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Planning: Ancient Woodland

Volume 736: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve ancient woodland protection in the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework.

My Lords, ancient woodland and the substantial contribution it makes to our environment is very important to the coalition Government. We will reflect this importance in the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework, but noble Lords will understand that I cannot anticipate its content before it is published.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, there is a great deal of concern that the caveat placed on the value of economic development as a reason for granting planning permission could be seen as a worry, especially as it is sometimes quite difficult to put an economic value on ancient woodland, which is clearly irreplaceable. Secondly, has the Minister considered dipping into his own pocket and contributing to the Woodland Trust’s Jubilee Woods campaign? It includes a copse for parliamentarians. Perhaps I may add before the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, laughs that I am sure that he will be contributing as well.

My Lords, the first point is that no economic value can be put on ancient woodland, because it is irreplaceable. The consultation draft framework maintained a strong protection but, as with current policy, it did not entirely close the door on any loss of ancient woodland. For example, a loss might be justified where a local highway authority wants to make a road junction improvement to save lives. However, as we are carefully considering all the responses on this policy, I am not going to speculate about the content of the final framework.

My Lords, will the Minister take note that the destruction of ancient woodland is not just a threat but a reality as, appallingly, we have lost 111 such areas in the past 10 years? Will he also take serious consideration of the wider picture of the potential loss to development of large areas of important woodland through council sell-offs, such as, indeed, the recent decision by Somerset County Council to sell a sizeable area of the Quantocks, a decision which many hope will be reversed—land which Wordsworth and Coleridge once roamed across and the public have had access to for a very long time?

My Lords, the noble Earl refers to incidents affecting ancient woodland. That was an incident of ancient woodland being taken but I suspect that it does not necessarily mean that the whole of the wood has been taken. When ancient woodland is sold, perhaps by a local authority, it does not alter the need to obtain planning consent for any development; and as noble Lords know, it is very difficult to get planning consent if it involves taking ancient woodland.

My Lords, trees and woodlands are enormously important to us and to the future of our world, and the tree planting scheme to mark the Diamond Jubilee is yet one more example of that. However, can the Minister assure me that within the National Planning Policy Framework there will be proper protection for undesignated trees and woodland areas and an encouragement to create more community-owned woodlands in this country?

My Lords, I am sure that there will be protection for undesignated woodland. However, the point is that there is very strong protection for ancient woodland because it cannot possibly be replaced or replicated.

My Lords, as the Minister will know, the provisional ancient woodland inventory of England and Wales was prepared by the Nature Conservancy Council and is now commonly referred to as the provisional ancient woodland register. Is he satisfied that the ancient woodland register, being provisional, is an adequate basis for the protection purportedly afforded ancient woodlands by paragraph 169 of the NPPF?

My Lords, the Minister has said that he will not speculate on the content of the final version. Can he tell us when our speculation will end, when it will be published and when we can judge for ourselves whether the final version of the NPPF gives equal weight to longer-term environmental and social concerns, as it undoubtedly will to more immediate demands for economic growth?

Like other noble Lords I have been waiting patiently for the noble Earl to respond to the other question from the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, about whether he will contribute to the fund that has been established.

My Lords, in the present economic situation, would the Minister not agree that British woodlands and forests should be developed in the most commercial way possible while making allowances for ancient woodland? Does he also agree that such woodlands can be treated as quite small areas, rather like sites of special scientific interest?

My Lords, all noble Lords understand the environmental benefit of ancient woodland, but it has some commercial benefit as well. Interestingly, hardwood production in the UK amounts to half a million tonnes and total softwood production is 9.5 million tonnes.

My Lords, I should perhaps declare that I own a small tract of ancient woodland in south Suffolk. Given the increasing recognition of the revitalising influence of woodland in an increasingly denatured culture, are the Government sympathetic to trying to encourage the laying down of new deciduous woodland?