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Why the revised NPPF can support the fight to protect ancient habitats

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The revised NPPF offers greater protection to England's ancient woodlands. But it remains to be seen whether local authorities interpret the policy in a way that will give real protection to threatened habitats, says Victoria Bankes Price

The revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is a big step forward for ancient woodland, veteran trees and other irreplaceable habitats.

The old NPPF policy was simply that development must be refused unless the benefits of the development outweigh the loss. It led to hundreds of ancient woodlands being lost each year. Developments as diverse as paintballing centres, campsites and housing estates were all permitted owing to the perceived benefits outweighing the loss of such habitats.

Just before the revised NPPF was published the Woodland Trust was aware of 586 ancient woodlands under threat in England. It has been lobbying for the protection of these habitats to be improved since the days of Planning Policy Guidance 9: Nature Conservation (PPG9), published back in 1994.

The revised NPPF raises the bar for protection with a new test. Paragraph 175c says:  “development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons58 and a suitable compensation strategy exists”.

“The next few months will be vital for precedent setting decisions”

‘Wholly exceptional reasons’ echoes the protection given to the best of our built heritage (as set out in NPPF paragraph 194b) so it is a huge step forward, and already the policy is being interpreted positively.

Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council refused an application to erect a detached dwelling and associated works. In doing so, it stated that “the application site falls within… an area of ancient semi-natural woodland… there are no wholly exceptional reasons for such loss in this instance. The development is therefore contrary to Section 15 of the National Planning Policy Framework (2018)”.

The test now is how footnote 58 is interpreted: “For example, infrastructure projects (including nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs), orders under the Transport & Works Act and hybrid bills), where the public benefit would clearly outweigh the loss or deterioration of habitat.”

The reference to NSIPs and HS2 is clear. But the interpretation of the policy for locally important schemes will be critical. The next few months will be vital for precedent-setting decisions. The trust will monitor its implementation closely as a non-statutory consultee on applications affecting ancient woodlands and will work to empower local planning authorities to ensure that the best precedents are set.

Victoria Bankes Price MRTPI is a planning adviser to The Woodland Trust


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