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!’
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!