Housing and Planning Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Woodland Trust (HPB 47)

How can it create environmentally sound communities rich in woods and trees?

The Woodland Trust is the UK's leading woodland conservation charity. Our vision is of a UK rich in native woods and trees, enjoyed and valued by everyone. We manage over 1,200 sites and have over 500,000 members and supporters across the UK.

Committee stage evidence

1. Summary

1.1 The Woodland Trust recognises the need to increase housing building. However, we believe the Housing and Planning Bill sets a dangerous course by considering housing in isolation rather than as a critical component of healthy, well-designed communities where people want to live, work and spend leisure time.

1.2 Done properly, the plan led system taken forward by locally elected democratic bodies is critical for giving people long term ownership and appreciation of the natural environment. It also provides positive and transparent locally led opportunities for communities to shape their environment in the future. Planning already suffers from not being perceived as personable or accessible enough. The Bill’s provisions to potentially take these powers away from elected local bodies risk alienating people by making planning a distant, top down process that happens to people and the environment rather than for them.

We believe the Bill should be amended to demonstrate an enhanced emphasis on sustainable development.

2. Housing must not be considered in isolation

2.1 The Bill sets out a duty to promote Starter Homes, but there is no provision for these to make any financial contribution to the locality through the Community Infrastructure Levy or Section 106 Agreements.

2.2 In his 2nd March 2015 Ministerial Statement launching starter homes Brandon Lewis MP stated:

"Starter Homes developments are expected to be well designed and of a high quality, contributing to the creation of sustainable places where people want to live, work and put down roots to become part of the local community."

2.3 With no funding mechanism to support Starter Homes, it is highly questionable how this will be achieved. It is unlikely that these houses will boast the green spaces and trees needed for the benefit of present and future generations.

2.4 Trees and green spaces are critical for providing places for people to mentally and physically escape the pressures of modern life. Natural England has estimated that access to quality green space could save around £2.1 billion in health care costs per annum [1] . They provide many quantifiable health benefits; for example estimates show the cost of the adverse health impacts of air pollution is between £8.6 and £20.2 billion a year [2] . Trees can modify air quality by trapping particulate matter on leaf surfaces and through direct absorption of gases [3] .

2.5 Health inequalities between communities with differing economic conditions are influenced by the wider environment [4] . Access to green space is not equally distributed across the population [5] . More affluent areas and people in higher socio-economic groups have larger amounts and greater access to green space compared to more deprived areas [6] . In those areas where there are a greater proportion of green spaces, income-related health inequalities are lower.

2.6 Access to the natural environment is also critical for children’s education and wellbeing. Views of a natural environment have been found to increase children’s concentration, improve results and decrease time off due to illness [7] .

2.7 Furthermore, considering house building in isolation from environmental considerations holds the grave risk that these new communities will be more vulnerable to environmental risks such as flood risk. In 2007 urban flooding was estimated to cost £270 million a year, and rising [8] . A single young tree planted in a small pit over an impermeable asphalt surface can reduce runoff by around 60 per cent, even when it is not in leaf [9] . The natural environment should not be seen as a constraint upon development to be mitigated, but as a positive asset that can be celebrated, and the public benefits from that asset used to improve the quality of development.

2.8 This Bill is an opportunity not just to promote house building but quality place making to avoid deepening the disparities between those who have access to green space and trees and all the opportunities they offer and those who do not. An aspirational Housing Bill should consider the long term health and wellbeing of residents rather than the simple act of building houses. Access to Natural Space is a key element of this. The Woodland Trust would like to see the Bill empower Local Planning Authorities to demand more from developers to enable new homes to be built with better access to green spaces, woods and trees.

2.9 The Accessible Natural Green Space Standard developed by Natural England provides local authorities with a guide as to what constitutes accessible green space. It recommends the distance people should live from certain types of green spaces and the size of the green spaces in conjunction with distance to homes. It states:

Everyone should have:

· Accessible natural green space of at least two hectares in size, no more than 300m (five minutes’ walk) from home.

· At least one accessible 20 hectare site within 2km of home.

· One accessible 100 hectare site within 5km of home.

· One accessible 500 hectare site within 10km of home.

· A minimum of one hectare of statutory local nature reserves per thousand people.

The Woodland Access Standard developed in partnership with the Forestry Commission to complement the Accessible Natural Green Space Standard recommends:

· That no person should live more than 500m from at least one area of accessible woodland of no less than hectare in size.

· 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.

2.10 This bill is an opportunity to restate the government’s commitment to no further loss of ancient woodland. Housing does not have the locational dependency of other developments such as mineral extraction, so this bill should exclude ancient woodland, or at the very least limit loss of ancient woodland only to cases that can be proved to be "wholly exceptional" with "clear and convincing justification"’. This would be in line with the recommendations of the 2014 CLG Committee.

3. Locally accountable decision making with robust public engagement

3.1 The proposed ‘permission in principle’ clause represents a huge step change in English planning. It essentially allows the Secretary of State to create a development order for any qualifying document. These include Development Plan Documents and Neighbourhood Plans as well as the proposed Brownfield Register. Although the explanatory notes (paragraph 251) state the Government’s current intention is to limit this to housing, there is nothing on the face of the Bill specifying this. Equally there is nothing on the face of the Bill limiting it to the documents listed above.

3.2 Irreplaceable ancient woodland is consistently being allocated for development within Local Plans, showing there is not sufficient protection within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). As such the proposed changes represent the erosion of an already weak framework for protection. The allocation and application process provides two opportunities for engagement with the protection of woods and trees and the opportunity to shape new development. A single tier approach would limit this opportunity and there is no detail on what ‘Technical Details Consent’ would entail or whether an LPA could refuse permission. Robust, evidence based planning decisions require the submission of a considerable amount of detail up front. It is unclear how strategic mitigation proposals such as those required on sites near ancient woodland would be dealt with under ‘permission in principle’, as mitigation measures cannot be formally agreed until the proposed development’s layout has been agreed.

3.3 The Woodland Trust has recently been involved in an appeal at Land East of Hermitage Lane, Maidstone, Kent, APP/U2235/A/14/2226326 and APP/H2265/A/14/2226327 (the development site falls into both Maidstone Borough Council and Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council). The site in question was allocated for housing in the Maidstone Borough Local Development Plan Framework Affordable Housing and Open Space Development Plan Documents (DPDs) adopted December 2006. Subsequent to this allocation Bluebell Wood on the site was designated as ancient woodland and was placed on the ancient woodland inventory as held by Natural England.

3.4 The initial application was refused by Maidstone Borough Council as the latest draft, which is the 2014 Regulation 18 Consultation Document, proposes to allocate the northern element of the site for housing but proposed that the woodland be designated for public open space. However, as this plan is still at an early stage, in the subsequent appeal the Secretary of State gave it limited weight and the appeal was allowed subject to conditions.

3.5 Whilst this was not an acceptable outcome as it results in the loss of irreplaceable ancient woodland, the Trust was at least content that they, along with hundreds of concerned local residents had the opportunity to put their concerns before both the local authority and the inspector. With permission in principle there is no scope for considering the submission of revised ecological evidence subsequent to permission in principle being granted.

We therefore recommend the deletion of Clause 102.

4. Brownfield Register

4.1 At least 600 areas of ancient woodland – land that has been constantly wooded since 1600 – are currently under threat from development across the UK. The new brownfield register is to be welcomed as a mechanism to relieve this development pressure. However, the definition of what ‘suitable brownfield land’ is remains absent from the face of the Bill. As well as protecting sites of high ecological value, the definition should consider a site’s setting, particularly with regard to irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland which, if close to a site, would require planted buffers of at least 50m to protect it from the adverse impacts arising from the development.

4.2 The decision to approve an outline planning application for proposals on a former Army camp at Chattenden, known as Lodge Hill, by Medway Council on 4 September 2014, has been called in by the Secretary of State and we are now awaiting the public inquiry. The application was granted on the grounds that it was reusing a brownfield site despite the fact that it is a site of high ecological value and is adjacent to ancient woodland.

4.3 The plans include 5,000 homes, new schools, healthcare facilities, leisure facilities and employment and business space. Five adjacent ancient woods will suffer disturbance and damage if they come to fruition. It is critical that any brownfield register takes into consideration sites of high ecological value both within and adjacent to the site proposed for inclusion.

4.4 Proposed Amendment (Clause 103): Clause 103 should explicitly state that the proposed registers relate specifically to brownfield land that has been identified as being suitable for housing. Specifically no land should automatically be designated as being suitable for housing if it lies adjacent to irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland.

November 2015

[1] Natural England (2009) Our natural health service: the role of the natural environment in maintaining healthy lives. Natural England Research Report

[2] Defra (2007) The air quality strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Defra Publication

[3] Forestry Commission (2010) Benefits of green infrastructure. Forestry Commission Publication

[4] Allen, J. and Balfour, R. (2014) Natural solutions for tackling health inequalities

[5] Drayson, K. & Newey, G. (2014) Green society: policies to improve the UK’s urban green spaces. Policy Exchange

[6] Balfour, R. & Allen, J. (2014) Local action on health inequalities: improving access to green spaces. UCL Report to Public Health England

[7] Bird, W. (2007) Natural thinking: investigating the links between the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health. Report to the RSPB

[8] Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (2007), Urban Flooding. Post Note

[9] Bartens, J., Day, S.D., harris, J.R., Dove, J.E. and Wynn, T.M. (2008) Can urban tree roots improve infiltration through compacted subsoils for stormwater management? Journal of Environmental Quality , 37, 2048-2057

Prepared 17th November 2015