An area of ancient woodland the size of 16 football pitches in Kent will be destroyed to make way for a ragstone quarry after the government ruled that the commercial benefits of the development outweighed the habitat loss.
In a ruling that raises fears for the future of more than 300 ancient woods around the country, local government secretary Eric Pickles yesterday waived through an application to extend a ragstone quarry into the 400-year old Oaken Wood near Maidstone.
The resulting deforestation is thought to represent the largest loss of ancient woodland in the UK in the past five years. It would destroy about a sixth of the sweet chestnut coppice, which supports a range of plants and rare animals but is best known for two bat species - the Common Pipstrelle and the Natterer's bat.
The decision ends a two-year battle between Gallagher Aggregates, owner of the Hermitage Quarry, and the Woodland Trust, which described the ruling as a "test case setting a dangerous precedent".
Sue Holden, chief executive of the Woodland Trust, said: "This is a landmark decision, but for all the wrong reasons. This so-called 'greenest Government ever' stated that the new National Planning Policy Framework would give sufficient protection to irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland. It clearly does not - it seems no green space is safe."
"With just 2 per cent of ancient woodland cover remaining, we cannot afford to lose any more," she added, saying that the cover has been steadily declining in the 15 years since her group started recording the woodlands at risk from development.
A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "The land will be restored in due course to native woodland", adding that the planning application was supported by Kent County Council, local MPs and English Heritage.
A Woodland Trust spokesman responded by pointing out that the government's advisor on the environment opposed the development, adding that "new planting, although still vital, will never have the same value for wildlife as ancient woodland".
Advocates for the natural world had hoped that the government's overhaul of national planning policy last year had strengthened protection for irreplaceable landscapes such as ancient woodland.
The Woodland Trust raised concerns over an apparent loophole in the policy framework which stated that planning applications should not bring about the loss of irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodlands "unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss".
However, when asked to clarify the situation in March last year, the then government spokesman for the House of Lords told the Lords that "I am satisfied that the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) will protect ancient woodland".
The decision to allow the quarry extension to proceed represents the first ruling on ancient woodland since the policy framework was introduced and suggests it will not offer sufficient protection to other threatened areas, the Woodland Trust said.
As a result, the trust fears that many of the 300 ancient UK woodlands - representing 9,000 hectares, or 4,500 football pitches - it is fighting to protect against development could also be threatened.
The Woodland Trust fears that an area of woodland near Pembury in Kent could be next, with a ruling on an ongoing public inquiry into plans to turn the A21 into a dual carriageway expected shortly.
In a letter communicating Mr Pickles decision on the Oaken Wood case, a colleague of the secretary of state wrote: "[Mr Pickles] considers that the very considerable need for both crushed rock aggregates and dimension stone, together with the eventual biodiversity improvements, and the ongoing socio-economic benefits, would clearly outweigh the loss of the ancient woodland and the other adverse effects of the development in this case; and therefore that the loss of ancient woodland would not be contrary to Development Plan policy."
Ragstone is a hard limestone that is dull grey and is used for building.
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