The dust hasn’t yet settled on the Oaken Wood Public Inquiry, and already the Trust is having to stand up for ancient woodland in Kent at another public inquiry. This time it’s the proposed widening of the A21, between Tonbridge and Pembury, from single to dual carriageway, entailing the destruction of 9 Ha of ancient woodland adjoining the existing road. The way this Inquiry will run is slightly different from the normal inquiry under the Planning Act, which comes about after an initial refusal by the LPA, or a call in by the Secretary of State (as in the case of Oaken Wood). A Highways Agency Inquiry is the mechanism the Planning Inspectorate uses to make a recommendation, which then informs the Secretary of State’s decision on whether a highways scheme should be approved or rejected.
The proposals suggest planting new woodland as “mitigation”, a particular point we will pick up as you can’t mitigate for destruction, merely “compensate”. This isn’t idle pedantry, as Natural England’s advice states that “measures such as the provision of replacement habitat which seek to address issues of loss or deterioration of ancient woodland are not ‘benefits‘ within the meaning of the NPPF”. If the scheme is approved, we also think much more compensation than proposed is required.
The Trust isn’t against road-building in principle, just when it threatens ancient woodland. This scheme could divide local opinion, as it is a busy stretch of road between two sections of dual carriageway, but it appears that the on-going development of an out-of-town shopping centre has made the situation worse. Talking to a cab driver taking me from the station to the Pre-Inquiry meeting (at an out-of-town hotel…), that new development doesn’t include public transport infrastructure, or a dedicated road network to spare the busy A21. For a commuter going beyond Pembury towards Hastings, the A21 reverts back to single carriageway within a mile.
As if to emphasise the need for the Trust’s involvement, when I walked down the slip-road from the Pre-Inquiry meeting, a young wild boar crossed in front of me, and posed by the sign.
The inquiry itself is due to begin next week Tuesday 14th May at the Mercure Hotel, Pembury at 10am. Feel free to share your views about the ancient woodland through our website.
Richard Barnes, Senior Conservation Advisor