I’ve written about the practicalities of woodland planning over the years and created an extensive guide to the legal situation on the Century Wood website. But here I’m going to present a “shopping list” of what changes I’d like to see.
There is a lot of emphasis on woodland creation at the moment. The benefits of woodland that are promoted include “boosting wildlife, providing shelter for livestock, preventing soil erosion, reducing flooding, providing timber, supporting the economy, and improving mental health and wellbeing.” Those benefits rely on appropriate management, including human interventions which replace the actions of species we removed in the past.
In England the target is to go from about 10% tree cover to 16.5% by 2050. But that means that two thirds of that tree cover for 2050 already exists, today. So as well as planting, we can start work on having 16.5% of appropriately managed woodland today, by bringing more of the 10% into management. One aspect is removing barriers to bringing woodland into management, and that brings us to planning law.
Before the creation of the planning system in 1948, work needed for the creation and management of woodlands could just be done when needed. If you needed a hut for forestry workers or a roadway to get timber and equipment in or out, you just did it. The 1948 Town and Country Planning Act took away that ancient right, but then partially gave it back in the 1948 General Development Order which allowed roads and 300 sq.ft wooden/metal huts without needing permission from a council. Over the years, even these exceptions have been chipped away and it’s currently necessary to give the council or other local planning authority a chance to veto the siting and appearance of forestry buildings and roadways, and they can also just say they believe the work is unnecessary and not allowed. Different local authorities have very different policies about what are reasonably necessary “permitted developments”, and many do not accept that multi-hectare woods even need one of those small sheds you see on each tiny plot on council allotment sites. So it’s a postcode lottery: you buy a woodland, start investing in the management of it, and then discover that you have an unsympathetic council the hard way when you make an application.
So the first changes would be (1) more consistent application of permitted development rights between different local planning authorities, including a definition of forestry that includes small woodlands, and (2) an acknowledgement that small sheds etc are even more necessary for multi-hectare woods than they are for tiny council allotments.
Next we have a recent backward step which is specific to England. In 2023, the government removed the so called Four Year Rule concerning operations, including buildings and roadways. This meant that after four years, councils could not take enforcement action against these developments even if the council subsequently decided they needed planning permission. This has been replaced by a new Ten Year Rule, and prolongs the uncertainty surrounding work done which a woodland owner believed would not need permission. It seems unlikely that Whitehall would stomach a U-turn so quickly but anyway my third change is (3) reinstate the Four Year Rule for operations for the purpose of forestry.
There’s a saying that the woods that stay are the woods that pay. Nowadays there are environmental restrictions that effectively prevent the removal of most woodlands, but unless a woodland generates income or is owned by someone who can subsidise it, it will be left unmanaged, with less biodiversity and tending towards dark monocultures in some cases.
The principal way that a woodland can pay its way is by producing wood and timber products, and again the planning system can get in the way. Most of the value to people of these products is added by processing and much of this could be done in woodlands themselves. However, doing anything beyond getting the wood into manageable sizes for storage or transportation off site may require planning permission. For example, planing or cutting planks to specific dimensions. Certainly activities like turning wood and making chairs, using coppice products to make hurdles and hazel fence panels, and perhaps even charcoal making. To me these restrictions seem incompatible with our goal to bring more woodland into management, while reducing emissions from transport. It leads to my next proposed change (4) make small scale production of finished products, in the same woodland as the wood was grown, unambiguously permitted development.
Making more direct use of products from woodland also helps connect urban people with British nature, in a way that bamboo wood products brought in a shipping container from the other side of the world can never do. It would promote the idea of wood culture, and that those coppice products in your home are connected to those patches of coppice woodland you see when you visit woodlands.
But there are even more direct ways of helping people connect with woodlands, especially as children and as people of all ages wishing to learn woodland management skills. So my final change would be (5) Forest School and outdoor learning and training to be permitted development in woodlands, and rely on designations (SSSI, a new protected Ancient Woodland designation etc) and the Ofsted safeguarding framework rather than the planning system to regulate them.
So in summary my planning reform shopping list goes like this:
- More consistent application of permitted development rights between different local planning authorities, including a definition of forestry that includes small woodlands.
- An acknowledgement that small sheds etc are even more necessary for multi-hectare woods than they are for tiny council allotments.
- Reinstate the Four Year Rule for operations for the purpose of forestry.
- Make small scale production of finished products, in the same woodland as the wood was grown, unambiguously permitted development.
- Forest School, outdoor learning and training to be permitted development in woodlands, and rely on designations (SSSI, a new protected Ancient Woodland designation etc) and the Ofsted safeguarding framework rather than the planning system to regulate them.
Well, we can dream 🙂