Amendment 300

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (12th day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 3 May 2023.

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Baroness Young of Old Scone:

Moved by Baroness Young of Old Scone

300: After Clause 123, insert the following new Clause—“Developments affecting ancient woodlandWithin three months of this Act being passed, the Secretary of State must vary The Town and Country Planning (Consultation) (England) Direction 2021 so that it applies in relation to applications for planning permission for development affecting ancient woodland.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment requires the introduction of a consultation direction for developments affecting ancient woodlands.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

I am sorry about this; I did not realise that my amendments would be grouped so closely together late at night. I shall be speedy on Amendment 300. I declare my interest as chair of the Woodland Trust.

Had this group been at a different time of day, I would have started by saying, “Long ago and far away —I want to tell you a story”. But it is long ago and far away, because, during the passage of the Environment Act 2021, which is quite long ago and far away, I pressed the Minister on better protection of our scarce and precious resource of ancient woodland—the last remaining fragments—from development which might damage or destroy them. Ancient woodlands have literally no statutory protection, other than some very general admonitions in the National Planning Policy Framework. If I recall correctly, these are in a footnote, just to add insult to injury—that is the only protection for ancient woodland.

The evidence of the need for better protection for ancient woodland is clear. Currently, 800 cases of threats to damage or destroy ancient woodland are in the Woodland Trust’s register. The second Thames crossing will again potentially impact on a large number of ancient woodlands—that is one example of where infrastructure development is a particular issue.

The importance of protecting ancient woodland has been enunciated in this Chamber many times, but the evidence is amassing even further. It has now been demonstrated that ancient woodland continues to sequester carbon, for example, even when it is fully grown and ancient, so our ancient woodland is a really important carbon sequestration resource. It is only 25% of all woodland in Britain, but it holds 36% of the woodland carbon. In addition, ancient woodland is now recognised as our richest habitat for biodiversity. If you want a good read, read the Woodland Trust’s report on the state of woods and trees, which has lots of interesting facts—one of them is about just how crucial for biodiversity ancient woodland is.

On 26 October 2021, during the passage of the Environment Act that I referred to, the Government promised—they had already done so in the Commons—to do a number of things to strengthen ancient woodland protection. The promises were threefold. First, they promised

“a review of the National Planning Policy Framework to ensure that it is being implemented correctly”.

This was to track that it was doing what it said on the tin to protect ancient woodland. If it was not being sufficiently protective, they committed to

“strengthen the guidance to local planning authorities to ensure that they understand the protections provided to ancient woodland”.

Secondly, the Government promised to

“consult on strengthening the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework … to ensure the strongest possible protection of ancient woodlands”.

The third thing they promised, which I think is the most important, was an undertaking to

“amend the town and country planning (consultation) direction to require local planning authorities to consult the Secretary of State … if they are minded to grant permission for developments that might affect ancient woodland”.

That would give the Secretary of State the opportunity to have a quiet word behind the bike sheds or, at the very most, call it in for a Secretary of State decision. That, for me, was absolutely splendid, and I waxed lyrical in the Chamber about how happy I was with those assurances.

At that point, the Minister assured the House that

“these measures will be undertaken in a timely manner, working hand in hand with the forthcoming planning reforms”.—[Official Report, 26/10/21; col. 706.]

A year and a half has passed, and many of the “forthcoming planning reforms” are still forthcoming. In particular, there is no sign of the amendment to the town and country planning (consultation) direction. Discussion on all three of the promises the Government made at that time has ebbed and flowed as Ministers and civil servants have ebbed and flowed. We are still told that they are live promises, but they are not terribly live. So I decided that I would, on this occasion, help the Government out by putting the consultation direction change in this Bill. It is the only planning Bill that we are likely to have for some considerable time.

For me, the most important thing about the amendment on the town and country planning (consultation) direction is that if local planning authorities have to refer to the Minister if they are thinking about impacting on ancient woodland in any development, it will make them think twice. Very often, with ingenuity and good will, local authorities can work with developers to ensure that the damage that might occur to ancient woodland simply does not happen; it is not beyond the wit of man. The work that the Woodland Trust has done with HS2 has not solved all the problems of driving a fast rail route through ancient woodland, but it has resulted in a reduction in the number of ancient woodlands impacted—although there is much more that HS2 can do.

All those promises were made, but they have not happened. I am really embarrassed about the effusiveness with which Hansard on 26 October 2021 shows I thanked the Minister, but I did stress that, once the amendment to the consultation direction had been made, I hoped that the Secretary of State would take the new call-in duty very seriously. We have not had a chance to find out yet whether it will be taken seriously, because the consultation direction change has not yet happened. I hope that the Minister and the Government will feel able to support this amendment to bring in better protection for important and threatened ancient woodland, as was promised in both Houses a year and a half ago. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, the previous group of amendments has set the scene for this vital amendment, which we support. Development close to ancient woodlands can have a devastating effect. In 2021, Defra made three commitments to improving the protection of ancient woodlands and veteran trees, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said. One of those commitments was to amend the Town and Country Planning (Consultation) (England) Direction 2021

“to require local planning authorities to consult the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities if they are minded to grant permission for developments that might affect ancient woodland”.—[Official Report, 26/10/21; col. 706.]

The Woodland Trust has seen a welcome reduction in major developments that are within ancient woodland and result in direct loss. However, there are indirect impacts, including the spread of invasive species, as well as the impact of pollution on wildlife and the ecological condition of ancient woodland—all of which are still prevalent. Natural England’s advice on providing buffers—space between development and ancient woodland boundaries—is all too often not upheld.

Ancient woodland has taken centuries to reach maturity and can be destroyed in days. The Woodland Trust has provided a very pertinent case study of an indirect impact on an ancient woodland: the building of 100 houses, including development of footpaths, within the ancient woodland of Poundhouse copse, including a drainage scheme right next to it, despite standing advice that drainage should not be within a buffer zone. This has led to a mix of direct loss of woodland and indirect impacts such as hydrological impacts. It is necessary to think and act very carefully when planning and implementing developments near ancient woodlands, in order to protect them for future generations. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, I add my thanks to those of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, to my noble friend Lady Young for her tireless commitment to the environment, very well demonstrated in these three groups of amendments that she has put before the Committee today.

According to the Woodland Trust, ancient woodland covers just 2.5% of the UK and is protected because it is an irreplaceable habitat. Such woodlands are rich in wildlife and a vital component of the British landscape. My noble friend outlined with great clarity the provisions she had been assured in October 2021 would be incorporated in forthcoming planning law. The Government’s own planning guidance on ancient woodland says:

“Ancient woodland takes hundreds of years to establish and is defined as an irreplaceable habitat. It is a valuable natural asset, important for … wildlife (which include rare and threatened species)—there is also standing advice for protected species … soils … carbon capture and storage … contributing to the seed bank and genetic diversity … recreation, health and wellbeing … cultural, historical and landscape value. It’s any area that’s been wooded continuously since at least 1600 AD. It includes … ancient semi-natural woodland mainly made up of trees and shrubs native to the site, usually arising from natural regeneration … plantations on ancient woodland sites—replanted with conifer or broadleaved trees that retain ancient woodland features, such as undisturbed soil, ground flora and fungi. They have equal protection in the National Planning Policy Framework. Other distinct forms of ancient woodland are … wood pastures identified as ancient … historic parkland, which is protected as a heritage asset in the NPPF”.

If all that is genuinely the Government’s position, why would they not want to support my noble friend Lady Young’s amendment? It is a very important issue, and we urge the Minister to accept the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Willis of Summertown Baroness Willis of Summertown Crossbench

My Lords, I too fully support Amendment 300 proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. A number of the points that I wanted to make have already been made, so I shall be brief.

One key thing we keep losing sight of in the discussion about ancient woodland is the many additional services that ancient woodland provides to our landscapes and to nature. The first one, which we did hear about, is carbon sequestration. I looked up the figures for carbon sequestration, and although ancient woodlands will not sequester as much carbon as something like Sitka spruce, for example, they are able to store huge amounts of carbon, both above and below ground. In particular, the fungal communities below ground can store up to 40% more carbon as a result of having these mycorrhizal assemblages. That is really important, because 36% of all woodland carbon is currently stored in these ancient woodlands.

There is a second role I want to flag up. Something that often gets forgotten about is the role of those woodlands in providing really important pollination services. So often, when we look at ancient woodland, it is a patch of trees surrounded by a sea of agricultural land. Some 80% of our crops in this country need pollination services, and pollinators need habitats and foraging places—that is what those ancient woodland patches provide. Without them, you then have to bring in lorries with pollinators in them. We do not want to go down that route. There is very good evidence—not from the UK but from other places in Europe—that if you remove a patch of ancient woodland the yield from the crops is significantly reduced. We need to bear that in mind

The third reason I wanted to flag up why ancient woodlands are so important is that many of them are really important stepping stones for connectivity across the English landscape. This connectivity is particularly important for small vertebrates and invertebrates, which cannot move very far. If you take away a patch of ancient woodland, effectively, the patch left with the vertebrates and invertebrates becomes an island. As I mentioned in discussing the previous amendments, that island is then very prone to the extinction of the species on it.

For many reasons, ancient woodlands provide critical ecosystem services that go way beyond just being biodiversity hotspots in situ. They reach out across our landscapes and have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and we ought to bear that in mind. We would not dream of moving a 600 year-old house or a 1,000 year-old archaeological site for a building project. Right now our ancient woodlands do not have the same protection as these other very old features of our landscape, and it is time they did. That is why I feel very strongly about this amendment and why it has my full support.

Photo of The Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich The Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Bishop 7:15, 3 May 2023

My Lords, I too add my support for the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and pay tribute to the work she has done in this area. I declare an interest as someone who grows trees and has contributed to the green canopy project in Suffolk. We managed to plant 1.3 million trees under that auspice, which was more than a third of the national total. We were completely committed through various networks of people to this and, indeed, to the preservation of ancient woodlands.

Two things have struck on listening to the discussion of the various amendments on this issue. First, I was struck by the statement from the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about the presumption of retention. That led me to think that there are some underlying principles which might join up our planning, environmental aims and building aims, where clearly things are in conflict. If we could establish some overarching principles, we might be able to work more closely together on achieving what we all desire. A specific example concerning ancient woodlands is Hintlesham Woods in Suffolk. which was under threat from the National Grid, which was going to put pylons across it. Working together, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, the Woodland Trust and the RSPB engaged in a process whereby the National Grid had the consultation it should have had and shifted the route, so that it bypassed the woodland and the woodland was saved. That would have happened as a matter of course if the presumption for consultation had been enshrined.

I fully support this amendment, because we need to ramp up the protection for trees across all these areas for the sake of our environment, and to do so in consultation with our planning aims and environmental aims.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, Amendment 300 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, would require within three months of the Bill achieving Royal assent the implementation of the Government’s commitment to amend the Town and Country Planning (Consultation) (England) Direction 2021 so that local planning authorities must consult the Secretary of State if they want to grant planning permission for developments affecting ancient woodland. Let me first make clear to the noble Baroness and to all noble Lords who have spoken that we are committed to reviewing the direction to require authorities to refer applications if they are minded to grant permission for developments affecting ancient woodland.

As the noble Baroness knows, the direction is a strategic tool aimed at ensuring the right applications are captured. Noble Lords will be aware of consultation which has taken place recently on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, which I mentioned earlier. It may be helpful for context if I say that there are other requests being made for inclusion in the direction. We really need to amend it in a managed way, capturing all the issues to provide clarity and stability to authorities, developers and others.

The noble Baroness is a resolute campaigner on these issues, and, indeed, referred to herself “banging on” about them in the House last year. She does so extremely effectively and long may that last, but in this instance I cannot give my support to the hard deadline she seeks, as it is important that the direction be updated in a coherent and managed way. I realise I am asking the noble Baroness to be patient for a while longer, but I hope she will be content to withdraw her amendment on that basis.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

I thank noble Lords for the support they have shown for this amendment. We have to remember that less than 2% of ancient woodland remains in this country. We are right on the brink, being down to such a small number of fragments that are, in many cases, increasingly unviable, so it is a real and pressing issue. The Minister has asked me to have patience. I am glad he was able to restate the commitment to the amendment to the direction, but my attitude to being asked to be patient will depend on how long that patience has to last. I wonder whether he can say how long it will have to last, because it has lasted now for a year and a half. If it were another year and half, I think I might have run out of patience. I do not know if I can press him now to say when the amendment might emerge. I very rarely read in Hansard how wonderful the Government have been, but I would commit to saying how wonderful they are if the Minister can tell us when this change to the direction might happen.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, nothing would give me greater satisfaction than to be able to tell the noble Baroness but, having asked this question myself, I fear I cannot give a definite timescale at the moment. I am sorry for that.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

On that basis, I do not think I can guarantee not to come back on Report with something on this, but in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 300 withdrawn.

Amendments 301 to 310 not moved.