My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my chairmanship of the Woodland Trust and my interests as president or vice-president of a range of conservation organisations as recorded in the register of interests.
First I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, who, in my absence abroad, led on this amendment in Committee. I also thank noble Lords who spoke so eloquently in support of the amendment. It seems to have done the trick—because I also want to thank the Minister and the Government, who have responded since then, in the housing White Paper, to the evidence of increasing damage to ancient woodland and veteran and aged trees with a strong statement of commitment to increasing their protection. All of us in this House, in the other place and among the wider conservation community, and all those who value ancient woodland, are very grateful. The Minister may therefore find it a bit churlish of me to move my amendment again, but let me explain why I am doing so.
I am delighted that the Government have clearly recognised the importance of ancient woodland and the need for better protection, and put forward a proposal for consultation to include ancient woodland in a rather bizarre little list in footnote 9 of the current National Planning Policy Framework. Planners would be encouraged by this footnote to recognise ancient woodlands as being as valuable as the rest of the list, which includes sites of special scientific interest, national parks and green-belt land, meaning that the development which impacts on them should be more definitively restricted. The list is also strengthened in that it is no longer just a set of examples but intended to be a clear list of categories of land where development should be restricted. I absolutely welcome the Government’s intention to improve protection but fear that the actual proposal will not deliver that very welcome intention.
I have two concerns about the footnote list approach. First, the list includes a range of types of protected land, all of which have got very different levels of protection. I can give two examples. Sites of special scientific interest have had strong protection for some time, and indeed the rate of loss or damage to SSSIs has dropped hugely over the last 20 years—from the early 1990s, when 15% of SSSIs were lost or damaged every year, to the position now where only about 0.1% of SSSIs suffer damage each year. But at the other end of the spectrum of this list are local green spaces, which, alas, get challenged by development on a regular basis. It is therefore not clear what level of protection amending this footnote would result in, in practice, for ancient woodland.
My second concern is that each of these categories in the list has its own corresponding policy wording in a specific full paragraph elsewhere in the NPPF, and ancient woodland is no exception. The relevant wording is paragraph 118:
“planning permission should be refused for development …unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”.
A kind of balancing act is described there. It is absolutely clear that the wording in paragraph 118 is currently failing to deliver sufficient protection for ancient woodland. It seems to imply—and I know that planners interpret it this way—that the protection of ancient woodland is optional if the development has benefits. We know from surveys that that is how planners see it. I believe that paragraph 118 also needs to be addressed if we are really going to secure the clarity of increased protection that I am sure the Government intend in such an admirable way.
My amendment would place protection in equivalent terms on the face of the Bill—though in reality none of us wants that. What we need is one further change in paragraph 118, and I urge the Minister to seriously consider adopting the revised wording that has been suggested previously by several parties who have already considered this matter in some detail, including the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, the All-Party Group on Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees, and the Woodland Trust. The wording that is being commended by those groups in paragraph 118 would make it clear that:
“Substantial harm to or loss of irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland should be wholly exceptional”.
That is an equivalent wording to the level of protection given to heritage buildings.
So I hope that the Minister does not judge me ungrateful. It cannot be often that a new White Paper commitment comes within days of an intervention in the House of Lords. I am sure that it was entirely due to the skilful advocacy of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and the other noble Lords who supported the amendment in Committee, though I have a sneaky feeling that, as a result of the logic of the case and the persuasion by a range of groups and parliamentarians across both Houses, the Minister has actually been cooking up this improved commitment for some time. There was a bit of winking and nodding going on at each of my meetings with Ministers in both Defra and the DCLG.
This further wording would ensure that there was no confusion in the minds of the planning authority or the developers about the Government’s intended protection. That cannot be anything other than a benefit in the drive to deliver houses for people. It would help developers by making it clear that ancient woodland should be avoided, and hence streamline a process that might otherwise get bogged down when the controversial damage of ancient woodland is enthusiastically campaigned against by local communities or conservation bodies.
There is much to play for. Since the NPPF was introduced in March 2012, more than 40 ancient woodlands have suffered loss or damage from development. The Woodland Trust is currently dealing with more than 700 ancient woodlands under threat across the UK, and the number continues to grow. One last tweak to paragraph 118 of the NPPF could deliver a landmark improvement. I hope the Minister, who has been absolutely ace so far in his support, can get that one further change to the NPPF and complete the package. I beg to move.