Rebecca Pow: Protecting our precious habitats - ancient woodland and veteran trees

By Rebecca Pow MP

By Rebecca Pow MP

With a background in agriculture, horticulture and environmental affairs, both in the field and through my former work as a broadcaster and journalist, I vowed that I would get involved in these crucial issues in Westminster with a view to raising them up the Government agenda. These are some of the reasons why I joined the Conservative Environment Network’s Caucus of MPs to work with like-minded colleagues on these issues. Fortunately this Government is listening and significant strides are being made in these areas.

One of my first endeavours was to set up the All-Party Group for Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees, with the backing of the Woodland Trust and a dedicated team of like-minded colleagues. The idea was to attract attention to this precious habitat with the aim of increasing protection for it. The group met regularly with Ministers and I was pleased to lead a debate in Parliament on this subject.  

Ancient woodland, is at least 400 years old and covers just 2% of the UK. This magical habitat is our equivalent of the rainforest and has developed over a long period of time into a highly biodiverse ecosystem which is home to a diverse variety of species. In addition the undisturbed soil beneath ancient woodland and veteran trees is an integral part of this valued habitat and once lost it cannot be ‘re-created’. Sadly over the past 100 years at least 45 rare and vulnerable species have disappeared because of the loss of ancient woodland and more than 1000 ancient woodlands have been under threat from competing interests in the last 10 years. Despite its natural capital value, there was no protection for this habitat. Even now the Woodland Trust is dealing with over 700 threats. Whilst I fully support the Government’s drive to build more homes with the appropriate infrastructure, this should not be at the expense of our natural environment. It is possible to have sustainable development in conjunction with nature.

The concerted approach by the APPG together with public support and pressure for other organisations, I am delighted to say, bore fruit. The Government heeded calls and through the Housing White paper and the National Planning Policy Framework (footnote 9) ancient woodland was afforded the same protection as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks, Green Belt and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Initially veteran trees, living legends in themselves, were not included but with further pressure this has been rectified

The revised NPPF, now instructs local planning authorities that "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 reasons" for which "a suitable compensation strategy exists". It makes exceptions for "infrastructure projects (including nationally significant infrastructure projects, orders under the Transport & Works Act and hybrid bills), where the public benefit would clearly outweigh the loss or deterioration of habitat". So, this won’t prevent all loss of this habitat but it’s a significant win for our woodland and demonstrates that it is possible to make a difference as a politician and importantly that this Government is demonstrating its commitment to leave the Environment in a better place than we found it, something the Prime Minister herself stated at the launch to the 25 Year Environment Plan.

I am determined to see that commitment upheld and demonstrated through the forthcoming Agriculture Bill, Fisheries Bill, Waste and Resources Strategy and of course the forthcoming Environment Bill itself. This Bill offers an important opportunity for us to create clear targets for halting and even reversing the decline we’re seeing in our wildlife. It’s particularly important for businesses to have a clear signal from the government about what we expect from them when it comes to environmental protections, so that they can plan for the future and help us in this monumental task too. An independent watchdog is also crucial to ensure oversight, provide guidance and guarantee that these targets are met.

One way of achieving these targets is to embrace the concept of Nature Recovery Networks, a joined-up system that highlights places important for plants and wildlife. Engaging a holistic approach will prevent fragmenting and isolating species and inevitably causing their decline. I hope this Bill will give us a chance to see many of our beloved British species bounce back by giving them the space they need to roam from one end of the country to the other.

Soil is another passion of mine (strange but true). Soil is our lifeblood, it’s enables us to grow healthy food, it cleans water, holds carbon so mitigates climate change and can reduce flooding and yet through mismanagement huge tracts of land will be rendered unproductive within a decade unless action is taken. Evidence from the EA Select Committee inquiry into soil, a debate on the subject and the launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance in Parliament which I was pleased to host have played their part in establishing soil health as a DEFRA priority.

Issues like these affect us all. It’s about our future sustainability. They touch not just DEFRA but every single Government department, from health (access to green space for example improves mental health), to HDCLG (green towns are better to live in), BEIS (renewable energy and energy efficiency cuts carbon emissions and saves on consumer bills). Crucially sustainability needs to be at the heart of treasury thinking. We are merely custodians of this land and it is beholden upon us to hand on a better world than we inherited; I am proud to be part of a Government that realises this. To be fully effective our policy decisions must increasingly have a joined up approach to this.