This has not been a good week for conservationists – or indeed, anyone in England with an affection for where they live. The Government has announced new measures to fast-track fracking applications if local authorities don’t act quickly enough (i.e. make a decision within 16 week). In addition Greg Clark, the secretary of state for communities, will also have the right to ‘call in’ applications and decide on them himself. This follows a decision made by a local authority in Lancashire recently to reject a fracking application: evidently this wasn’t something the fracking industry, or a Prime Minister who promised to go “all out for shale”, wanted to hear. So they’re changing the rules.
Whatever your views on fracking – whether you think the lack of knowledge about methane leakage and water pollution is a cause for concern, or whether you think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and should be exploited as quickly and comprehensively as possible – it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it has the potential to affect huge swathes of our countryside. As Naomi Klein argues so well, it has been relatively easy to ignore the fossil fuel industry to date because it’s “sacrifice zones” tend to be kept relatively out of sight. With fracking, though, the sacrifice zone is immense, and visible. This has prompted opposition from people motivated not only by environmental concern and an interest in local self-determinism, but also out of a simple, apolitical love of place. In essence, we are being forced to ask how much we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the energy industry.
Whilst that debate continues, it would be easy to assume that the most beloved and beautiful parts of our countryside are protected by legislation. We all know about national parks, and have probably seen the letters SSSI here and there, even if we don’t understand exactly what they mean. You may even live near a popular area of woodland, and believe that it must be safe from development or extractivism – after all, “Jerusalem” is our unofficial national anthem. We define ourselves as being a “green and pleasant land.”
However that is palpably not the case. What little legislation we do have owes its existence to two EU Directives currently been reviewed (and potentially overhauled), and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as introduced by the Coalition Government, has proven itself to be utterly toothless. Yes, the NPPF states that “planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland,” but what follows is the caveat “unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”. As Eric Pickles demonstrated in March, what that means in practice is that a centuries’ old Kentish wood can be felled to make way for a quarry if a politician decides that’s an economically sound prospect. In reality, to borrow the Woodland Trust’s phrase, the NFFP is about as much use as a chocolate tea-pot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pu3zT3oYJ-M
Ancient woodland is, by definition, a woodland which has existed continuously since 1600 – which is an extraordinary idea, and gives us a uniquely physical connection to our natural history. They are home to complex ecosystems which have developed over centuries, and are entirely irreplaceable as sites of historical and environmental interest. It now covers only 2% of the country; Britain boasts less tree cover than any European country other than Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands (http://www.telegraph.co.uk). And it is dangerously vulnerable to attack: the Woodland Trust is currently aware over 600 woods currently under threat, which have nothing more than the NPPF to protect them.
Whether you’re interested in the cultural, environmental, and even poetic implications of woods which have survived for hundreds of years, it seems extraordinary to permit our Government to treat them in such a cavalier manner – for the sake of a quarry, or a petrol station. If Eric Pickles announced that he was going to tear down Blenheim or Hampton Court Palace to make room for a motorway, I imagine the nation would be fairly exercised by the prospect of its loss. We need to start thinking about our landscape, and our natural heritage, in comparable terms – particularly in the current environment, in which industries like fracking are being promoted so enthusiastically. The Government already has plans to let energy companies extract shale gas from beneath national parks; as it stands, ancient woodland barely has a chance.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.
As You Like It Act II.I