Moved by Baroness Young of Old Scone
233: After Clause 128, 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.
My Lords, Amendment 233 is in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Willis, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall. I thank them for their support. I declare my interest as chair of the Woodland Trust.
Noble Lords have heard me bang on interminably about this subject before but I shall briefly bang on about it again. It would require the Government to fulfil a promise they made nearly two years ago, during the passage of the Environment Act, to amend the consultation direction in planning law to require local planning authorities to notify the Secretary of State if a planning application would damage or destroy an ancient woodland.
Ancient woodlands are an important and irreplaceable gem. They are highly efficient in sequestering carbon and one of the richest habitats for biodiversity. Currently, there are more than 800 cases of ancient woodlands on the Woodland Trust’s register of woods under threat. It is noticeable that around 160 additional cases have come in during the last two years since the Environment Act promise was made. There has been no progress in implementing it. Those 160 or so cases need not have happened.
Ancient woodlands are irreplaceable because they have been formed over centuries into complex assemblages of species both above and below ground. They cannot be moved or recreated. If they are damaged, they are gone. We are down now to the last fragments of ancient woodland but they have no real protection in law. They are the cathedrals of biodiversity, with huge cultural and historical significance but none of the protections afforded to cathedrals or to any listed building.
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to consider and take a view on any development that was going to damage or destroy ancient woodland. In my experience, the consultation direction also acts as a reminder to planning authorities and developers of the need at all costs to avoid developments that threaten ancient woodland.
It is very distressing to see cases where, on many occasions, good prior discussion on the location and design of developments would have avoided the need to damage ancient woodland at all. It is notable that even HS2, which holds the prize for the all-time number of ancient woodlands damaged, has managed, during the implementation phase, to reduce the level of damage and the number of sites impacted as a result of negotiations and discussions with the Government and the Woodland Trust. Regrettably, many are still being damaged, but it shows what is possible.
I know that the Government are keen to honour the commitment made during the passage of the Environment Act and to change the consultation direction absolutely along the lines of my amendment. The Minister and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, have given me a lot of time and some tremendous assurances about processes and timescales, but we have had assurances and flurries of activity during the past two years without progress being made. They fall back and get forgotten again. The process laid out by the Minister needs agreement between her department, Defra and a number of other agencies. I know it is an ignoble thought but this does rather leave quite a lot of room for delay and complication.
We now need a bit of legislative welly to guarantee progress. This amendment sets a deadline of three months after Royal Assent, which accords well with the indicative timescale offered by the Minister. I shall want to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.
I want to add one piece of information to the points made by the noble Baroness. This is now urgent. We need much better and tighter legislation in place to protect our ancient woodlands. Since the Environment Act 2021 was passed, 200 local planning use decisions have given the green light to damaging ancient woodlands. This represents about 0.2% of the remaining ancient woodland. If we carry on at this rate, it does not take much to work out how quickly we will lose the rest of this incredibly important ecosystem. We must give this important, urgent issue our full attention.
My Lords, I will be even briefer in full support of the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I agree with everything that has been said. I will not rise to the bait at the mention of HS2; that is not going to happen. But we need legislation—we cannot afford to lose this incredible habitat.
My Lords, I very much hope that the Government will take this amendment seriously. I would like to see them accept it. I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that ancient woodland is irreplaceable. It just takes a very long time—a matter of centuries—to replace it. As part of our planning, when it comes to 30 by 30, where to put woodlands and the extremely important issue of connection, we ought to be saying that losing 0.2% of our ancient woodland every year is not good. We want to plan to add 0.5% a year to where we plant and how we connect. We should have a long-term strategy to make sure that, in 100 years, we have twice as much woodland as now; otherwise, we will continue to bite into it.
A planning permission is currently being sought in Kent. I can see the argument for it. We want a supply of ragstone. A lot of important buildings are built of ragstone. This may be entirely the right place from which to get it. An additional Thames crossing is in prospect. We may well need it. We know that there will be circumstances in which we want to tear down ancient woodland. You cannot just take the soil and stick it somewhere else in the hope that things will re-establish themselves. It needs much better, more careful and longer-term planning.
Ten thousand years ago, there was none of this stuff. It has moved and come since. All these plants and animals have moved here during this period. We should not think that we cannot multiply it. We should be planning on the basis that we can, which needs a lot of thought, care and consideration. I declare an interest. I own a PAWS—a plantation on an ancient woodland site. I do not have any ancient woodland but I own a space where one used to be. We should give it careful attention, ensuring that every time we damage a woodland, there is proper consultation and consideration. It should not just be about whether we should lose this bit but about how we, as a local authority, plan to end up with more in a century’s time, rather than saying, “Shall we eat this slice of an ever-diminishing cake now?”.
My Lords, I ought to start by saying that I am a member of the Woodland Trust and therefore protection of woodland is very important to me, so I wholly support the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, in her amendment.
Ancient woodland is ancient. The definition of ancient woodland is that it has been around since the 1600s or even longer. The combined effect of a copse or even a small woodland area in biodiversity terms is enormous. The Woodland Trust and others define these areas as being our equivalent of the rainforests in the tropics in the extent of the diversity of nature that is encouraged to live among the trees. So, it is not simply a question of cutting down a tree; it is destroying a habitat. I think that is what we ought to be thinking of and it is exactly what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, thought about.
Some of these ancient woodland areas are homes to threatened or at-risk species, so again it is not just about, “Let’s cut down the old oak tree”; it is about protecting a whole habitat for a huge number of species. The National Planning Policy Framework, which was published last week, has a tiny paragraph saying that
“development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats … such as ancient woodland … should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons and a suitable compensation strategy exists”.
If only it had ended at “should be refused”. Because if we are, as a country, intent on protecting and enhancing our environment, those bodies of ancient woodland are exactly the sites that we should be protecting in full. What the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is asking, which we on these Benches wholly support, is that we strengthen that protection of ancient woodland, which is a key element of any Government’s environmental protection. So, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment and if she presses it to a vote, as she has indicated, we will be with her.
My Lords, I shall be brief, because my noble friend Lady Young has set out extremely clearly why her amendment is so important, as have other noble Lords who have spoken. Part of the problem is that we have never really properly appreciated the huge contribution that ancient woodland makes. We have talked about it, but have we actually properly acted on it to protect it in the way that is needed? We know the huge contribution it makes to our environment, through carbon capture for example, but also, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, pointed out, it takes absolutely centuries to replace once it has gone.
There is so much talk about offsetting on the environment, but offsetting cannot always provide what is lost. We just need to consider that more. Offsetting is not the easy way to manage these things every time, so we completely support what my noble friend is trying to achieve. To be honest, she is the expert on this and if she is concerned, we should all be concerned, so if she wishes to test the opinion of the House, she will have our strong support.
My Lords, I declare my farming and land management interests in Wales, as set out in the register.
Amendment 233, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, is substantially the same as the amendment put forward in Committee. I pay tribute to her for her tireless campaigning on the importance of ancient woodlands, as well as to the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, for her insight in this debate. While we resisted this amendment in Committee, I am now persuaded that we can and should make a change of direction to capture this proposal in advance of a wider review later. I know that my noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook has written to the noble Baroness to that effect already.
The intent behind this amendment, and indeed our public commitment to amend the consultation, is already being progressed. Officials from DLUHC and Defra are working with the Woodland Trust, the Forestry Commission and Natural England to develop a suitable amendment to the direction. The ultimate aim is to seek a common position on the meaning of “affecting ancient woodland”, a definition which considers the number of likely referrals to the Secretary of State, alongside how effective they would be at capturing the main points of concern. No legislative or parliamentary processes are required to issue the amendment to the consultation direction. I am therefore confident that an amended direction will be in place by the end of this year.
In addition to progressing the changes to the consultation direction, officials in DLUHC and Defra are delivering on further commitments made regarding ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees during the passage of the Environment Act. A review of how national planning policy on ancient woodland is being implemented in practice is under way. The aim of the review is to give us a better idea of whether further protections are needed to ensure that these irreplaceable habitats have appropriate protection within the planning system. The findings of this analysis will feed into our wider review of the National Planning Policy Framework, which will be subject to a public consultation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, mentioned the losses of and impact on ancient woodlands from HS2. The Government and HS2 Ltd recognise that ancient woodland is an irreplaceable habitat, and the design of the railway has sought to avoid its loss wherever possible. Defra, the Forestry Commission and Natural England have worked with the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd to ensure that route design and delivery plans minimise any loss of ancient woodlands and veteran trees.
Where effects on ancient woodland cannot be reasonably avoided through design, HS2 Ltd has committed to providing a range of bespoke compensation services for each woodland affected, in line with advice provided by Natural England and the Forestry Commission. HS2 Ltd is working with the Forestry Commission to deliver an additional £5 million HS2 woodland fund on phase 1 and £2 million on phase 2a. This will result in hundreds of additional hectares of woodland creation, in addition to the core compensation planting delivered by HS2 Ltd itself.
Since May 2023, the woodland creation aspect of the fund is now available under the England woodland creation offer, while the restoration of plantations of ancient woodland sites—PAWS—will continue to be administered under the HS2 woodland fund. As of November 2022, the phase 1 HS2 woodland fund has completed 34 projects, which has resulted in 123.6 hectares of new woodland creation and 71.9 hectares of schemes to restore native woodland on plantations on ancient woodland sites.
Where loss of woodland is unavoidable, there is a range of measures, including the translocation of ancient woodland soils and features, salvaging ancient woodland soils and seed banks that would otherwise be lost and translocating those to enhance new woodland planting sites and support the restoration of degraded ancient woodland sites. All the measures, whether they be the creation of a new habitat area or the enhancement of existing habitats, will be supported by long-term management plans and agreements with landowners or third parties where relevant. HS2 Ltd publishes an annual Ancient Woodland Summary Report, providing updates on how the scheme is impacting ancient woodlands and the progress that is being made on delivering the range of compensation measures that have been committed to.
Further to this, in 2021 the Government published the updated keepers of time policy on ancient and native woodland and ancient and veteran trees in England. The statement updates the Government’s policy to recognise the values of these habitats and our objectives to protect and improve them for future generations.
My noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, spoke about the need for long-term strategies to protect ancient woodland sites. Since the keepers of time policy was first published in 2005, more than 27,000 hectares of plantations on ancient woodland sites in England have been brought into restoration since 2010. However, the Government are going further and in 2021 they published the updated keepers of time policy on ancient woodland. Managing Ancient and Native Woodlands in England was released in 2010, which provides guidance to help land managers to make appropriate management decisions. The Forestry Commission is working with the Sylva Foundation and partners to make assessment of woodland ecological conditions simpler for users through the development of an app, which will allow us to gather data on the condition of our ancient and native woodlands and monitor progress against our ambitions. In addition to the NPPF review, two additional research projects are under way to understand the impact of development on woodland, through the nature for climate fund and a forest research project.
I hope that I have been able to reassure the noble Baroness and the House that we are doing all that we can to protect these vital ecological infrastructures and that she will be content not to press her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in support of my amendment as well as those who are silently cheering me on but not speaking, as we are all keen to get on to the debate on nutrient neutrality. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, for his account of the range of measures that the Government are taking to improve ancient woodland and his commitment—rather surprising, but I was very pleased—to progress on the other commitments that were made on ancient woodlands during the passage of the Environment Act. I have not started campaigning on those yet, but I am grateful for the invitation to do so.
It comes down to the fact that promises are made and sincerely committed to, but there is many a slip ’twixt cup and lip. To be honest, unless we get a clear legislative date for this change to the consultation direction into statute, there is always a risk that it will dribble away—we will have a spring election, everybody who knew anything about it will have disappeared and we will be back to square one. Despite all the assurances all the way through this process from the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, which I very much welcome, I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 189, Noes 145.