To little fan-fair, amendments to the ‘flagship’ Environment Bill were passed last week in the House of Lords. Baroness Young, current Chair of the Woodland Trust, tabled an amendment on protections for ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees, which narrowly passed at 193 votes to 189.
The amendment introduces an ‘Ancient Woodland Standard’ for England. This standard comprises enhanced protections for ancient woodland, ancient and veteran trees, steps to prevent further losses, and requirements for all companies, persons or organisations involved in development effecting ancient woodland. Specifically the Ancient Woodland Standard is defined as the following, which would bring into statute some principles established within the NPPF (2021) paragraph 180c:
• Any development that causes direct loss to ancient woodland or ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees shall be refused unless there are wholly exceptional reasons. In addition, a suitable compensation strategy must be in place prior to development commencing.
• Any development adjacent to ancient woodland must incorporate a minimum 50-metre buffer to provide protection, reduce indirect damage and provide space for natural regeneration.
• Any ancient or veteran trees must be retained within a development site, including a root protection area and appropriate buffer zone, which should be whichever is greater of, either an area which is a radius of 15 times the diameter of the tree with no cap or (b) 5 metres beyond the crown.
The potential implications of legally binding standards, most notably a minimum 50-buffer, has not been lost on those delivering development, particularly in well-wooded authorities. The proposed 35m increase, above Natural England’s current Standing Advice for a minimum 15m-buffer, has the potential to significantly reduce development quantum on many medium and small-scale sites, an important component of housing delivery.
These amendments passed in the Lords are now returning to the House Commons for MPs to accept, reject or modify. In recent briefings, it is understood there is little appetite for the government to accept some or all of the amendments passed and this could therefore lead to a ‘ping-pong’ stage with regrettable impacts upon the timely passage the wider bill. It may yet be that compromise is found, particularly given the constructive cross-party support for much of the bill to date. Given this uncertainty, we should be prepared for some form of Ancient Woodland Standard to be established, and for applicants to robustly justify both the size, purpose and nature of proposed woodland buffers.
Where does this 50m-buffer arise? In their ‘Planners’ Manual for Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees’ (2019) the Woodland Trust state in relation to providing adequate buffers, “Although there is no ‘one size fits all’ with buffer design, each one should be designed to fulfil the specific requirements of its location and the type of proposed development… As a precautionary principle, a minimum 50 metre buffer should be maintained between a development and the ancient woodland, including through the construction phase, unless the applicant can demonstrate very clearly how a smaller buffer would suffice. A larger buffer may be required for particularly significant engineering operations, or for after-uses that generate significant disturbance.” The feasibility of a minimum 50m-buffer is being seriously questioned by both developers and environmental professionals. Indeed the advice from the Woodland Trust that that no ‘one size fits all’ should be recognised and adopted to balance sometimes competing needs for housing and biodiversity. Equally, the onus should remain on the applicant, and their design teams, to robustly justify how buffers have been designed and for what purpose.
The need for protection of our highly-valued ancient woodland is clear, not least where they contribution to sustainably-designed development and communities. However, some balance and flexibility is required in both policy and statute to ensure any design measures, such as ancient woodland buffers, remain reasonable, justified and fit-for-purpose.