What is A National Policy Statement (NPS)?
The 2008 Planning Act introduced a new decision making process for nationally significant infrastructure projects. Instead of being considered by the local planning authority applications within certain sectors and of a certain size are fast tracked to the Planning Inspectorate (PINs).
The NPSs are produced by the government. They provide the framework for Planning Inspectors to make recommendations to the Secretary of State, who makes the final decision on these applications.
What are National Road and Rail Networks?
The document defines these as ‘National rail and strategic rail freight interchange developments’. The strategic road network is managed by the Highways Agency and accounts for most major trunk roads and all motorways in England. This strategic road network accounts for only 2% of the roads in England (yet they carry a third of all road traffic and two thirds of all freight traffic). The consultation covers all railway developments where the track exceeds 2km in length and all rail freight interchanges over 60ha. The consultation only relates to England.
Our initial thoughts
The Woodland Trust recognises that we are all dependant on the strategic road and rail network, not only to get around safely but for the delivery of goods and services. However, we also believe that the government should seriously consider other alternatives rather than simply building on the ‘business as usual’ approach. We are also keen that the NPS establishes clear standards on environmental protection, especially on irreplaceable habitats, like Ancient Woodland.
This consultation offers an opportunity to help shape, at a strategic level, the future road and rail development in England and we would encourage our supporters to engage with this
Ancient Woodland is irreplaceable
The NPS does recognise that ancient woodland is an irreplaceable habitat in paragraph 5.25:
Ancient woodland is a valuable biodiversity resource both for its diversity of species and for its longevity as woodland. Once lost it cannot be recreated. The Secretary of State should not grant development consent for any development that would result in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran tress found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for and benefits of the development, in that location clearly outweigh the loss of the habitat. Aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland are also particularly valuable for biodiversity and their loss should be avoided. Where such trees would be affected by development proposals, the applicant should set out proposals for their conservation or, where their loss is unavoidable, the reasons why.
This paragraph is contradictory; in one instance it says ancient woodland is irreplaceable and should not be damaged or destroyed by development. It then goes on to say that the need for the development can outweigh the loss: the dreaded National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) loophole remains!
The Woodland Trust will continue to lobby to tighten this loophole, with the aim of ultimately removing it. A further paragraph (5.18) states that biodiversity offsetting can be used where significant harm cannot be avoided or mitigated. This situation is not acceptable and we need to keep pushing the point that ancient woodland is irreplaceable and cannot be offset.
If biodiversity offsetting is to be used much more detail is required to make it workable. A comprehensive compensation metric needs to be established. A clear approach needs to be set out as to how any compensation will be delivered, secured, protected and managed. It is also critical that offsets are not provided simply to be damaged or destroyed by future developments. In the case of ancient woodland, the Woodland Trust will always oppose offsetting. Once the mitigation hierarchy has been followed, any loss of irreplaceable ancient woodland that is considered unavoidable can neither be mitigated, nor can it be included in offsetting – so it must become the subject of compensatory action. This requires a bespoke scheme that goes above and beyond the highest point of the current DEFRA off setting metrics.
Climate change adaptation
The Draft NPS recognises that mitigation and adaptation are crucial when it comes to climate change, it does not however go anywhere in suggesting how this really could be done. We want to see the government take the opportunity to really promote widespread strategic use of ‘softer’ land management options with increased use of woodland and trees that help to slow runoff, hold back peak flood flows and make landscapes more able to adsorb the impact of severe weather events. An increase in the combination of large woodlands, buffer strips, tree belts and hedgerows, in the appropriate locations, will also go someway towards locking up carbon as well as helping stabilise soils and slow run off – all of which are problems increasingly associated with climate change.
The NPS should take the opportunity to push developers to take a best practice approach in the way they plan and assess schemes. From past experience the Trust has found that the option appraisal process is not as transparent as it should be. If the developer wants to pursue a scheme they must go through a rigorous assessment of alternative routes through considering the sequential test. We are concerned that currently ancient woodland is seen as a cheaper option than developing agricultural, industrial or commercial land and as such is often vulnerable. Its irreplaceability and biodiversity must be considered before these economic concerns.
What can you do?
Please do look at the consultation draft: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/national-road-and-rail-networks-draft-national-policy-statement
This is a key opportunity to influence what will be a huge infrastructure programme that will be developed over years to come. We appreciate that the documents are huge and weighty to wade through. But please do just send any key thoughts you have (please feel free to copy and paste some of ours from here!) to NNNPSConsultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk
Victoria Bankes Price, Planning Advisor