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Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): Last Friday, my office received a phone call from a distraught villager of Clifton, which is just outside Workington, who asked me to make a visit. A large site was completely devastated because a developer had chopped just about every tree in it down. He had not received planning permission from the council and, indeed, the inspector had said that he should not get planning permission because the landscape and the trees, and especially the red squirrels that inhabited the trees, were too important. The developer destroyed all the trees either out of spite, or because he planned to put in a further planning application at a future date. The planning
 
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authority says that it is finding it difficult to prosecute the developer because he owned the trees and the land. Surely that example supports my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Kidney: My hon. Friend is right, and I trust that he works hard to do his best to overcome such problems.

That takes me on to the second aspect of the weaknesses and loopholes in the system. Local authorities do not always enforce existing tree preservation orders. There can be a conundrum about whether accidental damage was caused during development, but local authorities often face other problems. I know from my casework of an allegation that a developer deliberately knocked down trees that were subject to tree preservation orders so that he could make way for houses.

There is a reverse side of the coin when considering tree preservation orders. Let us be fair to the owners of trees that are subject to such orders. I know from my casework about article 5 certificates, which allow local authorities to refuse permission to carry out work on trees, even for safety reasons. An article 5 certificate can be issued on a tree that is subject to an order made before 1999. The certificate absolves them from any responsibility for anything that goes wrong afterwards. That is clearly unfair. I note from my correspondence with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that the Government have a long-standing policy of ending that unfairness. I therefore ask the Minister: when will we end that injustice? While we wait to end it, can we not give local authorities guidance requiring them not to rely on article 5 certificates?

I also ask the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to help local authorities rebuild their expertise in dealing with trees. Several local authorities have lost their ability to employ tree officers, because of previous financial restrictions, and although elected representatives are very willing to do more to help on the subject, they often lack the experience and expertise in officer support to do so.

I want to say something about ancient trees and ancient woodland in particular. It is estimated that the total area of ancient woodland in England is 334,000 hectares. Woodlands have some protection; felling licences are a good example, and there are designations such as SSSIs and special areas of conservation. I like to think that the UK has a special responsibility to look after ancient trees, based on the fact that about 80 per cent. of north Europe's ancient trees are in Britain.

Obviously, tree preservation orders do not protect ancient trees. I say obviously, because one of the exceptions to the order is if the tree is dead, dying or dangerous. Of course lots of ancient trees are dead or dying. There is an anonymous saying that an oak tree grows for 300 years, rests for 300 years and spends 300 years gracefully declining. The very fact that they are elderly and declining requires us to protect them.

I alert the Minister to the sometimes outrageous outcome of calling an old tree dangerous. I should like to give an example with a happy ending. The Redmire oak of North Yorkshire is said to be more than 500 years old. The Methodist preacher John Wesley was said to have preached under it in the 18th century. Despite the support of the parish council, there were increasing
 
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health and safety concerns about the tree. Although it is protected by a tree preservation order, the district council thought that it was helpless to save it because it was nearly dead. Yet, with a grant of just £200 from Yorkshire Water, the tree was protected and able to stand and continue to live. It is outrageous that an ancient tree could be lost for want of £200-worth of investment just because we do not have a robust system of protection. I suggest that the tree preservation order, which presently effectively excludes such trees, ought to be changed so that it explicitly protects them—perhaps with the new designation of an historic tree.

Although I was quick to praise the common agricultural policy reforms, I fear that in the case of ancient trees the CAP slightly misses the target. There is a welcome recognition of the value of ancient trees in the good agricultural environmental condition—GAEC—but, as I understand it, that covers felling licences, which relate to woodlands, and tree preservation orders. As I have just explained, tree preservation orders are not helpful to ancient trees. Will the Minister consider whether more needs to be done to ensure that ancient trees are covered by the CAP policy reforms that we have achieved? I accept that it is incredibly important to encourage the planting today of trees that will become the ancient trees of future generations. That is an important area of attention for the money from CAP reforms.

On the issue of planning law and protection for ancient trees, I refer briefly to what is to become planning policy statement 9. We currently have planning policy guidance note 9 on nature conservation, but that is soon to be PPS9 and entitled "Biodiversity and geological conservation".

Paragraph 10 represents a great step forward for ancient trees. It states:

That is excellent. Paragraph 10 continues:

All of that marks a welcome shift in policy, but it ends with a caveat:

Does the Minister accept that there is no need for that caveat? After all, the planning system requires planners to take all material considerations into account when dealing with an application. The point of the paragraph is to protect ancient woods and trees. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the caveat should be lost from the final text of PPS9.

At last week's meeting of the all-party group on conservation and wildlife, which I have the privilege to chair, we received a joint presentation from the Woodland Trust and the Ancient Tree Forum, in which there was strong interest among Members of both Houses. They showed us two new website projects. The
 
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first, at www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk, involves mapping all the ancient trees in the country. The second, at www.woodsunderthreat.info, is excellent: not only does it show any interested member of the public where there are trees and woods under threat from harmful development, but local residents concerned about their ancient trees can mail in information about trees under threat, which can be added to the project. I ask my hon. Friend whether there is any chance of DEFRA joining friends such as the Forestry Commission in funding the projects, which I believe contribute toward meeting the biodiversity strategy indicators and the plant diversity challenge targets by which his Department abides.

At last week's meeting, I was delighted to be able to introduce as one of our speakers the world-famous author Bill Bryson—the Minister will know of his great commitment to Britain and Britain's heritage. He described ancient trees and woods as important markers of our cultural heritage and spoke of the "scandalous" loss of ancient trees and woodland. He also made a comparison with historic buildings, saying that while there is protection for historic buildings, there is certainly no protection for historic trees. I urge the Minister to take action to protect our trees for today's and future generations in the same way as we protect our historic buildings. I believe that that would be an extremely popular cause and that a Minister and a Government who took such positive action would be widely acclaimed.

8.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing a debate on an extremely important subject and on delivering with such passion a speech full of information. It was well worth waiting through the little bit of business of the House to respond to it.

I share my hon. Friend's passion for trees. I spent some of the happiest times of my childhood up trees, and I remain something of a tree hugger. I continue to admire trees, and I strongly endorse everything he said about the contribution that they make to our landscape, our biodiversity and our psychological health, and simply as objects of enormous beauty. This evening, we are thinking particularly of ancient and veteran trees, which provide an extremely important genetic link to the wild wood that covered much of our countryside centuries ago. He acknowledged how fortunate we in this country are by citing a statistic that I was unable to lay my hands on—that 80 per cent. of Europe's ancient woodland is in the UK. That has come about partly for cultural reasons and partly because, by and large, we have done a good job of protecting our wonderful trees.

We have also done quite a lot to encourage new woodland creation through the Forestry Commission's woodland grant scheme and projects such as the national forest and the community forest. Contrary to popular perception, the area of woodland in this country is growing fairly significantly every year. Nevertheless, we must recognise that whenever trees and woodlands are perceived to be under threat, the adequacy of their protection comes into question.

We have in place a wide range of measures to protect our trees. As my hon. Friend mentioned, they include tree preservation orders, which give local authorities
 
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wide powers to protect trees and woodlands in the interests of amenity. Work on those trees then requires the consent of the planning authority. I agree with him that the exemptions that he highlighted in the current system, which allow work on dead, dying or dangerous trees, should be tightened up, and not only in relation to veteran trees. I understand that, as he was kind enough to point out, a lot of the responsibility in this area lies with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, with which we work closely. It has responsibility for tree preservation orders.


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