Proposals to strengthen planning protection for ancient woodland is a “huge step forward” in preserving irreplaceable natural habitat, campaigners said.
The Woodland Trust has welcomed plans to change the national planning policy framework to provide more robust protection for habitats such as ancient woods that have existed for at least 400 years.
Under the plans, the policy will state that “development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons”.
England has been “haemorrhaging” irreplaceable ancient woods, often due to a lack of clarity in the wording of planning policy, Woodland Trust chief executive Beccy Speight said, as she welcomed the move to amend the framework.
But stronger protection for ancient and veteran trees had not been included in the proposed amendments and the Trust would be campaigning to see measures for them boosted, she said.
Much of the pressure on ancient woodland is not from housing, but small developments such as phone masts, holiday lodges, waste disposal or leisure facilities targeted at woodland because it is 50% cheaper than agricultural land, the trust said.
Developments of that nature affect housing because they slow down the planning process, and the proposed change to the wording will speed up decision making and prevent inappropriate applications and campaigns against them, it said.
Ms Speight said: “At last! The Government’s decision to amend planning policy to robustly – finally – protect ancient woodland is great news, and not before time.
“Our natural heritage and our wildlife have been sold off too cheaply and easily in the past and we’re delighted to see the Government is waking up to this and taking action.
“England has been haemorrhaging these incredible irreplaceable habitats for decades, in many cases due to the lack of clarity in the policy wording.
“Short-term decisions based on weak policy have allowed huge chunks of our best woodland to be lost forever, for development which is simply not necessary in that location – such as car parks, holiday lodges, golf courses and paintballing centres – despite often staunch local opposition. ”
She said that last year the Woodland Trust had to respond to more ancient woods under threat from inappropriately sited development than it ever previously had in its 45-year history.
“So this is potentially a huge step forward and one that the Government must be given due credit for, following through on their manifesto commitment,” she said.