HC Deb 09 May 2000 vol 349 cc179-86WH 11.30 am
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Brands Hatch, the home of British motor racing, wants to destroy 37 acres of ancient woodland to create new facilities for the 2002 British grand prix. I am a motor racing fan. I relished the performance of David Coulthard when he won at Silverstone two weeks ago and delighted in the driver's world championship victories of Damon Hill and Nigel Mansell. However, the home of British motor racing should not be allowed to desecrate ancient woodland to build, among other things, a new media centre, a helicopter pad and new car parks.

Brands Hatch has owned the 37 acres for many years, using the area for off-road racing. At present, anyone who owns a wood under what are called permitted development rights can race cars in ancient woodland for up to 14 days a year. That can cause considerable damage. In its application for the new development, Brands Hatch claims that its rally school—for which it presumably received planning permission—operates not just for 14 days a year, but for 140 days a year.

Brands Hatch is just the highest-profile case. I have consulted Woodland Trust, which says that at least 35 other ancient woods are under serious threat. Ancient woods are one of the great irreplaceable and unsung glories of Britain's natural heritage. They are nature's cathedrals—timeless places of great beauty and tranquillity. A wood can be somewhere to head for, a place to stop for reflection on an evening's stroll and an indicator of the changing seasons. The bluebell-carpeted wood remains a timeless image advertising the beauty of our countryside.

Because they have long been undisturbed, ancient woods are often historical treasure troves. Bronze and Iron Age earthworks, ancient park boundaries or charcoal pits and kilns provide clues to past land use and local industrial history. As the habitat most representative of our original, natural, stable conditions, ancient woodland is home to more threatened species, such as the bluebell, than any other habitat in the United Kingdom. At least 45 woodland species became extinct during the past 100 years. Many remaining species, such as the wood anemone or Soloman's seal, which are found only in ancient woodland and have limited powers of dispersal, are struggling to survive.

The UK biodiversity action plan states that broadleaf woodland, which forms virtually all the ancient woodland in the UK except for the Scots pine forests of Scotland, supports almost twice as many UK biodiversity action plan species than any other habitat. Only 309,000 hectares of ancient semi-natural woodland survive in England, Wales and Scotland. That is just 2 per cent. of the total land area. In Northern Ireland, no accurate records exist. Roughly 50 per cent. of Britain's ancient woodland has been lost since the first world war, mainly through conversion to conifer woodland and clearance for agriculture. Development pressures, the channel tunnel rail link, the Newbury bypass and countless well-known road schemes have destroyed or threatened areas of ancient wood. Increasingly, ancient woodland is found in small fragments—islands of biodiversity in a hostile landscape of intensive agriculture and urban sprawl.

I am lucky to have a fragment of ancient woodland in my constituency. I became familiar with Pinner wood during my time on the excellent Pinner Wood first and middle school governing body. The wood occupies almost the whole central portion of the beautiful Pinner Hill golf course and includes one of the oldest oak trees in Middlesex. I am told that the wood, formerly linked to other nearby areas of ancient woodland just outside my constituency, is a valuable nature conservation area, with excellent examples of oak and pollarded and coppiced hornbeam. Bridge pond in the woods is noted for its great crested newts and its rich variety of waterside and aquatic plants, including water plantain and white water lilies. A range of plant species that were previously recorded in the woods are now sadly extinct, including the frog orchid and the violet helleborine. Even in 1547, Pinner wood was 127 acres in size. By the time of enclosure in 1817 it was down to 26 acres and it now measures just two hectares. Not far from Pinner wood is Pinner Park farm, also in my constituency, which stands on the site of a former 100-acre ancient wooded enclosed hunting area. All that remains are the deer park boundary, which still awaits appropriate designation, and a relatively small number of trees. That is an example of the fate that has already befallen so many areas of ancient woodland.

Three broad threats to our ancient woods remain: their size, climate change and a series of legal loopholes. Some 80 per cent. of all ancient woods are less than 20 hectares in area, and 44 per cent. are between two and five hectares. As there are many ancient woods of less than two hectares not included in the current inventory, most ancient woods may be less than two hectares.

The trend towards smaller, more isolated woods has had several important consequences. Large areas of woodland are more valuable for wildlife than small areas. The size of woods is important because of the direct relationship between size and the number of species that can be supported. In addition, all species need a certain minimum area to breed and feed successfully. Core area is an important concept for ancient woodland. The edges of woods are more liable to fluctuations in the environment caused by wind and temperature and are more vulnerable to pollution such as pesticide spray drift. Many species specific to ancient woodland are unable to tolerate that edge effect and require the relative stability of the core of the woodland. The size and the shape of the wood affect the relative amounts of core area and edge. In addition to outright clearance of woodland, habitats between woods and other semi-natural habitats, including hedges, have been lost. Large arable fields have created barriers to migration. Improved grassland, pesticide drift, fertiliser migration in ground water and deep ploughing near trees have all taken their toll.

Perhaps the greatest long-term threat to our ancient woods, assuming that we are able to protect them from further development and fragmentation, is climate change, which is increasingly recognised as a major and as yet unquantifiable factor that will affect all of us in the future. There is already overwhelming evidence that climate change is happening. That creates particular dangers for ancient woods. The environmental stresses caused by summer droughts will make trees more vulnerable to disease and frost-free winters may prevent invernisation—many trees need winter cold to reset their clocks for spring and for the germination of seeds. It could also bring about increases in insect pest populations and bring over new pests from warmer climates, which may be able to survive all year round, as well as causing changes to flowering times, the nesting of birds or the emergence of insects, which may disrupt ecosystem functioning. While species may be able to migrate in response to climate change, many ancient woodland species are very sedentary, and migration of whole habitats will not be possible. The cumulative effect of all those impacts could be serious for ancient woods.

Existing legal loopholes include failures of the current sites of special scientific interest system. Some 85 per cent. of ancient woodland, including five of the 12 largest ancient woodland sites in England, lack SSSI or any other designation. Because sites are selected on the basis of a representative sample, many high quality sites fall outside the protection offered by SSSIs. In any case, current SSSI legislation cannot prevent landowners from neglecting woodland. We need to re-examine permitted development rights, which, when exercised for purposes such as scrambling, four-wheel drive vehicle racing or caravan holiday use, can damage ancient woodland. The removal of trees can be claimed to be necessary for such activity, since no felling licence is required for felling necessary for development that is deemed to have received planning permission, as in the case of permitted development.

The current felling licence system is another loophole. To be covered by a felling licence, trees must have a minimum diameter of 8 cm, so it is possible to remove young trees, shrubs and undergrowth from woodland. Up to 5 sq m of timber every quarter can also be extracted. When those two factors are exercised in parallel, they can severely degrade a wood in just a few years. As an aside, I point out to hon. Members that Northern Ireland has no felling licence controls. The tree preservation order system, which is not especially strong in England, is also much weaker there.

Policy on ancient woodland has moved a long way in the past three years. The remaining area of ancient woodland is one of 150 indicators of sustainable development outlined in "A Better Quality of Life: A Strategy for Sustainable Development for the United Kingdom", which was published last year. The England forestry strategy, which was published in 1998, also recognises the importance of ancient woodland. However, other positive measures are needed to close a series of legal loopholes. We must increase protection for sites of special scientific interest. The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill offers an excellent opportunity to strengthen protection for SSSIs, including ancient woods. We should also contemplate the creation of a new form of conservation status for important habitats outside the SSSI system through the creation of local wildlife sites. Stronger references to ancient woodland must be included in planning policy guidance. We should also consider improving the tree preservation order system and introduce felling licences in Northern Ireland.

As the last update to the planning guidance to local authorities on trees and woods was made more than 22 years ago, new and updated formal planning guidance to local authorities should be provided. We should review existing permitted development rights and rescind those that damage ancient woods. The Government are already committed to tackling the legacy of past land management policies, but several other specific steps might also be taken. A carefully targeted woodland creation programme could link ancient woods in areas where there is a high density of sites. That would increase the area of ecologically sustainable woodland. The farm woodland premium scheme could also be fundamentally reformed to ensure that woodland creation was targeted and supported planned expansion.

Urgent research should be undertaken into techniques and priorities for restoring ancient woods planted with conifers. We could also ensure that environmental payments to farmers were dependent on whole-farm plans that included sound management of hitherto neglected farm woods. In addition, we could argue for increased support for forestry and woodland expansion through European Union negotiations, based on the specific case of the United Kingdom's low woodland cover and low amount of ancient woodland. We should continue to encourage the take-up of environmentally responsible management of woods and forests through active support for the UK woodland assurance scheme and for Forest Stewardship Council certification schemes.

The Government are already working hard on a number of fronts in relation to climate change. We must continue to champion stronger support for renewable energy and energy efficiency in transport, homes, offices and industry. We need to recognise the role of carbon offsets in reducing the severity of climate change and to promote the value of woodland in helping to increase stored carbon by protecting the existing resource, increasing the rates of planting new woodland and using wood fuels rather than fossil fuels. Support is also needed for action intended specifically to protect ancient woodland from the worst effects of climate change by extending existing woodland areas and creating large areas of new habitat on a sufficient scale to sustain wildlife in the face of potentially rapid environmental change.

Size matters here. The Greater London area has some 2,203 hectares of semi-natural ancient woodland, 30 per cent. of which is found within the borough of Bromley alone. Before this debate, I consulted Trees for London, which told me that much of the tree planting in central London dates from Victorian times. Plane trees are particularly efficient at hoovering up carbon dioxide pollution. Thanks to the Victorian legacy, they are dotted along Park lane and other places, but I am told that those trees now need replacing. I hope that the mayor and the Greater London Authority will address that issue, in partnership with a range of other bodies and as part of an urgently needed strategy for London's trees and ancient woods.

Ancient woodland is part of our heritage. It is a crucial habitat for many species and is vital to the biodiversity of our nation. The Government is already committed to tackling many of the legal loopholes and land use and planning policy issues. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to add a new sense of urgency and champion the need for new planning guidance, a greater protection of sites of wildlife interest and the use of grant aid to target action for strategic woodland creation. Is it not time that we drew a line in the sand with regard to Brands Hatch and said that enough is enough? We do not want part of our heritage replaced by a new car park and media centre.

11.44 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) made a good speech on an important issue and raised many points, to which I will do my best to reply. The Government share his view of the value of ancient woods. I do not claim that it is possible or. in some cases, desirable to create a system that protects such woods from all threats. However, we have taken a wide range of measures to protect them, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, and further measures are under consideration.

My hon. Friend mentioned Brands Hatch. The application to which he referred is before Sevenoaks district council. The question of the loss of ancient woodland will be initially for the council to consider. The application, should the council be minded to approve it, will be referred to the Secretary of State as a departure from the development plan. He will have the opportunity to call in the plan should he see fit. My hon. Friend will therefore understand that I cannot comment further on the matter for the time being.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the way in which the planning system deals with ancient woods. Land use planning plays a positive part in protecting trees and woodland in areas formally designated for their nature conservation value. Where there is no specific designation, the decision on priorities is deliberately left to planning authorities. That reflects the planning system's essential role as a tool to be used by those best able to take a balanced view of all the local considerations. Within that framework, planning policy guidance emphasises the importance of safeguarding the character of the countryside, of which ancient woods are an important element. It also suggests that local authorities should identify sites of local conservation importance, such as ancient woodlands, and include appropriate policies in their development plans.

The forestry forum is reviewing, among other matters, the existing guidance on trees and woods. The forum provides an opportunity to consider whether amendments to offer further protection to woods might be needed. My hon. Friend may be assured that the Government are aware of the arguments and will give them careful consideration. He might be interested to know that we recently added the Forestry Commission to the list of non-statutory consultees for planning applications involving ancient woodlands. That change is important and should ensure that local planning authorities have access to proper advice on the significance of threatened woods.

My hon. Friend referred to the need to take direct measures to protect and expand forest cover. I am pleased to say that the Forestry Commission is developing a new challenge fund aimed specifically at reversing the fragmentation of ancient woodland. Its revised woodland grant scheme rules will increase the grant aid for planting that defragments ancient woodlands. I do not like the word "defragment", but it is on my brief.

The use of local native species is widely supported, within practical limits, by the Forestry Commission and English Nature. The Forestry Commission encourages owners of ancient woodland to restock using natural regeneration where possible, or plants of local provenance if not.

The England rural development plan includes several funding measures that should benefit forestry. For example, there will be a 26 per cent. increase for the woodland grant scheme, bringing total expenditure over the planned seven years to £139 million. There will be a 37 per cent. increase in the farm woodland premium scheme. The adoption of the UK woodland assurance scheme is also strongly endorsed by the Forestry Commission, which, of course, was largely instrumental in developing it. My hon. Friend mentioned the situation in Northern Ireland, but I am sure that he appreciates that I cannot deal with that.

The most serious issues relating to SSSIs are neglect and inappropriate management. The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill will introduce management notices, which will be a useful tool to combat neglect. Other measures include conservation objectives and management schemes. The Bill will also introduce stronger controls over the exercise of permitted development rights by proposing that such operations may be carried out only with the consent of English Nature. The Bill will be complemented by revised guidance on planning for nature conservation and biodiversity.

It is true that the small size of ancient woodlands often means that they may not qualify to be notified as SSSIs. The local sites review group has been taking views on the identification, protection and management of such local sites. The group has submitted its initial report to the Department and we are considering the most appropriate way forward.

Any application for a felling licence for trees protected by a tree preservation order is handled by the Forestry Commission, in consultation with the local authority responsible for the order. If, after consultation, a felling licence is granted, the tree preservation order is overridden, but that is not a loophole. If the local authority objects to the Forestry Commission's proposal to grant the licence, the application is taken out of the commission's hands and transferred to my Department. The provision for a small licence-free quota, to which my hon. Friend referred, is seen as providing a reasonable balance between controlling felling and allowing small-scale woodland management without excessive bureaucracy.

It is the Forestry Commission's policy to prosecute wherever there is clear evidence of a serious breach of felling controls. In 1998–99, 337 cases of alleged illegal felling were reported to, or discovered by, the Forestry Commission. Investigations revealed that in 112 of those cases there was prima facie evidence that the regulations had been broken. In the same year, 17 prosecutions were brought and formal warnings were issued in 23 cases. A further 15 cases had still to be resolved.

Protection from felling in cases that do not involve development has been recently improved considerably by the environmental impact assessment regulations introduced last year. Any proposal to remove ancient woodland of more than one hectare will need a formal determination by the Forestry Commission as to whether an impact assessment is required. Where it is required, the commission will consent to deforestation only if the assessment shows that it will not have a significant effect on the environment.

As my hon. Friend said, climate change is a threat to woodland. A considerable amount of research is being done on the issue, one of the fruits of which has been a paper produced recently by Forest Research on the impact of climate change on trees. It suggests a range of possible effects, including faster tree growth in some regions and more severe damage by larger numbers of pests. It is too early to reach conclusions on the overall significance of climate change or on the measures that may be required to deal with it, but an integrated model of forest productivity that takes the various factors into account is now being developed.

The Government's draft climate change programme, published on 9 March, sets out a range of policies and measures for promoting better energy efficiency and new technologies. We have set a target to provide 10 per cent. of the UK's electricity supplies from renewable energy sources by 2010 and we want to encourage other more efficient ways of producing energy. For example, we have a new target to double the capacity of combined heat and power to 10,000 MW by 2010.

We also recognise the role of carbon offsets, to which my hon. Friend referred. In our draft climate change programme, we announced that we would encourage UK-based carbon offset projects that promote renewable energy, energy efficiency measures and forestry. The recent coppice-burning project successfully demonstrated one aspect of the potential for renewable energy.

In general, the Government accepts that intensive agriculture continues to have a deleterious effect on wildlife. I cannot do justice to such a large subject today, but we are far from complacent and have put in place a considerable number of policies and practices to reduce its damaging effects, as well as incentives to encourage environmentally friendly farming. Measures are in place to control, among other things, the storage of silage, slurry and agricultural fuel oils and to ensure that Environment Agency authorisation is needed for the disposal of hazardous substances such as sheep dip and pesticide waste to avoid damage to species and adjacent habitats.

A range of financial incentives is in place to encourage better management, notably the substantial increase in support for agri-environment schemes in the England rural development plan. More than £1 billion will be spent during the seven years of that plan, including £566 million for the countryside stewardship scheme, £334 million for environmentally sensitive areas, and a threefold increase to £134 million in funding for the organic farming scheme.

As I said at the outset, the Government recognise the value of ancient woods. I hope that I have demonstrated that we have taken and are continuing to take a wide range of measures to protect and expand them, as well as to protect the wider natural environment of which they are a part. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that we have a good story to tell. No one is under any illusions about the scale of the problem, but it is being addressed.