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News analysis: Trees for all in 21st century charter

Words: Simon Wicks

A new Tree Charter aims to increase protection for Britain's woodland and reframe our relationship with trees

It was drawn up as a companion to the Magna Carta and dealt with the rights of common people, not landed gentry. But, although the Magna Carta is celebrated, few are familiar with the Charter of the Forest.

This may be about to change. On Monday 6 November, the 800th anniversary of the original document’s sealing by Henry III, a modern Charter for Trees, Woods and People will be launched.

The medieval charter returned to ‘free men’ traditional rights to draw sustenance from ‘royal forest’. It recognised the importance of woodland, heathland and pasture to the survival of ordinary people. 

Its modern equivalent recognises the role that woodland can continue to play in our lives. Its 10 principles – distilled from 60,000 public submissions – enshrine the contribution that trees make to species survival, environmental protection, economic activity and human well-being.

Threat to UK’s ancient woodlands

Initiated by the Woodland Trust, and supported by at least 70 land-based bodies, the Charter for Trees, Woods and People provides a standard for organisations to adopt. The trust argues that such principles are necessary; with just 2 per cent forest cover, Britain is the least-wooded nation in Europe. 

According to the trust, 600 ancient woodlands are threatened by development, and the Forestry Commission has missed a target to plant 5,000 hectares of trees annually.

"We would like to see a quantifiable standard for trees in every major new development"

“Poor planting rates, plus woodland losses and weak protection of ancient woods mean deforestation is highly likely in England, with some areas of woodland felled or destroyed and not replanted,” said Beccy Speight, chief executive of the Woodland Trust.

“Despite repeated requests, there is little effort from the government to accurately quantify the cumulative losses of woodland resulting from planning, infrastructure, tree disease and intensive land use.”

Enhancing new developments

The 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest is a springboard for action. 

“There’s a disconnect between people and trees,” said Victoria Bankes Price, planning adviser at the trust. Two of the charter’s principles are directly relevant to planners, she said: ‘Better protection for important trees and woods’ and ‘Enhancing new developments with trees’. 

The latter, said Bankes Price, was associated with improved well-being and active transport choices. The Tree Charter’s supporters are thus pressing for trees to be incorporated into local and neighbourhood plans.

"There’s a disconnect between people and trees”

“People should live within close proximity to woods and trees and have easy and free access,” said Bankes Price. “Ideally, we would like to see a quantifiable standard for trees in every major new development, such as urban extensions and garden villages.”

A revival of planning at a ‘landscape scale’ would enable woodland targets to be focused on river catchment areas rather than local plan areas – alleviating flood risk. Then there is Brexit, which the Woodland Trust sees as an opportunity to replace the “monolithic” Common Agricultural Policy with a system that promotes maintenance of woodland.

The charter will be launched at Lincoln Castle, home to a surviving copy of its medieval predecessor. Could it have as profound an impact? With more than 85,000 signatories, the trust’s vow to “influence policy and practice through people power” may bear fruit. Planners, too, can play their part.

Find out more about the Charter for Trees, Woods and People