Ancient Woodland Inventory (England)

– in the House of Commons at 12:43 pm on 23rd January 2019.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield 1:08 pm, 23rd January 2019

In the year that the Government have designated the year of green action, I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the periodic updating of the Ancient Woodland Inventory for England;
and for connected purposes.

Colleagues may be relieved to learn that this Bill is all bark and no Brexit, so it is going to be a change. As any Member of this House who has watched my recent videos on YouTube explaining parliamentary Committees will know, I am a tree hugger, and I am proud of it. I am a member of the all-party group on ancient woodlands and veteran trees, which is so ably led by my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, because I am fighting to save them—all of them.

Ancient woodlands are an irreplaceable habitat and cover only 2.6% of land in the UK—that is 2.6% that we know of, so there could be a lot more. I cannot say whether that is the case, because the database that records ancient woodland in England, the ancient woodland inventory, is out of date.

I am introducing this Ancient Woodland Inventory (England) Bill because the present inventory is outdated and, as a result, has many inaccuracies and omissions that need to be corrected. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government introduced an updated national planning policy framework last July, which included long-overdue protections for ancient woodland. The framework makes it clear that developments that damage or destroy ancient woodlands should be refused except in exceptional circumstances. That is fabulous news, and the Secretary of State has my thanks for that, but, in order to protect those ancient woodlands, we do need to know where they are.

The existing inventory has become an essential reference tool for planners, developers, landowners, foresters, conservationists and others who are keen to protect and restore these irreplaceable wooded habitats. It tells us, for instance, that HS2 will destroy at least 56 hectares of this irreplaceable habitat. Indeed, the number of hectares of all threatened ancient woodlands is now at 811.

The inventory was originally developed back in the 1980s when computerised mapping was in its infancy—as were a good many hon. Members—and the lack of updates to it has meant that it is missing data. This has, in some cases, resulted in ancient woodlands being lost or damaged by development or mismanagement simply because they are not recorded in that inventory. That is particularly true of smaller sites that are often not yet recorded. Our knowledge of different types of wooded habitats and their values has increased, particularly our understanding of ancient wood pastures.

Significant steps have also been taken to restore some ancient woodlands damaged by conifer plantations, yet these positive changes also go unrecorded. The basic methods for identifying ancient woodland have not changed but, as I mentioned earlier, the policy and technology have—as have public awareness, appreciation, expertise and research—which makes a full update both more feasible and more urgent.

Small sites have regularly suffered due to this inaccuracy. There are few sites smaller than 2 hectares—that is 5 acres in old money, so not that small—recorded in the inventory, yet we know that they exist, and they are often the most at risk of loss or damage. A simple comparison between ancient maps and the inventory, which can be done relatively simply in this computerised age, shows countless small sub-2-hectare copses of ancient woodland that are on one map but not on the other. They are unregistered, unprotected, gone. That is the wrong attitude.

Give us examples, I hear you cry—[Hon. Members: “Give us examples!”] I will. In the Derbyshire Dales, just two months ago, a 1.25-hectare wood—that is 3 acres —stood for sale near the village of Middleton. On either side of it, ancient woodlands of some 40 hectares still stand proud. In the middle, this little clump lies forgotten. Its size means that it does not come up on the current inventory, so any planner or developer would not notice it, and could well decide to cut it down and put up some houses, caravans or even glamping pods among its hallowed groves—and do so unimpeded. Three acres is significant. It also appears on ancient maps dating back to the 1600s, so it is ancient. If it is on those ancient maps, it should be available on the inventory to planners. If the inventory were updated, the wood would be recognised. Without recognition, there is no protection.

The Government pledged to improve protections for ancient woodlands, and that means all of them. We cannot rely on out-of-date data to prop up a system that has seen countless hectares of this irreplaceable habitat lost. We have to update it.

I do not intend this to be any sort of blocking Bill to good, well-sited and much needed construction. I merely wish to ensure that the protection we have pledged ourselves to provide is backed up by the information required to make such protection real and meaningful on the ground. Indeed, it will actually help to speed up development, helping to avoid lengthy disagreements and costly proposals that have been put forward on the basis of incorrect and outdated evidence.

Much of my own constituency of Lichfield is filled with wonderful ancient woodland, which provides so many benefits and so much public good that cannot be replaced. Untilled soil is capable of storing carbon and provides a nutrient-rich mix for thousands of species of plants, fungi and lichen, and ancient oaks, alder, hazel and birch, which provide the very air we breathe as well as food and shelter for the creatures that we care about. These and so much more may be lost. This is a loss that my constituents, and doubtless hundreds of thousands of fellow constituents across the country, including those who made their voices heard in support of various Woodland Trust campaigns, are unwilling to accept. This is what the Bill will address. If people need numeric costs—figures to satisfy their minds alongside the compelling arguments for the intrinsic value of ancient woodland—they need look no further than the strategy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be introducing through the forthcoming England tree strategy, which will establish and confirm the benefits that we value from the trees that we cherish. Then they may see for themselves the irreplaceability of these ancient woodlands through the numbers that they well understand.

Frustratingly, ancient woodland inventories are a devolved matter, which is why this Bill applies only to England, but hon. Members from across the House have kindly sponsored it. I hope that they might provide the necessary leadership so that the devolved Administrations can update their own inventories in my beloved Wales, as well as in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I am introducing this Bill now because, even as I speak, unregistered, unnoticed and ignored ancient woodlands are at risk of being lost, much to the dismay of our constituents who do cherish these forgotten vales of tranquillity. Only by updating the inventory will that not happen. We need to let the people know that, by the power of this Bill, when a tree falls we will hear it.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Michael Fabricant, Sir Oliver Heald, Liz Saville Roberts, Rebecca Pow, Mr David Jones, Angela Smith, Stephen Timms, Mr Clive Betts, Henry Smith, John Mc Nally, Jim Shannon and Mr Jim Cunningham present the Bill.

Michael Fabricant accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 March, and to be printed (Bill 324).