A truth universally acknowledged

To borrow from one of this country’s great novelists (see footnote 1), it appears to be a universally-acknowledged truth that ancient woodland is one of our most precious environmental assets and should be preserved for present and future generations.

The joint Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Forestry Commission publication Keepers of Time, which is subtitled A statement of policy for England’s ancient and native woodland, describes England’s ancient woodlands and trees as a “living cultural heritage, a natural equivalent to our great churches and castles”. The document adds, for good measure:

“They are also our richest wildlife habitat and are highly valued by people as places of tranquillity and inspiration.”

Even the HS2 Phase 1 Environmental Statement, not perhaps given to overestimating the value of the environmental assets that HS2 would destroy, repeatedly describes ancient woodland as “irreplaceable” (see footnote 2).

So it should come as no surprise that Keepers of Time identifies one of the policy aims of Defra’s and the Forestry Commission’s vision to be achieved by the year 2020 – cleverly called “2020 Vision” (get it?) – as being that the “existing area of ancient woodland should be maintained”. This is to be achieved, the document tells us, by the strategic objective of taking “steps to avoid losses of ancient woodland and of ancient and veteran trees”.

Just in case this isn’t a clear enough indication of purpose, Keepers of Time sets out what needs to be done in the most explicit terms:

“… we believe that we must now significantly raise the profile and importance of ancient woodland by placing it right at the heart of our policies on woodlands and forestry. Our ancient and semi-natural woodlands are the jewels in the crown of English forestry, and protecting and enhancing them will be a high priority.”

So if this 2020 Vision is government policy, why does the Woodland Trust think, as I reported in my blog Got till it’s gone (posted 30 Oct 2014), that it is necessary to ring alarm bells about ancient woodland at risk?

Probably the first thing to check is that the document remains current government policy, as it was published in 2005 and so is the child of the last Labour administration. The reassurance required appears to be provided by a later Defra publication Government Forestry and Woodlands Policy, which was published in January 2013 and is, therefore, firmly in the era of the Coalition Government. This policy statement confirms, at the very end of Chapter 6, that the Government will renew its “commitment to the policies set out in … Keepers of Time”.

Another obstacle to ensuring that ancient woodland is preserved for future generations is a lack of effective legal protection. The Woodland Trust review that I cited in Got till it’s gone maintains that 85% of our ancient woodland has “no legal protection” (on page 6). According to the Trust, even when measures affording statutory protection are provided, such as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation, “these all contain gaping loopholes that allow ancient woodland to be destroyed or severely damaged” (also on page 6).

The Woodland Trust press release that spurred me to write Got till it’s gone also identifies a loophole in the planning system that it claims “puts [ancient woodland] at severe risk”. This loophole is offered by the wording of paragraph 118 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) document . The relevant part of this paragraph starts well enough:

“planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland …”

But then sixteen words follow that offer not so much a loophole as a huge carriage door through which a developer may drive his coach and horses:

“… unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.”

So it would appear that the 20/20 vision with which Defra views the world is not a facility shared by the myopic Department for Communities and Local Government.

The situation is even worse when it comes to HS2. In the first place, the hybrid bill process by-passes the normal planning regime defined by the NPPF, and so HS2 Ltd can ignore paragraph 118 entirely – as far as I can see, nowhere in the mountain of paperwork generated in support of the project has justification been offered that the benefits outweigh the loss of any of the ancient woodland that would be destroyed by the project.

In the second place, judging by the utterances of the minister responsible for HS2 Phase 1, the Department for Transport not only lacks clear vision but also comprehension. The Oxford Dictionary defines irreplaceable as “impossible to replace if lost or damaged”. Robert Goodwill MP appears to use a different dictionary, because he said in the House of Commons earlier this year (footnote 3):

“We cannot replace ancient woodland straight away, but we can do whatever possible to ensure that it regenerates and, in the fullness of time, replace that environment.”

Whether Mr Goodwill truly believes this or is merely trying to deceive, the conceit that ancient woodland can be manufactured, even “in the fullness of time”, is a dangerous, as well as a totally false, notion that can only lead to a trivialisation of the loss.


  1. The novelist is, of course, Jane Austen, and the source is perhaps the most well-known opening sentence in English literature:
    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride and Prejudice)
  2. For example, “irreplaceable” is used three times in this connection in the Volume 2 report for my own community forum area (CFA17), in paragraphs 7.3.5, 7.4.3 and 7.4.29).
  3. The quote may be found in column 765 of the House of Commons Official Report for Tuesday 29 April 2014.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by WonderWoman on November 4, 2014 at 10:17 am

    A current example is Hopwas Woods near Tamworth. An early revision of the HS2 route saved these much loved woods which are of considerable landscape, as well as, environmental value. The woods’ owners, a quarrying company, recently sought to have almost half the woods’ area included in the Staffordshire Minerals plan to extract sand and gravel.

    Many locals are very aware of the link to the still very close nearby HS2 route which will of course need lots of sand and gravel.

    In the face of huge local outcry the quarrying company has backed down but many are still wary of the impact on other local sites and HS2’s voracious appetite for environmental destruction.


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