Growth and Infrastructure Bill

Memorandum submitted by Woodland Trust (GIB 18)

The Woodland Trust welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to this Committee. 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 over 500,000 members and supporters.

1. Summary

1.1. Whilst we recognise the need to achieve growth, we are concerned by the speed at which this Bill has been assembled and is now being taken through Parliament. This has reduced the ability of interest groups to fully engage with the democratic process and will ultimately negatively impact on the practicability of the Bill.

1.2. Whilst we are fully supportive of the Government’s overall goal of securing higher levels of economic growth, this cannot be at the expense of our natural environment. We have a general concern, supported by a range of interest groups, that taken together, the schedules of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill represent a retrograde step towards pursuing an unwelcome growth at any cost agenda that flies in the face of the excellent progress Government has made towards securing sustainable growth, as articulated, for example, through development of the Natural Environment White Paper and National Planning Policy Framework.

1.3. We share the concerns articulated by a number of interest groups, such as the LGA and CLA, that by diverting decisions to the Secretary of State, the Bill is inconsistent with the broad aims and spirit of the Localism Act and Coalition Agreement. It may also create an unintended consequence of local people feeling further alienated from the planning process and lead to them disengaging with the planning system. This presents a particular challenge in terms of delivering Neighbourhood Planning, an important cornerstone of the NPPF.

1.4. The 2008 Planning Act brought in the major infrastructure regime whereby major projects deemed to be of national significance are examined by the Planning Inspectorate and determined by the Secretary of State within one year. Currently, this approach only covers nationally important infrastructure projects, such as airports and very large energy and waste developments. The Bill’s proposal to extend the remit of this process, to "economically essential development " will take power away from local people who want to protect their local environment , and is again inconsistent with the spirit of the Localism Act 2011 and the NPPF’s ‘ Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development’ . This is particularly significant for securing and protecting our key environmental assets, such as ancient woodland, where, local knowledge is vital in truly understanding the value of these irreplaceable habitats.

Comments on individual Clauses within the Growth & Infrastructure Bill

1. Clause 1: Making Planning Applications Directly to the Secretary of State

1.1. This clause of the bill is very open ended. It is impossible to comment fully on the potential implications of ‘designating’ local authorities without an awareness of the criteria against which they are to be judged. Recent events and accusations have shown that this is very much open to interpretation, and a clear set of criteria should be embedded within the Bill if this approach is to be taken forward. Without this clarity the proposals will lead to an environment of confusion within LPAs.

1.2. In addition to the details of the proposed designation being incomplete, we feel that this proposal is entirely contradictory to the principles of localism, and at odds with the Localism Act 2011. Removing decision making power away from locally elected councillors would seriously undermine local democracy and put the need for economic growth above local social and environmental concerns. There is also the risk that by making decisions at nation level local issues may not be fully considered. This is particularly significant for environmental issues such as the protection of ancient woodland. With no statutory protection and the provisional status of the ancient woodland inventory, local knowledge is vital in truly understanding the value of this irreplaceable habitat.

1.3. There is also the risk that local people may feel further alienated from the planning process and disengage with the planning system. This would undermine the value of the tools such as neighbourhood planning which the Localism Act introduced.

2. Clause 4.Limits on power to require information with planning applications

2.1. The Woodland Trust supports, in principle, efforts to reduce the bureaucratic burden on both LPAs and developers. However we are concerned that this move may lead to a reduction in the information required to fully assess a development’s impact upon the natural environment.

2.2. Whilst for designated sites this risk may only be minimal, we are concerned about the potential on undesignated, yet irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland. 85% of all ancient woodland remains undesignated. This is particularly relevant as ancient woodland is still facing considerable threats – research from the Woodland Trust shows that in the last decade 100 square miles (26,000 hectares or 5% of the total amount) of ancient woodland in the UK has come under threat from destruction or degradation. With no statutory designation we are concerned that the consideration of ancient woodland may be downgraded in the effort to reduce time and costs.

2.3. These concerns are also underlined by findings of the URS report [1] , which estimates that an average of 1,500ha of woodland (an area more than twice the size of Heathrow airport) has been lost each year for the last ten years.

3. Clause 7. Electronic communications code: the need to promote growth

3.1. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are key environmental assets of national importance as well as important natural habitats for trees, plants and wildlife. The Woodland Trust shares concerns articulated by RSPB and CPRE, that this clause will remove important restrictions on electronic communications infrastructure providers that could cause serious damage to these important designated landscapes. This policy is also contrary to the Government’s own assurances that it would not relax protections for designated landscapes, made in their November 2011 response to the consultation on overhead telecommunications deployment. The Bill itself provides scant detail on the types of activity that would be permitted and we would welcome clarification from the Government on this and more detail on the measures that must be put in place by developers to ensure no damage is caused to designated landscapes.

4. Clause 8. Periodic review of mineral planning permissions

4.1. We are concerned that the proposed change will lead to stagnation in environmental standards when it comes to minerals operations and the restoration of minerals workings. The current practice of reviewing all conditions every 15 years, ensures that operators are always working to evolving standards. Although it could certainly be argued that 15 years is a long time, as it stands the review process allows new technologies and understanding to really improve minerals operations.

4.2. The Woodland Trust is clearly most concerned about how the impact of minerals working on existing woodland can be limited as well as in ensuring the best possible restoration schemes. Within forestry alone, research and thinking is always moving on. For example restoration planting schemes should always reflect the latest guidance on tree diseases and reflect the present local environment rather than a landscape that may have changed entirely since the permission was last reviewed.

5. Clause 12 and 13 . T own and V illage green applications

5.1. The Woodland Trust has grave concerns about the viability of this measure and feel that it will undermine the ability of local communities to protect their green spaces from unwanted developments, including, from our experience valuable ancient woods and important natural habitats .

5.2. Furthermore, we feel that the Government’s core justification for these measures, i.e. to stop " misuse of town and village green applications to undermine planned development " is not borne out by evidence. The Open Space Society have demonstrated that " Tens of thousands of planning applications for housing development are granted each year, but in 2009 there were only 185 village green applications" . Whilst there may be legitimate concerns about a small number of these applications, we do not think that designation of town and village greens represent s a significant barrier to economic growth and are surprised by the emphasis placed on this within the Bill.

5.3. Aligned to this issue, we are yet to see any further detail from Government on the ‘designated green space’ policy, promised by that the National P lanning Policy Framework (NPPF). This proposes to allow Local communities, through local and neighbourhood plans, to " identify green areas of particular importance to them for special protection " . Bringing this forward would surely prevent any misuse of town and village green applications .

6. Schedule 21. Bringing business and commercial projects within Planning Act 2008 regime

6.1. We are pleased that Government have moved away from their in it ial p roposals to place large housing schemes as within the scope of the 2008 Planning Act , h owever, we remain concerned at the inclusion of major business or commercial projects (for example large office, warehousing and retail schemes) as ‘nationally significant infrastructure’ and feel this is a further example of where the Bill reduces local decision-making and local scrutiny . This is particularly significant for enabling communities to secure and protect their environmental assets, such as ancient woodl and, where , local knowledge is vital in trul y understanding the value of these irreplaceable habitat s.

November 2012

[1] The full URS report can be viewed at : - Quote from page 87: "The Forestry Commission has indicated that approximately 1500 ha of deforestation has occurred annually over the past decade, some of which has been for open habitat restoration. Losses of woodland to development have been approximately 275ha over the past decade (for woods greater than 5 ha), but may be 3,000 ha for all woodlands ”

Prepared 21st November 2012