Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by the Woodland Trust (L 78)

1. The Woodland Trust, the UK's leading woodland conservation charity, has 300, 000 members and supporters. We work with communities the length and breadth of Britain to help them defend and improve their local environment. Our experiences demonstrate that there is a great deal of public enthusiasm and appetite to tap into as demonstrated from our work campaigning to save woodland under threat from development. In this context we hope that the provisions of the Localism Bill will act as a catalyst for people becoming more engaged in planting trees and taking action to secure better protection for the green spaces they value most.

2. On the face of it there are real positives to welcome in the Bill. For example, we hope that the move to neighbourhood plans will herald a shift to people being more actively involved in shaping their local environment for the better. Enacted correctly there is much that can help to shape a society richer in woods and trees.

3. The Bill should represent a positive opportunity to increase, protect and enhance the natural environment. As such there are a number of changes to be made if this Bill is to represent the kind of approach to planning which befits a Government aspiring to be the 'greenest ever'.

The purpose of planning

4. Planning is critical to making the best use of natural resources, improving well-being and avoiding or minimising the effects of development upon the environment. Set in this context it needs to be recognised that the purpose of planning is the furtherance of sustainable development. At present it is unclear whether the existing statutory duties relating to sustainable development apply to the new planning regime and in particular the neighbourhood plans.

5. In our opinion the most sensible approach would be to define sustainable development on the face of the Bill and state that sustainable development, delivered within environmental limits, is the purpose of planning including neighbourhood planning.

National Planning Policy Framework

6. At this moment in time there is a great deal of public concern about the prospect of the Public Forest Estate being privatised - the Woodland Trust's Save our Ancient Forests campaign has had more than 100,000 signatures so far. The consultation on the Public Forest Estate identified the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as one of the key mechanisms for protecting woods and trees. It is therefore critical that the NPPF guarantees strong protection for ancient woods and trees - our own equivalent of the rainforest - and also identify ambitions like the need to increase woodland cover from the current pitifully low level of 8%. Indeed, this was a challenge all three major parties committed to tackle at the last election.

7. Given how crucial the planning system will be in protecting environmental assets like ancient woodland, it is concerning that the Localism Bill does not at present provide a statutory basis for the NPPF. Legal clarity is needed so as to show how the NPPF will relate to other areas of government policy. We believe that the Localism Bill should be amended to both provide a statutory basis for the NPPF and embed sustainable development principles across all levels of planning - protecting and restoring ancient woodland is a key contributory action in achieving this aim.

The Community Right to Challenge

8. The Localism Bill will enable communities to put forward their claim to run and own public assets. Community and charitable ownership of public assets has also been proposed in the consultation on the future of the Public Forest Estate. We support the concept in principle as the state is not always best placed to manage our woods. However we do not believe that the charitable sector can be the answer to the future care of all the publically owned heritage woodlands as it will not have the resources to manage the woods for decades into the future without substantial and sustained government funding. We believe the Government needs to look far more carefully at the feasibility of this option, including revisiting the evidence of demand by local communities for long term involvement in woodland management.

Co-operation across LA boundaries

9. The natural environment does not respect man made administrative boundaries and if we are to achieve the landscape scale working and securing of ecosystem services to which the forthcoming natural environment white paper aspires - with all the benefits to both man and nature this will bring - then such co-operation will be essential.

10. Clause 90 of the Bill proposes a duty to cooperate between local planning authorities and other prescribed bodies (as yet undefined). However at present this seems to amount to little more than a duty to exchange information. The Bill needs to be amended to ensure new and effective arrangements for co-operation across local authority boundaries.

Neighbourhood Plans

11. The prospect for local people to become involved in planning is welcome. It should offer good opportunities in terms of increasing tree cover in England from its present low levels and securing better protection of green spaces valued by communities but let down by the existing designation system.

12. The present provisions in the Bill for neighbourhood planning are complex however and the danger is that this makes it difficult for some communities to get involved. It will be important from the outset for Government to tackle the risk of a two tier situation where well-resourced neighbourhoods are engaged but others not.

13. As has been a strong theme in the CLG committee's inquiry into localism - the building of skills, capacity and trust is going to be vital to making the neighbourhood planning process work.

Right of appeal

14. Ensuring that Neighbourhood Plans provide a fair and transparent approach to community engagement and decision making will be vital to building credibility.

15. Central to building such consent and faith in the fairness of the system would be amendment of the Localism Bill to provide for a limited third party right of appeal when planning permission is granted. At present if a planning application is refused, a developer has the right to appeal against the decision but this right is currently denied to third party objectors.

February 2011