The UK’s ancient woodland is in crisis – and Theresa May’s greenwash can’t hide it

A deer in the woods. Image: Getty.

Last week I paid £15 to dedicate a tree to my friend’s new baby, via The Woodland Trust website. His arrival in this chaotic world made me think of all the ways I wished it was more perfect for him: less polluted, more certain to be full of “dappled things”; more caring.

After browsing the trust's different options, I settled on a tree in a new native forest being planted at Heartwood near London. Photos of the site suggest that the plastic-bound saplings are still very much in their infancy but I liked the idea of them growing old as he does. As the Chinese proverb goes: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is now.”

This put me in a receptive mood to hear that Theresa May is thinking along similar lines. On Sunday, in a prelude to this week's historic release of the “25 Year Plan for the Environment”, she announced that the government will help create a new “Northern Forest”; a “vast ribbon of woodland” that will stretch from coast to coast between the cities of Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

This is a big win for forestry campaigners. The Woodland Trust and The Community Forests Trust have carefully developed the project together, and hope it will deliver major benefits – from flood reduction to increased biodiversity.

According to the director of the Mersey Forest Trust, Paul Nolan, the new £5.7m of Defra funding is a vital first step towards meeting the scheme’s full, £500m, target. “It’s a good start and we’ve got 25 years to make the case for further money and support,” he told the New Statesman.

Yet while children still grow up with tales steeped in trees, Britain's real-world woods - our living, breathing capsules of sylvan time - are in crisis.

Just 2 per cent of the UK has tree-cover dating to 1600 or earlier and the Woodland Trust believes the overall decline to be so bad that England is entering a state of “deforestation”. At Kew Gardens, researchers are already resorting to preserving endangered species in seed banks.

This alarming situation contains a warning about the wider battle currently waging between environmentalists and planners. It raises questions about what trees, and nature more widely, is worth and whether its value - in the most fecund sense of that word - can ever be fully measured at all.

It is a concern that commentators and NGOs have raised in the last few days, cautioning that any new tree planting must not be wielded as a form of compensation for (or a distraction from) the trees that are being lost to the government’s development plans.


“It’s a supreme irony that the current routing of HS2 threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham. We need new forests and ancient woodlands - not one or the other,” said Friends of the Earth’s Paul de Zylva in a statement on Sunday.

For James Cooper of the Woodland Trust the UK’s ancient forests should be considered “irreplaceable” - like the Cathedrals that they are so often compared to, and protected with the same level of care.

But unlike the protections provided for our built heritage, the government’s present National Planning Policy Framework allows developers to destroy ancient trees as long as they can demonstrate “sufficient need”.

As long as this loophole remains in place, the next best option is to ensure that any lost woodland is replaced with the highest possible ratio of new planting. For HS2, Natural England has supported a proposed ratio of 30:1 - but Cooper believes that only a 5:1 ratio is being delivered at present (though says this will have nothing to do with the proposed new Northern Forest).

Fracking too is a concern. Just this week, the West Sussex County Council approved fracking firm Cuadrilla’s application to test the flow of oil at Balcombe. Friends of the Earth has also revealed that, in Sherwood Forest, Ineos has sought and received permission for seismic surveys, despite public assurances to the contrary.

It is in this wider context that we should listen to May and Michael Gove announce their (overdue) “25 Year Plan for the Environment”, which it is hoped will suggest new solutions for everything from soil decline, to plastic pollution, to climate change.

One leafy shadow already cast, earlier this week, is the fact the government backtracked on advice for ancient woodland protection, changing a section of the “Standing Advice” it issues to developers. Whereas it had previously advised a 50m “buffer zone” as an appropriate mitigation measure around ancient or veteran trees, it now only advises a minimum of 15m.

Another is that organisations like the Woodland Trust still, despite repeated lobbying, have no reliable data on the condition of the UK’s ancient woods. Those datasets which do exist are “not fully maintained”, and local planning decisions are not centrally updated, the Trust says.

Without greater clarity, ambition and tools to measure progress, the government risks missing the woods for the trees on its environmental policy – and not just for forests.

India Bourke is editorial assistant and environment correspondent at the New Statesman, where this article first appeared.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.