Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Woodland Trust

The Woodland Trust welcomes the opportunity to respond to this consultation. The Trust is the UK’s leading woodland conservation charity. We have three aims: to enable the creation of more native woods and places rich in trees; to protect native woods, trees and their wildlife for the future; to inspire everyone to enjoy and value woods and trees. We manage over 1,000 sites and have 300,000 members and supporters.

Summary

In its current format the draft NPPF lacks detail in crucial areas and this may serve to undermine the planning system’s ability to protect and enhance the natural environment. With significant amounts of wording being stripped in relation to sustainable development, climate change and flooding the draft NPPF may prove difficult to apply on the ground. It is not clear for example how the retention of protection for ancient woods and trees will work in the light of the default “yes” to development.

Ancient woodland covers a mere 2% of the land area in the UK, it is our equivalent of the rainforest and once lost ancient woodland cannot be recreated. It is welcome that the draft NPPF retains the explicit protection for ancient woods and trees. However there is still a caveat in place that overrides this protection if the benefits of development “outweigh the loss”. This is disconcerting given the overriding emphasis being afforded to economic growth within the planning system.

There is need for greater clarity in relation to the presumption in favour of sustainable development. In this draft the definition of sustainable development is used interchangeably with economic growth. Such ambiguity is likely to impact negatively on environmental and social objectives. To ensure clarity of meaning the final Framework should adopt the definition of sustainable development used in the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy.

It is welcome that the duty to co-operate has been improved substantially since the concept was first put forward as a replacement for regional strategic planning. However, there is concern that implementation will be undermined by both the passive nature of the duty (prescribed bodies need only “consider” co-operation) and the lack of sanctions for non-compliance.

As it stands the evidence base for the draft NPPF outlined in the Impact Assessment failed to include the Natural Environment White Paper or the National Ecosystems Assessment. Delivering on the environmental objectives in these documents and the recently published Biodiversity Strategy should be a priority for the final NPPF.

Does the NPPF give sufficient guidance to local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others, including investors and developers, while at the same time giving local communities sufficient power over planning decisions?

Guidance

1. At the Trust we are concerned that a vacuum will emerge once the process of distilling all planning guidance from over a thousand pages into one fifty-three page document is finalised. Significant amounts of the detail in relation to sustainable development, climate change and flooding has been removed from the planning system whilst the presumption in favour of sustainable development is inadequately defined. Planning authorities may find it near impossible to apply the new Framework on the ground, especially where one priority (increasing the approval rate for developments) is potentially contradicted by another (protecting ancient woodland). In the past detailed policies were useful for those planning officers tasked with integrating competing demands on land use.

2. Ancient woodland covers a mere 2% of the land area in the UK, it is our equivalent of the rainforest and once lost ancient woodland cannot be recreated. Despite its irreplaceable nature 85% of all ancient woodland remains outside of legislative protection. The Trust has therefore welcomed the retention of protection for ancient woods and trees in the draft NPPF.

3. However there is still a caveat in place that overrides this protection if the benefits of development “outweigh the loss”. Given the very strong emphasis on the importance of development within the Framework, this caveat leaves serious cause for concern. Cases such as Oaken Wood in Kent where 33 hectares of ancient woodland are currently under threat from quarrying proposals demonstrate that the Trust’s fears are well founded. Since 1998 the Trust has contested 256 cases in England where 558 ancient woods, representing a total of 883 hectares, were under threat from development. This demonstrates that the ambiguity in the planning system continues to ensure that ancient woodland remains at risk from development pressures. Regrettably there is simply no guidance in the draft NPPF for a planning officer or a planning committee on when precisely the “need for, or benefits of” a development “clearly outweigh loss”.1 To avoid any ambiguity the caveat should be removed as this would provide a clear steer to both developers and the planning authority. We are not at all opposed to economic growth. However, sustainable development means recognising the existence of environmental limits and they in turn mean halting the loss of our most valuable habitat.

4. More positive action should also be taken under the auspices of the Framework in order to protect ancient and veteran trees. Such trees are particularly valuable for biodiversity: any tree that is past maturity is likely to have a hollowing trunk and other decaying columns, cavities, aging bark and dead branches which provide ideal habitats for wildlife.2 The loss of these trees is significant both in regard to the loss of wildlife and the impact the removal of these trees has on landscape and historic amenity. Planning authorities should therefore be empowered to proactively protect and conserve these trees when managing development.

5. Meanwhile, the Trust supports the concept of a Local Green Space designation as it allows local communities to designate those green spaces that they believe are important. However, we are concerned by the statement in the draft NPPF that “the Local Green Space designation will not be appropriate for most green areas or open space”.3 Somewhat surprisingly the four criteria for designating an area are representative of most green spaces which raises the question as to how the designation will operate and when precisely it will be “appropriate” to use it.

Decentralisation

6. Neighbourhood Planning, the primacy of the local plan and the green space designation should pass control over planning decisions to local people. However there is concern with paragraph 20 of the draft NPPF which states that “plans should be prepared on the basis that objectively assessed development needs should be met.”4 This significantly raises the threshold for rejecting a development. By doing so the draft NPPF could remove the ability of a local authority to decline a planning application it may rationally oppose; a position that does not appear to conform to the principles of localism.

7. According to the Impact Assessment, 159 local councils (47%) in England do not have a core strategy published.5 Nonetheless paragraph 14 of the draft NPPF advising on the operation of the presumption in favour of sustainable development states that a local planning authority should “grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date”.6 The Trust is concerned that adopting this approach will lead to the loss of environmental assets such as woods and trees in those authorities where there is either no plan or where the policies are considered silent, indeterminate or out of date. To prevent any unintended environmental degradation the use of this part of the presumption in favour of sustainable development should be delayed until such time as the planning policies of all local authorities are up-to-date. Short cutting the planning process may have a negative impact on the Government’s ability to deliver on the welcome commitment in the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) to institute: “a strategic approach to planning for nature within and across local areas. This approach will guide development to the best locations, encourage greener design and enable development to enhance natural networks. We will retain the protection and improvement of the natural environment as core objectives of the planning system”.7

Is the definition of “sustainable development” contained in the document appropriate; and is the presumption in favour of sustainable development a balanced and workable approach?

8. For the definition of sustainable development to be considered “appropriate” it must provide a workable framework through which the planning system can protect the natural world. The draft NPPF uses the 1987 Brundlandt definition as the basis for understanding sustainable development. Regrettably, this definition is very broad compared to the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy—the UK definition would be a more robust version for the Framework to adopt.8

9. Preventing ancient woodland loss and creating new native woods in rural and urban localities should also be one of the key measures of sustainable development. These are justifiable criteria because woods and trees provide habitat for wildlife, help regulate water flow and quality, prevent soil erosion and regulate climate. Scientific research demonstrates that increasing tree cover in urban areas by 10% reduces surface water run-off by almost 6%.9 Moreover, broadleaved woodland supports nearly twice as many species of conservation concern than any other terrestrial habitat.1 0 Given these facts it is welcome that the draft Framework offers positive guidance on habitat “enhancement” and tree planting in relation to mitigating the negative impacts of mineral excavation.1 1 However, the caveat qualifying ancient woodland protection and the presumption in favour of development—especially when deployed in the absence of a local plan—risks undermining the tools with which the planning system can protect the natural environment.

10. Another concern that the Trust harbours is the increasingly muddled use of terminology throughout the draft NPPF. At the beginning the document quotes sustainable development in its own right. However, further into the Framework the term is used interchangeably with “sustainable economic growth”—something that is particularly noticeable in the chapters pertaining to economic development. This is disconcerting as the interchangeable use of the wording could undermine protection and create confusion which will impact negatively on the ability of planning authorities to make decisions in a timely manner. It would also be helpful if the draft NPPF was more transparent in its definition of economic growth.

11. According to the impact assessment there could be significant negative environmental consequences as a result of the relaxation of planning restrictions on the greenbelt. This aspect of the draft NPPF does not appear to align to the principles of sustainable development and may undermine the perception of England as a green and pleasant land.1 2

Are the “core planning principles” clearly and appropriately expressed?

12. The core principles of the Framework are bulleted under paragraph 19.1 3 Bullet points five and six set out the environmental considerations which include seeking to “protect and enhance environmental and heritage assets” and the need to recognise that “some open land can perform many functions (such as for wildlife, recreation, flood risk, mitigation, carbon storage, or food production)”.1 4 These aspirations are to be supported as protecting and enhancing environmental assets has social, environmental and economic benefits which the Trust would like embedded across the Framework. Trees and woodland are a particularly valuable type of green space as they encourage exercise, help reduce the mental stresses of modern society and enhance air quality by reducing the incidences of respiratory diseases. Woodland can improve public health outcomes thereby saving millions in costs. Around £110 billion is spent each year in the UK on healthcare, equal to 8.5% of all income. It has been estimated that if every household in England had good access to quality green spaces such as woodland it could save around £2.1 billion annually.1 5 Given the multiple benefits of accessible green space, the principles of protection and enhancement outlined in the draft NPPF should be supported.

13. In a tough economic climate woodland creation can also offer genuine value for money to local authorities. A recent report, Trees or Turf, demonstrated that managing woodland is a more cost effective regime compared to intensively mown grasslands.1 6 Indeed, this was a conservative estimate of the cost savings as the figures in the report did not include the ecosystems benefits such as amenity value. Given the benefits of natural green spaces the planning system should encourage woodland creation on both private and public sector land as it offers significant value for money at a time of great pressure on the public purse.

14. Bullet point nine represents a notable step in the right direction: “planning policies and decisions should take account of and support local strategies to improve health and well being for all”.1 7 Increasing tree and woodland cover can reduce the impacts of poor air quality, mitigate some of the effects of a warming climate, particularly in urban areas, and increase the opportunities for people to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Moreover, the recently published National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA)1 8 recognised the importance of contact with nature for securing our long term health and happiness, whilst the NEWP reinforced the importance of accessible green space. The planning system must be capable of protecting the natural world and creating new habitats in order to deliver on the welcome recognition that improving public health is inextricably linked with access to nature.

15. Despite the positive wording in relation to environmental protection and enhancement, the Trust remains deeply concerned by the principle expressed in bullet point two stating that “Decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is ‘yes’, except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework”.1 9 This undermines protection and ignores the fact that most applications are granted permission (83% according to the impact assessment),20 whilst those plans rejected but subsequently accepted are often improved as a direct consequence of the initial rejection. The success of the planning system should be measured on the quality of outcome instead of the speed at which applications are signed-off.

16. There is also a need for further clarity in regard to bullet point 10 in the core principles. The draft NPPF must define what types of actions are classified as “good” in order to afford planning authorities the clarity and guidance they need to operate the planning system effectively.

Is the relationship between the NPPF and other national statements of planning-related policy sufficiently clear? Does the NPPF serve to integrate national planning policy across Government Departments?

17. Given the core principles articulated in bullet points five, six and nine, it was surprising to read that there is no mention of either the NEWP or the NEA in the draft NPPF or the accompanying impact assessment. The omission of these documents from the evidence base appears at odds with the commitments in the NEWP to ensure that the planning system is able to deliver on the environmental priorities of the Government. This begs the question as to how, if at all, the draft NPPF plans to deliver on Defra’s environmental agenda. Whilst the Trust is keen to welcome the recognition of enhancement and protection, these worthy commitments are clearly not supported across the Framework as a whole. It is disappointing that the evidence base does not make greater use of all the research supporting the importance of protecting and enhancing the environment.

18. Moreover, environmental protection and sound economic policy often go hand in hand. High Speed Rail, for instance, is projected to destroy or damage some of our most precious natural habitats such as 21 ancient woods—a result that is hardly an exemplar of sustainable development. Meanwhile the economic case for the project has been criticised by the IEA,21 the NEF22 and the Taxpayers’ Alliance.23 In recognition that not all economic growth is sustainable, the Framework should remodel the default “yes” in the draft NPPF to ensure that it does not apply in those instances where there is a risk of significant environmental damage.

Does the NPPF, together with the “duty to cooperate”, provide a sufficient basis for larger-than-local strategic planning?

19. The Localism Bill and the draft NPPF replace the regional structures with a duty on local authorities and prescribed bodies to co-operate with each other. It is welcome that local plans are asked to include a “clear strategy for the environmental enhancement of an area”24. The Framework also lists “climate change mitigation and adaptation and protection and enhancement of the natural environment” as strategic priorities.25 Read alongside the Localism Bill which instructs the appropriate persons or bodies to “engage constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis” the draft NPPF does provide a forum for larger than local strategic planning which is more robust than the Government’s original proposals on the subject.26

20. However, we are concerned that the duty to co-operate may prove ineffectual in those instances where one or more partners are refusing to progress a shared strategic priority. To resolve this shortcoming the duty to co-operate in the Localism Bill should be amended to strengthen the engagement required of a person beyond merely “considering” actions. In addition, the duty should provide the Secretary of State with a sanction to be applied when local planning authority or a prescribed body has failed to comply with the duties pertaining to co-operation in the legislation.

21. It is also noticeable that the duty to co-operate covers Local Enterprise Partnerships but neglects both Local Nature Partnerships and Nature Improvement Areas. As environmental protection and enhancement are core strategic priorities in the draft NPPF these omissions are surprising and should be corrected. It is important that the delivery of green infrastructure is seen as equal to all other forms of economic development.

Are the policies contained in the NPPF sufficiently evidence-based?

22. As detailed above the Framework is not sufficiently evidence based or linked into cross departmental policy agendas. It is notable that the impact assessment fails to give any cost/benefit analysis in regard to the protection being afforded to ancient woods and trees. It would appear that the Department for Communities and Local Government has simply failed to analyse what impact the presumption in favour of sustainable development will have on the protection of woods and trees. A rigorous evaluation of the impact of the caveat, which allows development proposals to destroy or damage ancient woodland where the economic benefits outweigh the environmental loss, is needed so that there can be a transparent debate on the potential environmental costs of the draft Framework.

23. Moreover the evidence base for the draft NPPF should include the NEWP, the NEA and the recently published biodiversity strategy for England.27 Similarly, the policies on woodland protection would benefit from the inclusion of the National Inventory for Woods and Trees,28 the Woods for People29 dataset and the Ancient Tree Hunt30 database. This way national and local government can capture the loss of woodland, the protection of ancient trees and the amount of new woodland creation. By measuring long term changes in both habitat creation and loss the Government will be able to provide a fulsome evaluation of the sustainability of the draft NPPF in the years after the document is put in place as the centre piece of the planning system in England.

24. It is also worth adding that in partnership with the Forestry Commission, the Trust developed an indicator for measuring the amount of accessible woodland. The Woodland Access Standard, based on wide ranging research and surveys of public opinion, is tailored to compliment other accessible natural green space standards.31 This standard aspires to the following targets:

that no person should live more than 500m from at least one area of accessible woodland of no less than 2ha in size; and

that there should also be at least one area of accessible woodland of no less than 20ha within 4km (8km round trip) of people’s homes.

25. The Woodland Access Standard should be adopted as a planning tool as it can be used to measure the success of environmental and social objectives.

7 September 2011

References

1 Department for Communities and Local Government, Draft National Planning Policy Framework (2011), p 48, paragraph 169, at: http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/planningandbuilding/draftframework

2 For more information on ancient trees please visit the Ancient Tree Hunt website at:http://www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk/

3 Draft National Planning Policy Framework, p, 37, paragraph 131.

4 Ibid, p 7, paragraph 20.

5 Department for Communities and Local Government, Draft National Planning Policy Framework, Impact Assessment (2011), p 22, at: http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/planningandbuilding/pdf/1951736.pdf

6 Draft National Planning Policy Framework, p 4, paragraph 14.

7 Defra, Natural Environment White Paper (2011), p 3, at:http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm80/8082/8082.pdf

8 Defra, The UK Government Sustainable Development Strategy (2005), at:http://archive.defra.gov.uk/sustainable/government/publications/uk-strategy/documents/SecFut_complete.pdf

9 Sustainable Cities, Using green infrastructure to alleviate flood risk (2006), at:http://www.cabe.org.uk/sustainable-places/advice/green-infrastructure-and-flood-risk

1 0 Woodland Trust, Expanding our horizons (2000), p 5 at:http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/SiteCollectionDocuments/pdf/expandingourhorizons.pdf

1 1 Draft National Planning Policy Framework, p,27, paragraph 102, bullet point 8. In this section the draft NPPF states that local planning authorities should: “put in place policies to ensure worked land is reclaimed at the earliest opportunity, taking account of aviation safety, and that high quality restoration and aftercare of minerals sites takes place, including for agriculture, biodiversity, native woodland and recreation.”

1 2 Draft National Planning Policy Framework, Impact Assessment, pp 49–55.

1 3 Draft National Planning Policy Framework, p 5.

1 4 Ibid.

1 5 Woodland Trust, Greening the Concrete Jungle (2010).

1 6 Land Use Consultants (prepared for the Woodland Trust), Trees or Turf? Best value in managing urban greenspace (2011), at: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/campaigning/our-views-and-policy/woods-for-people/Pages/treessavemoney.aspx)

1 7 Ibid, p 6.

1 8 National Ecosystems Assessment, UK National Ecosystem Assessment Understanding nature’s value to society (2011) at: http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/Resources/tabid/82/Default.aspx

1 9 Draft National Planning Policy Framework, p 5.

20 Draft National Planning Policy Framework, Impact Assessment, p 22.

21 IEA, High Speed 2: the next government project disaster? (2011) at:http://www.iea.org.uk/publications/research/high-speed-2-the-next-government-project-disaster-web-publication

22 NEF, High Speed Rail is a £32 billion blindfolded gamble (2011), at:http://www.neweconomics.org/press-releases/high-speed-rail-is-a-%C2%A332-billion-blindfolded-gamble-says-think-tank

23 The Taxpayers’ Alliance, High Speed Rail (2011), at: http://www.taxpayersalliance.com/highspeedrail.pdf

24 Draft National Planning Policy Framework, p 8, paragraph 24, bullet point 7.

25 Ibid, p 7, bullet point 5, paragraph 23.

26 Hansard, Localism Bill (2011).

27 Defra, Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem’s services (2011), at: http://www.defra.gov.uk/publications/files/pb13583-biodiversity-strategy-2020-110817.pdf

28 Forestry Commission, National Inventory of Woods and Trees, at:http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/hcou-54pg9u

29 Woodland Trust, Woods for People, at:http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/about-us/projects/woods-for-people/Pages/improve-access.aspx This link provides further information on the dataset.

30 Woodland Trust, Ancient Tree Hunt, at: http://www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk/

31 Woodland Trust, Space for People: targeting action for woodland access (2010).

Prepared 20th December 2011