The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England sets out the Government’s planning policies for England and how these should be applied.
It looks to maximise the use of land, provide Green Belt protections and places emphasis on converting planning permissions into built homes.
It has wide ranging effects across infrastructure, from highways to housing, and recent changes to the wording placed greater importance on the protection of ancient woodland.
All local infrastructure projects must be granted planning permission before work can take place. Historically, the NPPF has not afforded ancient woodland – areas that have been continuously covered by woodland for at least 400 years - adequate protection and appropriately recognised its value.
However, in July 2018, after almost 20 years of campaigning by the Woodland Trust, important changes were made to this framework.
Picture: Ben Holmes Woodland Trust Media Library
The changes stipulated that when determining planning applications, local planning authorities should refuse any development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) unless there are wholly exceptional reasons - for example, nationally significant infrastructure projects and orders under the Transport and Works Act and hybrid bills, where the public benefit could be seen to outweigh the loss or deterioration of the habitat.
Major highways projects such as the A27 Bypass in Arundel, the Lower Thames Crossing and the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway are overseen by Highways England and are considered to be nationally significant infrastructure projects, meaning they require a Development Consent Order (DCO) and will be considered by the Planning Inspectorate, rather than local authorities.
They are therefore considered to be ‘wholly exceptional’ developments. Of course that doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate for ancient woodland to be lost to these schemes; even nationally significant projects need to be designed to avoid impacting ancient woodland.
The Woodland Trust does campaign when such schemes cause irreparable damage such as the HS2 project that threatens over 108 ancient woods. Engineering solutions exist that could save ancient woodland in the path of road and rail schemes.
However, other road projects such as the Harrogate Bypass that currently threatens woodlands at Nidd Gorge near Knaresborough, the Norwich Western Link Road within close proximity to Primrose Wood, and an application for the Swindon NEV Southern Connector Road to link to a garden village, which could result in direct loss of irreplaceable veteran trees, will be considered for approval by the local planning authority because they are not nationally significant infrastructure projects.
Paragraph 137 of the NPPF will apply and therefore if applied properly, no ancient woodland or ancient and veteran trees will be lost to these schemes.
Road schemes that destroy ancient woodland aren’t a sustainable solution to traffic problems and are unlikely to meet the policy’s ‘wholly exceptional’ test.
In the case of the Harrogate Bypass, the scheme would destroy and fragment ancient woodland - habitat that can never be replaced.
The number of ancient woods in England still under threat from live planning applications currently stands at 441.
While this represents a drop of 25% on last year, possibly showing that the policy is being applied well in some areas, it suggests councils are not making it clear in their local plans that developments, which threaten ancient woodland have to have wholly exceptional benefits.
Some local authorities should be applauded for implementing the changes, but we need all planning authorities and developers to follow suit and secure our remaining ancient trees and woodlands for future generations.
To address the situation, the Woodland Trust has written to all heads of planning in local authorities across England enclosing a copy of its revised Planners’ Manual, which is intended to help local authorities to adopt good practice and sound policy when making key decisions for woods and trees.
Any local authorities or developers requiring advice should contact the Woodland Trust to discuss their projects.
Abi Bunker is director of conservation at the Woodland Trust.