Moved by Baroness Young of Old Scone
100: After Clause 110, insert the following new Clause—“Duty to implement an enhanced protection standard for ancient woodland in England(1) The Government must implement an enhanced protection standard for ancient woodland, hereafter referred to as the “ancient woodland standard” in England as set out in subsections (2), (3) and (4) and this must have immediate effect.(2) The ancient woodland standard must set out the steps necessary to prevent further loss of ancient woodland in England.(3) The ancient woodland standard commits the Government to adopting a standard of protection which must be a requirement for all companies, persons or organisations involved in developments affecting ancient woodlands in England.(4) This standard must be that— (a) any development that causes direct loss to ancient woodland or ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees must be refused unless there are wholly exceptional reasons and, in addition, a suitable compensation strategy must be in place prior to development commencing,(b) any development adjacent to ancient woodland must incorporate a minimum 50-metre buffer to provide protection, reduce indirect damage and provide space for natural regeneration,(c) any ancient or veteran trees must be retained within a development site, including a root protection area and appropriate buffer zone.(5) This buffer zone must be whichever is greater of—(a) an area which is a radius of 15 times the diameter of the tree with no cap, or(b) 5 metres beyond the crown.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is intended to address the more than 800 ancient woodlands in England that are currently threatened by development. As a large number of these threats result from indirect effects of development next to ancient woodland, these changes will improve the weight afforded to protecting these irreplaceable habitats in planning policy.
My Lords, my Amendment 100 seeks proper protection standards for ancient woodland. I am sure noble Lords have heard me bang on about ancient woodland enough, but I will bang on one more time. I thank my noble friend Lord Whitty, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for putting their names to this amendment and declare my interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust—sorry, chair; I am not allowed to call myself chairman.
Ancient woodland is important. It is one of our most precious habitats. By definition, ancient woodlands are more than 400 years old, and they have developed over that long time a huge richness in biodiversity, communities and indeed history. They sequester much carbon and will continue to do so into the future. Over the next 100 years, they will double the amount of carbon stocks that they sequester.
The public love these woods. They make them feel good. They are the cathedrals of the natural world, so they are important. They are also irreplaceable. A new wood will not have the richness of an ancient woodland for 400 years at least. I had a bit of a laugh with the Public Bill Office, which challenged the word “irreplaceable” in the Member’s explanatory statement as that might be too subjective and campaigning, but before I could object and explain that “irreplaceable” was factual, they came back and said that, yes of course, I was right: ancient woodland is irreplaceable. Well done, Public Bill Office.
Ancient woodlands are important and irreplaceable, yet 800 ancient woodlands in England are under threat right now, mostly from housing and infrastructure development. Over the past 20 years, nearly 1,000 ancient woodlands have been permanently lost or damaged. We are down to the last fragments of what would have been extensive tree cover in England. It is ironic that the Government have a strong and much-welcomed policy to increase tree cover, but the invaluable remains of what we previously had as tree cover do not have any effective level of protection.
The National Planning Policy Framework advises planners and developers not to develop on ancient woodland except in “wholly exceptional” circumstances, but the NPPF is not always observed and does not apply to major infrastructure projects—hence the 800 ancient woodlands currently under threat. I was grateful for the Minister’s assurances that the planning reforms that the Government are contemplating will not dilute the modest protection given in the NPPF, but we have not yet seen the planning reforms.
I tabled an amendment in Committee based on giving protection by using the well-trodden SSSI process. I was very grateful to the many noble Lords who agreed that ancient woodland needs enhanced protection, but I recognise that some were uneasy about the SSSI route. My Amendment 100 is much simpler and lays a straightforward requirement on Government to implement an enhanced protection standard for ancient woodland, which would have as its objective the prevention of further loss and damage, and would apply to all developments affecting ancient woodlands in England.
The amendment specifies some simple components of a standard. First, developments should be permitted only in wholly exceptional circumstances and, in those cases, a suitable compensation strategy should be in place. Secondly, there should be a requirement for buffer strips in any development adjacent to an ancient woodland, since much of the damage is caused by adjacent development. Thirdly, any ancient or veteran trees within a development site should be protected, with proper buffering again and with root protection. I hope noble Lords find this simple amendment much more supportable.
In Committee, the Minister helpfully outlined the Government’s commitment, through the England Trees Action Plan 2021-2024, to additional support for long-established woods, which are defined as woods established before 1840, and to support measures to remove inappropriate conifer overplanting on ancient woodland sites. But these measures will not stop the threat from developments to our existing important, wonderful and irreplaceable ancient woodland sites. These sites need statutory protection, which they currently lack. I hope the Minister accepts my amendment.
Without statutory protection, we will see the remaining fragments diminish, afflicted by continued development and climate change, and being too small to survive. Our children and their children will weep at our neglect. I beg to move.
May I also say a few words about Amendment 101?
My Lords, I am pleased to support the noble Baroness in this amendment. It is astonishing that we even have to have this debate and consider this amendment. Trees are astonishing. There is a tree a few miles from where I live in Somerset that was living before Stonehenge was a twinkle in a Stone Age eye. Not far from me is the tallest tree in England, inside a wood that is known as Atlantic rainforest. As the noble Baroness just said, we have 800 ancient woods that are currently under threat. I imagine Historic England would have something to say if that number of its buildings were being threatened with demolition right now.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has brought forward a simple proposition that requires the Government to develop and implement an ancient woodland standard of protection on a statutory basis. This would mean that our last remaining fragments of ancient woodland —as she said, the cathedrals of our natural life—are protected. These are not made by man, yet it always seems to me that we favour the buildings that we make ourselves, as though they are somehow better.
It is no excuse to say that to plant trees is a reason to cut down ancient woodland; They will not absorb enough carbon, as it will take them 400 years to become as rich. To my mind, it is like saying that we can replace a building like Blenheim Palace with a Wimpey housing development in its grounds and somehow say that it makes society better. I urge noble Lords to vote for this.
My Lords, I also added my name to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. This Bill is all about biodiversity—plants, insects, mammals, worms, butterflies and micro-organisms. It is all about sustainable ecosystems and healthy soil, the look and feel of our countryside, our heritage and people’s enjoyment of that countryside.
Ancient woodlands tick just about every box in that list and more, and they constitute only 2.5% of our landmass. Surely we should be able to protect them, yet many are under threat, directly and indirectly. I am fortunate; if I go out of my back gate and look over to the left, I see one of the most magnificent sights—Duncliffe Hill in north Dorset. It is less than three miles away and it is my destination for walking. When you get there, it is a truly magical place, particularly at bluebell time but also at most times of the year. It is home to almost every organism that we have in our natural environment, from lichens to roe deer.
The fact is that some such woods are under threat. I do not think Duncliffe Hill is under threat—no one is building a road there—but not far away there is a much smaller ancient woodland that, 20 years ago, stood on its own, protected and surrounded only by open fields. But 20 years later it is surrounded by housing developments on three sides. That must have some effect on the viability of the water supply and the ambiance where that ancient woodland has survived. There are both direct and indirect effects.
I find it difficult. I personally support the HS2 project in principle, but why we have not managed to avoid a route that hits ancient woodlands I do not understand. Similarly, I support housing development in general, but there is plenty of land for it that does not need to impinge on these fantastic survivors. We need to preserve them all. I support the amendment and I hope the House will do the same.
My Lords, we on these Benches very much support the amendment, and if the noble Baroness decides to divide the House then we shall support her in that vote. Following on from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, as I understand it from the Woodland Trust publication, 97.5% of the rest of the land could be developed in order to avoid ancient woodland. For me, this amendment is so important because of the biodiversity of these woodlands and the species under threat in this 2.5% of our precious land.
There are two amendments in this group. I know the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, will be speaking to hers later on, but I want to say that a tree strategy is important in how we move forward in the area of woodland forests and trees. I noted in the Conservative manifesto of 2019—the current government programme—a target to plant 75,000 acres of woodland per year by the end of this Parliament. You cannot do that without a sensible strategy that makes sure there is a balance between climate change and biodiversity, and that these plantings last and tie in with nature recovery strategies; you cannot do it with just a huge, broad target. I welcome the scale of the ambition, but we have to have a strategy to go along with it. We on these Benches very much support Amendment 101 and believe it is an excellent way to move forward.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register and confirm that I am the owner of, and actively manage and love, ancient woodland.
I do not support Amendment 100 as I do not believe in the sacrosanct protection that appears to be its purpose. First, not all woodland designated as ancient is of such high environmental value that it requires such protection—particularly PAWS, which are ancient woodland sites where semi-natural woodland has been replaced with a plantation. Secondly, there is also currently an opportunity to negotiate strong mitigation that will offer bigger and better woodland habitat if development is in or adjacent to ancient woodland. This amendment might preclude this.
The standards proposed are very similar to what already exists in the joint standing advice that the Forestry Commission and Natural England have issued, which is a material consideration for planning authorities, as is the National Planning Policy Framework, as has been mentioned. It states in paragraph 180(c) that, when determining planning applications, planning authorities should apply the following principle:
“development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons and a suitable compensation strategy exists”.
The framework also covers infrastructure projects, including
“nationally significant infrastructure projects … where the public benefit would clearly outweigh the loss or deterioration of habitat”,
the only difference being the greatly expanded buffer zones.
Definitions are key to preventing well-intentioned legislation constraining legitimate forestry work. For instance, what do the proposers of this amendment mean by, first, “development”? Does it include woodland creation, rides, forest roading, culverting and widening access points on highways? Secondly, does the policy to
“prevent further loss of ancient woodland” prevent restocking PAWS with conifers and non-native broad-leaves, planting up the edges of ancient woodland sites with non-native species and widening access points? Thirdly, is “ancient woodland” the Forestry Commission category or based on a looser definition of woodland indicators? Fourthly, the amendment mentions “a suitable compensation strategy”—decided by whom and how calibrated?
This amendment should be rejected. I suggest that the best thing the Government can do to help ancient woodland is to fund and unashamedly support the eradication of the grey squirrel and massively reduce deer pressure.
My Lords, I am as keen on the environment as anyone else, but I suggest that it is incumbent on the proposers of these two amendments to explain what is supposed to happen when a piece of major national infrastructure, such as High Speed 2, comes into conflict with a small area of ancient woodland.
Secondly, as regards new planting and new planting targets, we all have to bear in mind that, at present, there is an acute shortage of plants available to go into the ground. Therefore, the Government should be extremely cautious about just increasing their targets for new planting.
My Lords, I was very much in sympathy with similar amendments in Committee, but I have a feeling that this amendment presses the argument just a step too far.
Perhaps I can provide an answer to my noble friend Lord Hylton’s question. I sat on the committee that looked at the HS2 line to Crewe, and I can say to him that it would be impossible, because of veteran trees along the line, to carry out that development as was proposed.
One remembers that this amendment directs attention not only to ancient trees but to veterans. It also asks us to accept that every single tree
“must be retained within a development site, including a root protection area and appropriate buffer zone.”
One can think of development sites of great areas where that might just be possible, but there are many others where it would effectively extinguish the possibility of development. So I feel that this amendment, although very well intentioned—I am so much in sympathy with what the noble Baroness seeks to do—just presses it a little too far, with language that does not allow any latitude at all for exceptional cases.
My Lords, I have to question the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, of HS2 as affecting a
“small area of ancient woodland”,
given that the Woodland Trust says that 108 areas of ancient woodland are at risk of “loss or damage”. However, it will probably please your Lordships’ House to know that I will not restart the HS2 debate at this moment.
I will focus on Amendment 100, to which we in the Green Party would have attached one of our names, had there been space. We are talking about something very ancient and precious, and we can make comparisons with cathedrals and indeed with your Lordships’ House. I was on the site of what is supposed to be the Norwich western link, standing at the base of an oak tree that was a sapling when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne. An ancient woodland containing trees like that is comparable to your Lordships’ House or a cathedral. Think about the protections we offer to those and all the money we are thinking about putting in to preserving this building; we are in a different place on that.
We often think of ancient woodland as being out in the countryside somewhere. I want to be a little parochial and point out that Sheffield has 80 ancient woodlands within its boundary. I want to think and talk about the benefits to human health and well-being of having these ancient woodlands—indeed, London has some of them, and, when I lived here, I used to walk in them as well. They have enormous human health benefits that we have to take account of.
Returning to the subject of walking through ancient woodland in Sheffield or the threatened woodland in Norwich, we are talking about not just trees here but crucial, utterly irreplaceable habitats for bats and insects. These woodlands would have a chance truly to flourish without air pollution and other factors. Lichens and mosses—crucial, complex organisms that are absolutely foundational to rich, healthy ecosystems—depend on those ancient trees to thrive and indeed survive. So I commend both these amendments to your Lordships’ House, and I encourage the noble Baroness to press Amendment 100 in particular to a vote.
My Lords, I rise to speak in favour Amendment 100, in the name of my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone, and Amendment 101 in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Teverson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. We regard both these amendments as important.
As I said in Committee, the Bill is woefully lacking in any reference to a tree strategy and the need to protect our existing woodland stock as well as to increase the percentage of England under tree cover. The only such reference in the Bill is to felling street trees, and although this is an important issue, the crucial importance of preserving our ancient woodland and the need to deliver the protection and expansion of trees in woodlands in the future is not recognised.
As noble Lords have said, a comprehensive strategy is important not just to enhance biodiversity but in order to play a crucial role in carbon capture and sequestration. This has been emphasised by the Committee on Climate Change, which has pointed out that the UK tree-planting effort has “consistently fallen below” the target needed to achieve net zero by 2050.
Of course, we recognise that the Government have produced a tree action plan, but it is non-statutory and lacks the clarity and targets to deliver the necessary transformation of our landscapes and to tackle climate change. This is why we believe that a tree strategy with statutory and interim targets should be in the Bill. It should include measures to guarantee the preservation of ancient woodland, an emphasis on broad-leaf native woodland and greater powers to protect trees from disease and pests by encouraging domestic nurseries to produce more resilient saplings. It should also recognise the importance of smaller woodlands in creating biodiverse nature corridors and enhancing public enjoyment at a local level—a point made by my noble friend Lord Whitty.
Although we welcome the Government’s commitment to planting 30,000 hectares a year by the end of this Parliament, the Minister will know all too well that non-statutory tree-planting targets have come and gone in the past, as the earlier promise to plant 11 million trees demonstrates. So, I hope that, when he responds, the Minister can explain why a statutory tree strategy is missing from the Bill when there are already a number of strategies for other parts of nature development in it.
Meanwhile, my noble friend Lady Young has made an expert case for a new duty to protect ancient woodlands. As she said, they are some of our richest and most complex communities of biodiversity, both above and below ground. They are particularly adept at sequestrating carbon and have huge historical significance. As my noble friend said, they are irreplaceable. So I was shocked to hear from my noble friend in Committee, and again today, that at least 800 of these ancient woodlands are currently under threat from development, mostly housing, roads and railways.
While it is true that developers are discouraged from damaging ancient woodland under the National Planning Policy Framework, this has not provided the protection that these sites deserve, particularly in terms of the unique role they play in protecting and enhancing our biodiversity and habitats. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that I feel he has his priorities wrong in this regard. This is not just about another housing development or road build; it is about the historical and unique nature of these woodlands, which we need to protect. As my noble friend Lady Young said, once you take up these ancient woodlands, they will take another 400 years to replace, so it is not a simple task of creating another development elsewhere.
We also agree with my noble friend that ancient woodlands are too precious and valuable to be disregarded. We believe that both these amendments deserve to be in the Bill, which is sadly lacking both a forward strategy for trees and a crucial protection for the unique and much-loved ancient woodlands that we have inherited and must protect for the future. I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope that he will be able to address these concerns.
My Lords, I apologise for butting in; I realise that it is not proper procedure to do so after the Front Bench has spoken but I have somehow got lost in what proper procedure is. I wish to make two quick points before the Minister replies, with the indulgence of the House.
First, with respect to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, we need to bear in mind that, in the 20th century, a semi-natural woodland had a far better chance of staying that way if it was in private hands rather than belonging to the Forestry Commission. The Government, as an owner of woodland, need to look to their own house.
Secondly, on the other amendment and the target of 30,000 hectares a year, I would just point out that this policy is being eyed up with relish by the commercial forestry industry. There is a huge amount of momentum behind the planting of alien Sitka spruce trees, particularly in the uplands, which will have a damaging and detrimental effect on the environment. I therefore have some sympathy for the second of these amendments.
Again, I apologise for butting in.
My Lords, I, too, apologise but I wanted to say that I regard this amendment as not just important but essential. These woodlands and trees, whether they be ancient or veteran, are crucial. They are part of the heart of our country. If you remove them, they will be gone for ever. It is similar to removing ancient and important buildings. I well remember when Mr Heath was being pressured to allow the whole of the Treasury and Foreign Office to be swept away so that we could have more efficient offices; we would have had another Marsham Street there. My God, what a thought.
If we do not accept this amendment—perhaps the Minister will accept it, or say that he will do something —we will send completely the wrong signal to the outside world: that we do not mind about something about which we care deeply.
Turning to Amendment 101, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, I thank her for her amendment and for her ambition to see more trees planted and protected. It is an ambition that she knows I share. As I mentioned in Committee, we are taking steps to plant more trees and protect woodlands. This was set out in the England Trees Action Plan which was published in May. The Government have already committed to at least treble planting rates in England over this Parliament and to increase tree planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by the end of the Parliament, which is broadly in line with the 75,000 hectares that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned. In the England Trees Action Plan, the Government also took the significant step of committing to consulting on a new, long-term tree target through a public consultation on Environment Bill targets, expected in early next year. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, such a target would be legally binding, not just aspirational. This amendment is therefore not needed.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for her amendment on ancient woodlands. Ancient woodlands are protected under the National Planning Policy Framework. The Government also have standing advice for local authority planners which is to be used as a material consideration when making planning decision proposals affecting ancient woodland, ancient trees and veteran trees. We think that the majority of the proposals suggested in this amendment are already covered under the National Planning Policy Framework and the Forestry Commission and Natural England’s ancient woodland standing advice. The Government will keep under review cases where loss or deterioration of ancient woodland has been or is justified on the basis of “wholly exceptional” circumstances and will encourage them to be brought to our attention at Defra at an early stage. That message has gone out. We will also revise guidance to planners making decisions on what is considered wholly exceptional to avoid some of the circumstances that the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, mentioned.
As recently committed to in the England Trees Action Plan, we will build on these protections, including by introducing a new category of long-established woodland—they are woodlands that have been around since 1840—and we will consult on the protections they are afforded in the planning system. We also committed within the action plan that the Government will update the ancient woodland inventory to cover the whole of England, including smaller ancient woodland sites of one-quarter of a hectare. As I mentioned in Committee, our England Trees Action Plan also includes new steps to protect and restore ancient woodlands through management and restoration. Our new England woodland creation offer will fund landowners to buffer and expand ancient woodland sites by planting native broad-leaf woodland, and the Government will update the Keepers of Time policy on the management of ancient woodland, veteran trees and other semi-natural woodland.
In addition, the Secretary of State and I have been in regular discussions with colleagues in MHCLG to explore further measures that can be included in the upcoming planning Bill to build on the protections that are there to avoid the kind of outcome that the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, fears. This will also be high on my list of issues to discuss with the new Secretary of State for MHCLG, Michael Gove, who shares this House’s interest in ancient trees and their protection.
I hope I have reassured the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about the action the Government are taking and will take to protect ancient woodland and of the importance of the such precious environments. I beg her to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate for their comments and support, and thank the Minister for his response. I was particularly taken by the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, who basically said that we would not play as fast and loose with heritage buildings as we do with ancient woodland. I think the anxieties of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, about how the additional protection would work can be met by saying that the amendment gives considerable leeway to government to design the protection measure, and many of his points could be addressed during that design effort.
As the Minister said, the current protection is enshrined in the National Planning Policy Framework and standing advice, but I am not reassured by that, because, with 800 cases of imminent damage on the books at the moment, it is clear that the NPPF and the standing advice are not working. No amount of revising guidance to planners will bring the level of statutory protection that is required.
I very much welcome all the changes that the Minister said, as he did in Committee, that they are hoping to make to the woodland inventory, management schemes and the Keepers of Time policy, but they do not really address the development issues. I would not want to hang my hat on measures in the planning Bill until we see the Bill and the colour of the new Minister’s coat, now that he will be running MHCLG.
Having heard considerable support around the House for my amendment, I should like to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 193, Noes 189.