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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Cross-cutting.

Mr. Bradshaw: Exactly: it is a good example not of cutting trees but of cross-cutting government. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is planning to address the issue as soon as parliamentary time permits. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will certainly continue to press it to do so.

The removal of the exemption allowing work on dying trees would in particular boost the protection of veteran trees, which, as my hon. Friend also pointed out, often contain a significant proportion of dead wood, as they take a long time to die. He also mentioned the felling regulations, which require permission to be sought from the Forestry Commission when a landowner wishes to fell an area of woodland. These applications are carefully considered before a licence is granted. Restocking conditions can be attached to such licences, and in many cases, the new woodland that is established is an improvement in quality on that which it replaces.

As the House will be aware, many of our finest concentrations of veteran trees and ancient woodlands have extra statutory protection through designation as sites of special scientific interest. I am thinking, for example, of the New Forest, Sherwood forest and the trees of Windsor great park. More than a quarter of England's 4,000-plus SSSIs, making up more than 115,000 hectares, have significant woodland conservation interest. Almost three quarters of woodland SSSIs are in favourable condition, which is ahead of the average for all SSSIs. Some of the woodland SSSIs are also special areas of conservation under the habitats directive, which recognises their importance at European level.

Protection and enhancement of veteran trees and ancient woodland is, however, about much more than regulation and statutory designation. It is also about raising awareness—something that is partly helped by debates such as this—of the value of our trees and woodlands among all who can influence their management. That is why projects such as the one to which my hon. Friend referred, the Ancient Tree Forum's ancient tree hunt, is partly funded by the Forestry Commission, which is a member of the DEFRA family, as well as the work of the Woodland Trust to draw attention to the special value of veteran trees and ancient woodland, are to be applauded.

For our part, in 2002 we published the England biodiversity strategy, "Working with the grain of nature", which set out a programme of activity to ensure the integration of biodiversity into policy making and
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practice. One of the key aims in the strategy is to conserve and enhance the biodiversity of woodlands, and particularly ancient semi-natural woodlands, veteran trees and wood pasture. The woodlands and forestry workstream, which helped to prepare the strategy, is currently undertaking a detailed work plan to tackle important issues such as the protection of woodland from external threats, which my hon. Friend mentioned, conserving and enhancing the biodiversity of native woodland, and the conservation of woodland biodiversity in the wider landscape.

I turn now to one or two of the issues that my hon. Friend raised that are the specific responsibility of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The new draft guidance in the planning policy statement for biodiversity, PPS9, which he mentioned, makes a big step forward in recognising the biodiversity value of ancient woodland. The draft PPS now requires local authorities to identify ancient woodland of highest biodiversity value that is not already protected by statutory designation. We believe that that identification process will assist local authorities in ensuring that the biodiversity value of such sites is fully considered in decisions on planning proposals. It will also ensure that development affecting ancient woodland is not allowed to go ahead unless any loss or deterioration is clearly outweighed by the need for and benefits of the proposed development.

I give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will not make any decision on the final wording of PPS9 until all responses to the consultation, including those from the Woodland Trust and the Ancient Tree Forum, have been fully considered. We expect to publish a final version of PPS9, together with its accompanying circular and a good practice guide, in mid–2005.

For many years, the Forestry Commission has recognised the value of our ancient woodlands, and it is preparing a new statement on ancient woodland policy. The new statement will confirm our commitment to the protection and enhancement of ancient woodlands and will be backed by new management guidelines for ancient and native woodlands that gives practical advice to woodland managers. The new English woodland grants scheme will provide a framework for the provision of incentives to encourage the management of ancient woodland and the creation of new woodland.

My hon. Friend referred to another way in which we are encouraging the management of individual trees and small groups of trees. DEFRA's new high-level scheme is one of our agri-environment schemes under common agricultural policy reform. It will provide incentives for various works to conserve and manage veteran trees, including pollarding, surgery and protection from encroachment. Although I appreciate my hon. Friend's concerns about designation, because we have such a large proportion of Europe's ancient and veteran trees—far more than any other country—our overall approach is concentrated on some of the very good schemes, rather than the labour and resource-intensive process of cataloguing every single veteran tree in the country. That policy is under constant review and I have heard his representations tonight. For the time being, however, our overall approach to building on our wonderful resource of ancient woodland and veteran trees is best done by building on the existing
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work, including tree preservation orders, planning policy statements, ancient woodland policy, agri-environmental schemes and woodland grants.

Tony Cunningham: My hon. Friend has mentioned tree preservation orders. I have heard of cases in which councils have received planning applications for 10 houses on a site that contains a tree. When people say, "We need a tree preservation order on that tree," the planning officer says, "That will cost the local authority £50,000 or £60,000, because the developer will say, 'I can only build nine houses rather than 10.'" At that point, councillors say, "That is a lot of money," and the tree is not preserved, although it is under a tree preservation order.

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend has made a good point—I was going to respond to his earlier point about a particular constituency case. It is extremely important that local authorities take their responsibilities for preserving ancient and important trees seriously. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford about the need for local authorities to re-examine how they resource such work, and I undertake to ensure that the ODPM is aware of the concerns expressed today about how local authorities prioritise such work and the action that they take when developers behave unacceptably.

Rob Marris: Will my hon. Friend say a little more about what the Government are doing to encourage
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local authorities, particularly in England, to plant native species? We must protect ancient woodlands, but we must also protect native species. In recent years, there has been a trend to replace native species with non-native species, and I urge him to encourage local authorities to plant native species.

Mr. Bradshaw: We already encourage local authorities to plant native species. I am surprised by my hon. Friend's point, because my impression is that we have got the message across in recent years to both local authorities and private woodland owners that the grant schemes administered by my Department have moved towards the planting of native species rather than of non-native species.

The debate has been interesting and important. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford accepts that DEFRA and I take the matter extremely seriously. Forestry in this country has a great future, partly because of the historic reforms of the CAP and partly because of the enormous potential for the production of renewable energy through afforestation.

We all value our ancient and historic trees, but we can always do more, and the package of measures that I have outlined can always be revised and improved to become more effective. As long as I am Minister with responsibility for forestry, I will ensure that we do all that we can to encourage the management of our wonderful trees.

Question put and agreed to.

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