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Natural environment must not be sidelined as part of airports debate

Woodland Trust | Woodland Trust

4 min read Partner content

Woodland Trust Chief Executive Beccy Speight comments on the Airports Commission report

Today, the Airports Commission published its report in which it has recommended a third runway at Heathrow as the best option to increase airport capacity in the south east of England. A second runway at Gatwick has not been entirely ruled out however, with the Commission still saying it is a "credible option".

Proposals for expansion at either Heathrow or Gatwick are extremely likely to have a detrimental impact on ancient trees and ancient woodland. These rare and irreplaceable habitats are essential elements of a healthy, connected and thriving British landscape but airport expansion could sever vital wildlife corridors and wipe out hundreds of years’ of history and ecology. Existing planning-based protection measures are failing ancient woodland and ancient trees both locally and nationally, and the current narrative promoting a ‘need’ to increase capacity, adds further pressure.

Responding to today's announcement, Beccy Speight, Woodland Trust Chief Executive, said:

“Regardless of today's recommendation, what must be recognised is that ‘environmental impact’ should not only be used, as has consistently been the case as part of the expansion debate, as a term to refer to noise and vibration in relation to people and their homes, with damage to the natural environment seemingly just a secondary complication. Any risk of loss or damage to the natural environment, and especially to irreplaceable habitats like ancient woodland or ancient trees, must be taken just as seriously, and every possible avenue investigated to avoid it if we are to adapt to threats such as climate change, and so that communities can exercise their right to a healthy lifestyle.

“In alignment with its manifesto commitment to deliver new infrastructure in an environmentally sensitive way, Government must now not only seek to avoid loss, but also to integrate new trees and woods into any development plans if expansion goes ahead as recommended by the Airports Commission today, remembering that this is not just about the footprint of a new runway, but all the surrounding development likely to be required that will add more strain on the UK’s natural environment in the long term.”

Since the Airports Commission was appointed in September 2012, the Woodland Trust has pushed hard to influence current policy and thinking around airport expansion.

The Woodland Trust's work has focussed on three key areas of concern:

-   The impact land-take would have on irreplaceable ancient woodland ancient trees and vital wildlife corridors

-   The threat to woodland and the wider landscape from aviation’s contribution to climate change

-   Land-take (including deforestation in UK and abroad) and net CO2 emissions from growing biofuels for aviation fuel

Heathrow - Background/What's at risk?

Expansion at Heathrow airport could directly affect a number of nationally important ancient trees such as the 1,000 year old Harlington Yew.

Heathrow has denied that this would be the case. However, until we see detailed plans, we will remain concerned and will continue to highlight the importance of taking ancient trees into account, especially since the natural environment seems of least concern among officials and decision makers as part of the expansion debate.

Gatwick - Background/What's at risk?

A planning agreement made in 1979 restricts any new runway at Gatwick until 2019 and the Government’s 2004 Aviation White Paper showed no appetite to overturn this. However, the White Paper did recommend that land around Gatwick should be safeguarded from development to keep it free for expansion in the future.

As part of its proposals to build a second runway once this agreement comes to an end, of the three options that Gatwick Airport Ltd put forward and consulted on during April – May 2014, ancient woodland would be destroyed in every option. The company’s ‘preferred first choice’ (option 3), as well as being the worst for ancient woodland, would obliterate the last remaining ecological network for wildlife around the whole of the south side of the airport.

The Woodland Trust has met with representatives at Gatwick to explain our concerns and push for avoidance of ancient woodland. We have challenged Gatwick’s figures for loss and damage to ancient woodland, which it states to be 7.7 hectares (19 acres). However, Woodland Trust research shows the figure to be more like 14 hectares (35 acres), including Huntsgreen Wood and Rowley Wood in West Sussex. This in itself suggests a lack of care or attention to detail concerning the natural environment.

We have also met with local communities and Airport Watch to give advice about valued woodlands, veteran trees.

Read the most recent article written by Woodland Trust - Woodland Trust welcomes Budget Nature for Climate Fund investment

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