending emails, our experts giving evidence at enquiries such as the HS2 Environmental Audit Committee or at meetings with key figures within Defra, Government looks at us with puzzled faces and says ‘but we never said we were going to reduce the protection to ancient woodland that is within our planning system!’

In the words of Homer Simpson – Doh!

How can they keep missing the point? Over the last 12 weeks of our campaign, it has become crystal clear that this Government is labouring under the misapprehension that ancient woodland is protected. So let’s look at how wrong that thought is.

If they are protected, why is the Woodland Trust alone currently working on over 445 cases of threatened ancient woodland? And that is in no way a comprehensive list of all the threats. How do we know? Well, questions in the House of Commons by Caroline Lucas MP showed us that none of the statutory bodies have a remit to monitor and report on the loss of this rare and irreplaceable habitat. This means that decisions, statements and policies have been built upon a total lack of understanding about the true amount of destruction to our ancient woods across England.

So no wonder the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is allowing shocking cases of loss. Oaken Wood in Kent, the first test case for this system failed to secure a future for the ancient woodland we are told it is designed to protect. Has it set a dangerous precedent? Time will tell, but we are not optimistic!

Smithy Wood in Sheffield, a rare and special place already sliced up by infrastructure in the 60s, is now threatened by a landowner who feels it is a worthwhile sacrifice for a service station while not dissuading 4x4ers from trashing it as a weekend hobby.

Add to that the threat from developing right up to the edge of ancient woods – like the paintballing site in Colchester we currently have on our case files. Yep – even paintballing gets a fair crack at trying to prove its ‘economics outweigh environmental loss’ when it comes to irreplacable ancient woodland in the NPPF.

And there lies the problem. I know, we keep repeating it, but the evidence is building – this loophole isn’t even acting as a deterrent. It doesn’t come close to being an effective piece of protection operating within our planning system for the richest habitat outside of the sea that covers just 2% of our UK land mass. The loophole remains in place but without up to date standing advice from Natural England, that could help take a step towards supporting planning officers make informed decisions on the future for ancient woodland within their authorities (we are promised this is imminent). The NPPF was put in place with no clear knowledge of how much real loss had occurred under the previous ‘protection’ of Planning Policy Statement 9 and without a base line to monitor from. And ancient woodland has shockingly low levels of protection with only 15% having made it into SSSI status – so no back up plan from Government in that way either!

That’s why we say back to the drawing board. Remove the presumption for development unless proven otherwise, review the failings of the NPPF and statutory consultees’ impact on planning decisions and base our planning policies on sound, researched evidence when you know how much damage and destruction is happening on the ground.

Our campaign will continue until we protect our ancient woods properly from destruction. It’s never too late to be the voice for woods and trees, so join 45,000 other people who have already written to David Cameron, today!

 

Posted in Campaigning, Climate Change, Government Affairs, Planning | 7 Comments

Our total dependence on nature is not mutual

Image: AgnosticPreachersKid/Wikimedia Commons

Image: AgnosticPreachersKid/Wikimedia Commons

Today’s devastating report by the International Panel on Climate Change makes several important points crystal clear.

  1.     Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.

Global warming really is happening. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, the three major greenhouse gases, are higher than any other time in the last 800,000 years.

  1.     The climate system is absorbing more energy.

This is driven mainly by increased levels of carbon dioxide since 1750. It results in global warming and ocean acidification (which happens as the seas absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere).

  1.     Human influence on the climate system is clear.

We are causing this to happen. Climate models are constantly improving and as they do the levels of uncertainty around our contribution to global warming reduce. It’s us alright.

  1.     Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

The current rate of “reduction” is not sufficient. Indications are that we will exceed the 2 degree rise that scientists use as the maximum that the system can warm by without triggering runaway processes. The relentless pursuit of economic growth in a globalised society makes this outcome increasingly likely.

The need for mitigation is now critical. We simply have to stop burning fossil fuels. Unless we do, we (or our children) will face unprecedented levels of disruption and hardship caused by rising sea levels, ocean acidification, summer drought and heat waves, winter flooding and more extreme weather events. These in turn will cause crop failures and additional deaths and there is every prospect they will result in increased warfare.

This is probably still not scary enough to make politicians act. So we need to look at adaptation too. (Nature will find ways to cope but the question is whether we will be part of the solution.)

The UK isn’t escaping climate impacts. Nature’s Calendar is already on the march. Vital relationships between species, relating to the relative timings of food availability and breeding, are falling apart. The expectation is that milder winters will enable pests and pathogens to thrive, making work like the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative so important, but holding back the tide won’t work for ever.

Our “resilient landscapes” approach has climate adaptation as a core driver. The UK’s wildlife faces many pressures already and we need to help it withstand the oncoming slew of climate impacts. Improved landscape permeability – the relative ease of wildlife movements from patch to patch – is essential. It can be achieved through the combination of greater connectivity and reduced hostility of the landscape between patches. This calls for an holistic view of land use, and for us the roles that trees can play not just within woods but in the wider environment too.

These roles are many and varied. The provision of shade in towns and cities will become increasingly important: trees have the virtue of simultaneously cooling the air through evapotranspiration and in helping reduce surface water flooding. There is a broader utility in flood management more generally, reaching from urban to upland landscapes. Trees can help on farms, providing shade and shelter for livestock and crops as well as improving the health of our rivers by reducing soil erosion and runoff, and by providing vital habitat and food sources for aquatic invertebrates. The list is long, yet UK woodland creation rates are set to hit a ten year low.

Whilst the enormity of the IPCC’s findings is sinking in we can and should act locally to help improve our wildlife’s chances. We should do so with a sense of great urgency. As Robert Ingersoll astutely observed, “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments, only consequences”.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Advisor

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Inquiry forces offsetting rethink but Government fails to rule out ancient woodland

The Government may not yet have issued a response to the consultation that they ran on a potential biodiversity offsetting scheme last year but today they have produced a response to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) inquiry into offsetting. We gave evidence to the Inquiry and welcomed their cautious response to any offsetting scheme, so were interested to see how the Government would deal with the concerns that the Committee raised.

Church Wood and Robsack Wood Local Nature Reserve

As part of our evidence, we reiterated our belief that irreplaceable habitats like ancient woodland can never be replicated or created elsewhere and therefore should not be considered within the scope of offsetting proposals. We also set out the key principles that we believed were essential for any scheme to be effective, including:

  • All pilots should run their course before Government formulate a full response
  • The mitigation hierarchy must be followed
  • Any offsetting scheme should apply to all development including Highways and major infrastructure projects.
  • Offsetting should be part of a nationally recognised scheme with scientifically based metrics that take account of the value of both species and habitats
  • Any offsetting site should be as local to the original as possible
  • Receptor sites and their management must be agreed for a minimum of 25 years but preferably in perpetuity.

The EAC interviewed a number of witnesses and received more written evidence. Their inquiry report is sceptical that the conditions as currently described would result in a successful scheme, indeed we were pleased to see that many of their conclusions raised the same concerns that we identified.

The Government has today responded to these recommendations, and whilst we are satisfied that a small number of our concerns have been addressed, inevitably this reads like a holding note until we see the full response to their Biodiversity Offsetting consultation.

Government has confirmed, in line with the EAC recommendation, that they will not make any policy decisions on biodiversity offsetting until it has considered an independent assessment of the offsetting pilots which are taking place in various areas at present. This was central to our written and oral evidence and we are pleased to see that good sense has prevailed so that Defra can take an evidence-based approach.

The EAC also recommended that offsetting would not be appropriate where loss is irreplaceable within a reasonable timeframe, such as in the case of ancient woodlands. We strongly support this, and as regular readers will be aware this is a core feature of our ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign. The Government response confirms that “offsetting would need to take place within the existing planning framework including the strict protections it contains for important natural assets such as irreplaceable habitats, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Natura 2000 sites and protected species”. However, this is also nuanced by the suggestion that “more bespoke assessment approaches would be required where development could affect a SSSI or Natura 2000 site only”, with no mention of ancient woodland.  The green paper had a specific question about whether irreplaceable habitats should be excluded; this has not been answered. We would have liked to have seen specific mention of ancient woodland being omitted from offsetting, to rule this out much more clearly as an option, particularly given the controversy in January when the Environment Secretary suggested it was fair game.

A further good win for biodiversity is that the Government strongly accepts the EAC’s recommendation that “any biodiversity offsetting system must emphasise the continued primacy of the ‘mitigation hierarchy’, and the Government should make clear under such a system that the National Planning Policy Framework commitment to the hierarchy will not be weakened or bypassed”. However, a commitment to the mitigation hierarchy is not worth the paper it is written on if the planners do not understand the term.

The EAC also recommended, in line with our evidence, that offsetting schemes should take account of reduced public access to the biodiversity being lost with development. On this, the Government response was less useful – as they believe that the existing planning system allows for permission to be refused for a development on these grounds even if an offset was provided to compensate for unavoidable losses of biodiversity. As a result, the Government has not included these factors in the pilot metric. We are less confident that the system will provide this protection and will continue to push Government to reconsider its position on this.

So we still need to wait for the official Government response to the consultation to understand how they are going to improve the metrics to include species, connectivity and ecological functioning, whether any scheme would be voluntary or mandatory, how ‘local’ is ‘local’ and other questions that we identified in our consultation response. We expect the response in May.

Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Lead

Posted in Campaigning, Conservation, Government Affairs | Tagged , , | 3 Comments