Last year 422,900 planning applications were decided in England at district level, with almost 9 out of every 10 (346,800) of these applications being granted. Two thirds of these applications classed as major were decided within thirteen weeks of submission and even more (70%) of minor applications were decided within eight weeks.
With such huge numbers of planning applications being dealt with, and a growing clamour at a national level for increased infrastructure spending – itself creating more applications – ensuring we have a fully functioning system in place enabling the right person, organisation or body to respond to an application is crucially important. Statutory consultees are vital cogs within this process.
Put simply a statutory consultee is a national body that, dependant on the nature and location of a proposal, legally must be consulted on planning applications. Where the planning application fits certain criteria or meets a certain threshold the Local Planning Authority (LPA) is legally obliged to consult certain statutory consultees. Examples of statutory consultees include: Environment Agency, English Heritage, Natural England and Forestry Commission.
There are various triggers for consulting a statutory consultee. Local Planning Authorities have for instance a statutory duty to consult the Forestry Commission for minerals and waste applications when an aftercare condition relates to forestry.
LPA’s can attach significant weight to the views of statutory consultees, particularly on technical issues where the LPA will rely on them for expert input. For example the LPA would rely on the Environment Agency for advice on flood risk. Statutory consultees can also recommend conditions to be attached to any permission.
So where do things stand in relation to ancient woodland?
Well, although the Forestry Commission are a statutory consultee for certain minerals and waste applications they are not a statutory consultee for ancient woodland: it is a recommendation only that they are consulted when any part of the development site is ancient woodland or it is within 500 metres of ancient woodland.
When the Forestry Commission get an opportunity to reply to planning applications that affect ancient woodland they can provide valuable insight. In a particular case that we fought several years ago the Forestry Commission’s response was very helpful, stating:
“The Forestry Commission standpoint from the outset has been that we should avoid loss of these irreplaceable habitats at all cost and any development should not encroach within 50m of these woodland blocks.”
This is one of the only times I have seen a statutory consultee advocate more than the 15m suggested by Natural England’s Standing Advice.
There are other important statutory consultees that can have impact on Ancient Woodland. One of the few times that I have been involved with a planning application which was commented upon by English Heritage was Oaken Wood, the case that we took to public inquiry a year and a half ago. This case highlights how two statutory consultees can have vastly different opinions and how the response of one, English Heritage, was included as a deciding factor in Oaken Wood being lost to the quarry.
During the Oaken Wood case Natural England responded to the planning application stating that the woodland was ancient and that they objected to the proposals but as per their standing advice they followed a twin track approach:
“Natural England accepts that there is the possibility that developments affecting ancient woodland may receive planning permission. Natural England therefore uses, and advocates, a twin-track approach for dealing with such cases. This approach allows an objection to be maintained, whilst work is undertaken in a positive manner to consider a scenario where a decision is taken that the scheme‘s benefits outweigh the loss of environmental assets. In such circumstances we may advise on the potential merits of mitigation and compensation proposals.“
However English Heritage originally responded to the planning application stating that:
“on the basis of the information provided, we do not consider that it is necessary for this application to be notified to English Heritage under the relevant statutory provisions, details of which are enclosed.”
A year and a half later English Heritage changed position, responding to the application saying that if the application was approved it could ensure supply of Kentish Ragstone to historical buildings and that it is important that such a source should be available. While we support the sentiment we do not think that this should be at the expense of the natural environment and be seen to advocate the loss of an irreplaceable habitat such as ancient woodland.
The comments from English Heritage then meant that the applicants had support from a Government agency. Although this was not the deciding factor in the decision both the Planning Inspectorate and the Department for Communities and Local Government did weigh it in their decision notice.
As part of a review this case should be looked into, to have two Government bodies disagreeing, especially with regards to an irreplaceable habitat such as ancient woodland, should surely be of concern, particularly where ones position is against the standing advice of another.
The consultee responses that I have read over the years seem to vary from area to area and as you can see from the Oaken example they can be contradictory. Also at the moment Forestry Commission are only recommended consultees. This is why we feel that a review needs to be carried out regarding the impacts that these responses are having on applications, especially where they provide differing advice.
The next blog in this series will be from Nikki discussing how a review of the NPPF will make a big difference to the situation ancient woodland is in. You can help us keep up the pressure in our campaign for better protection by adding your voice to 44,000 others, and sending your message to the Prime Minister today: www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/actnow.
Katharine Rist, Campaigner – Ancient Woodland and Oliver Newham Senior Campaigner – Ancient Woodland