National Trust joins protesters to save medieval forest from Stansted expansion

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The Independent Online

The National Trust has demanded protection for one of Europe's finest medieval forests in the latest twist surrounding expansion plans at Stansted airport.

The National Trust has demanded protection for one of Europe's finest medieval forests in the latest twist surrounding expansion plans at Stansted airport.

Local celebrities, including the chef Jamie Oliver and the former Middle East hostage Terry Waite, have already come out against proposals for a second runway which would enable many more planes to use the airport.

Environmentalists have long argued that the rise in air pollution would endanger one of the best examples of a "medieval hunting forest" anywhere in Europe. This weekend's decision by the National Trust to intervene on the side of the protesters will benefit their campaign.

Peter Sanders, chairman of Stop Stansted Expansion [SSE], said: "We have long known of the National Trust's opposition to the plans and their fears about Hatfield Forest and their public support this weekend is very welcome. This is just one blatant and obvious example of how this development could destroy large areas of important countryside."

Last night, a spokesman for the National Trust said the future of the forest, which attracts 250,000 visitors a year and contains 850 ancient trees, including pollarded hornbeams and oaks, was too important to ignore. "Hatfield Forest is an irreplaceable example of a medieval hunting forest, the like of which exists nowhere else in the UK," he said.

"The forest currently offers visitors the ability to step back into a medieval landscape, something which noise generated by a new runway, aligned directly over the heart of the forest, would significantly undermine. This could be further compounded by degradation to its environment caused by aircraft emissions."

The trust said that woodland was an increasingly precious "green lung" in one of the fastest-developing areas in the country. "Noise and pollution will significantly compromise its ability to perform this role."

Adrian Clarke, the manager of Hatfield Forest, said: "Hundreds of thousands of people enjoy Hatfield Forest each year. It's a vital community resource, not just because of its history, but also because of the space and tranquillity it offers. If plans to expand Stansted go ahead, increased noise and pollution would mean that this role is badly undermined.

"The environment of the forest may also be under threat. We have important wildlife, much of it associated with the 850 veteran trees, some over 1,000 years old," he said.

The Government gave the go-ahead for a second runway in December and it is now up to BAA, which runs the site, to implement the proposals. It is thought that BAA will submit its plans over the next 12 months.

SSE said it would be catastrophic if the plans went ahead. "The changes will see the airport become one of the biggest in the world, certainly the biggest in Britain," said Mr Sanders. "But the fight is far from over. We intend to launch a judicial review later in the year and a financial challenge regarding viability, as well as opposing the planning applications when they are submitted."

Not all local residents are opposed to the plans. The writer Germaine Greer, who lives in an ancient farmhouse on the outer fringe of the area that would be affected by an increase in jet noise, said earlier in the year that the expansion should go ahead. She argued that any rural peace there may have been in her corner of Essex had already disappeared.

"The future of the South-east is suburbia," she said. "The people who live in rural peace and blessedness in north Essex are not sturdy peasantry but professionals and business people who want to deny the commercial reality from which they make their living. Airports are the cities of the future."

But campaigners insist the number of those opposed to the development is growing. As well as the National Trust, English Heritage said two scheduled monuments and 22 listed buildings were endangered.

Mr Sanders insisted last night that the coalition against the proposals was as strong as ever. "We are optimistic we can stop these plans and will continue to point out their legal, financial and environmental flaws," he said.