Last week I attended the meeting of East Northamptonshire Council at which the councillors considered a planning application from Forest Holidays – a commercial off-shoot of the Forestry Commission – to build 70 holiday chalets in Fineshade Woods. The outcome was a good one, but the process was concerning.
Fineshade Woods is owned by the Forestry Commission, it is old, without being ancient, serene and beautiful, it has woodland specialities such as Wild service tree and probably the Purple emperor, but it lacks a suite of rare animals and plants that might see it meet the scientific definition of an SSSI, or any other definition of being a nationally important wildlife site.
The wood is however well used and greatly appreciated by the people of Northamptonshire as a place where walkers and cyclists can lose themselves in nature. Other than local woods there is very little accessible wildlife habitat for the people of this area, this wood is important for the sense they have of wellbeing and connection with their countryside. There is no doubt that their 1:1 with wildlife would be profoundly changed by 70 chalets full of holiday makers. (See this article for a glimpse at the ambience of the wood).
The council officers could not fault the planning application and recommended the proposal for approval. At the council meeting most of the councillors expressed disquiet about the potential effects of the development on the quiet enjoyment of the wood and its wildlife. Democracy is the worst form of Government, apart from all the others, and one of the difficulties is that decisions are taken by people who may not have as much knowledge about the key issues at stake. Hence at times the councillors seemed to be rather flailing about to justify their gut instincts. One councillor talked about “Grade 1 listed woodland” being cut down and then regenerating, because ecology is robust and recovers – there is no such thing as Grade 1 listed woodland and ecologists would disagree with claim that mature woodland can recover in human timescales. On the other hand another councillor passionately exclaimed that the wood was ancient (it isn’t) and was home to red-listed birds that are threatened with European extinction (the threat is not imminent and won’t be significantly affected by the decision at Fineshade).
Once it was clear that the councillors were minded to reject the planning application the council officers stepped in to help the councillors to frame the decision in such a way that it could be defended if Forest Holidays appealed – remember developers can appeal a planning decision, but the environment can’t, and the resulting imbalance of risk in terms of legal costs is one of the reasons that wildlife gets a rough ride in the planning system.
The officers awkwardly guided the councillors away from justifying the decision in terms of the importance of this tranquil recreational resource to local people, and towards a justification based on the likely damage to wildlife.
The local feeling is strong, the public gallery was overflowing, and the Forestry Commission appeared to have no-one’s support for the proposal. Yet it was clearly hard work for the council to say no to the application.
While a limited amount of wildlife benefits from protected status, a great many sites of varying importance to wildlife are exposed to this imbalanced planning process. Some of the solutions to the shortcomings of the planning system are outlined in my last blog. However, the case of Fineshade Woods raises another and subtly different problem. The crux of the matter here is not highly endangered wildlife, but the ability of people to access and enjoy wildlife; in this case on land that is in public ownership.
In an increasingly densely populated and intensively managed land there has to be sufficient space for wildlife and people to interact. The Nature and Wellbeing Act that is being promoted by Buglife and a range of wildlife and health NGOs offers solutions to this problem. Firstly it proposes that local plans with statutory weight identify all the significant wildlife resources and give greater weight to their protection. Secondly it would set out a minimum level of access to green space for people – a step that should eventually enable places like Fineshade Woods to be recognised as the asset that they are to the health and wellbeing of the local community.
In a great step forward John Randall MP has introduced a Nature and Wellbeing Bill to Parliament under the ten minute rule procedure. This has little chance in resulting in an Act being passed in this Parliament, but could be the catalyst for a successful Government led Bill in the next Parliament. The speech was one of the finest in the House in recent years and should be read by everyone with a passion for wildlife.
As John Randall said, “Today, our children are more cooped up than they have ever been before. The average distance between the areas where they play and their homes is a fraction of what it was a generation ago. We should set basic standards for access to green space so that everyone has a chance to enjoy nature”.