Austin Brady, Director of Conservation and External Affairs at the Trust discusses the Trust’s relationship with Forest Holidays.
A number of people have contacted us about our relationship with Forest Holidays, and some have asked specific questions in relation to the Fineshade Woods Forest Holidays planning application. We’d like to outline the current situation at Fineshade here to make sure our members and supporters are well informed as to our position.
As a woodland conservation charity, a key focus of our work is on the protection of ancient woodland from permanent damage or destruction. We all have a passion for the conservation, restoration and protection of ancient woodland.
When we enter into any partnership, we reserve the right to hold that partner to account. If we reach a point where they insist on taking forward any plans that may result in the destruction of ancient woodland, and we feel we can no longer influence them, we would terminate the relationship straight away. It is through this kind of agreement that we have held Forest Holidays directly to account for the Fineshade proposals.
There is clearly some concern that our lack of a formal response to the Fineshade proposals, and the consequence that our views on the matter do not appear in the public domain, may be interpreted as us remaining silent on issues that people expect to be of concern to us.
We entered into a relationship with Forest Holidays as we felt that we could have a positive role in influencing their activity through working with them. We chose this route in the first instance to try to directly influence their behaviour more effectively. We have found in many situations that working with organisations to change their behaviour can sometimes achieve really good results and make real change for the better.
Back in 2010 we objected to the Forest Holidays scheme at Black Wood, and at that time we also took the opportunity to talk to them directly about that proposal. What became clear was the level of influence we could achieve by taking this direct approach. As a result, a key area of the proposals was redesigned and the design of the cabins altered so as to remove light pollution, saving the ancient woodland from damage. In fact, it was from this initial objection, and the subsequent direct engagement that stopped the damage on this site, which convinced us to look into building a more influential relationship with Forest Holidays.
Because of our existing working relationship with Forest Holidays we have had the opportunity to make representations directly to them, seeking to influence their plans and to secure modifications to remove the risk to ancient woodland. We raised our concerns and objections directly with Forest Holidays in relation to two specific areas of concern at Fineshade, prior to considering any formal objection to the planning authority. Both of these approaches by the Trust have resulted in significant amendments to Forest Holidays plans as described further below.
The first major amendment relates to the initial location of the proposed cabin site. The boundary of the initial proposal at Fineshade did not include any areas previously identified as ancient woodland on the maps or Inventory held by Natural England.
However, the Ancient Woodland Inventory (which is held, managed and updated by Natural England) is always described as ‘provisional’ as situations do arise where areas of ancient woodland have been overlooked in earlier surveys or misclassified – there are many cases where fresh surveys or assessments result in sites subsequently being added to the Inventory.
As soon as the Trust was alerted to concerns that part of the Fineshade site could well be such a case – i.e. that the site included an area likely to be ancient woodland that was not currently on the Inventory maps – we raised the matter with Forest Holidays. An additional survey was then undertaken that confirmed part of the site was indeed ancient woodland.
This information was submitted to Natural England. Natural England accepted this assessment and agreed to add these areas of ancient woodland to the Inventory maps. Consequently, Forest Holidays in recognising this new information made a major alteration to the proposals, relocating the cabins away from the ancient woodland and identifying a different access route to the site which also avoided ancient woodland.
The second major amendment occurred more recently, after Forest Holidays made some alterations to the earlier plans, including a new proposal to change the management of an area of woodland close to the site of the cabins. This was described as mitigation work, to take account of the direct impact of the cabin site works.
These plans were submitted to the planning authority. On viewing these plans it became clear to us that the nominated mitigation site included an area of ancient woodland. The proposed management activities (described as part of the mitigation works) would, in our view, have had a negative impact on the ancient woodland and so we raised these concerns directly with Forest Holidays. We requested that they withdraw these proposals and consider alternative mitigation plans that would not have a negative impact on ancient woodland.
Forest Holidays subsequently formally withdrew these proposals on 8th September 2014 and have confirmed that their decision to withdraw and reconsider the plans was as a direct result of the concerns that the Trust had raised with them. We will of course be reviewing any new submissions made by Forest Holidays, when they become available on the council website, to ensure that there is no permanent loss or damage to ancient woodland.
We feel that the process of working with, influencing and educating organisations can be an effective means of protecting ancient woodland. By working with them, we have requested that Forest Holidays make major changes to their plans on two occasions, which now means that ancient woodland will not be destroyed at Fineshade.
Whilst our focus has to be the protection of ancient woodland, we do recognise that concerns may well remain for some local residents and other bodies in relation to other aspects of Forest Holiday’s plans – we encourage others to raise these concerns and respond via the planning system and if necessary take these issues up further with the Forestry Commission.
The Forestry Commission (FC) own a significant stake in Forest Holidays and will continue to own all such sites in the long term. The FC have a duty, as the managers of the huge resource of publicly owned woods and forests across England, to maintain an appropriate balance between the social, environmental and economic benefits that the public forest estate can deliver. We support this principle and recognise that Forest Holidays sites are one part of a wide spectrum of activity encouraged by the FC in the public’s woods.
The Trust’s view on the Forestry Commission and its management of the Public Forest Estate (PFE) continues to remain the same, we have pushed hard to see forestry legislation introduced which will set out clear new working arrangements and governance for the ‘arms length’ body the Government agreed to set up to take the PFE forward. We, with others, pressed for this to be included in the Queen’s Speech and continue to work to secure the inclusion of such legislation in manifesto commitments across all major parties.