A recent planning decision by Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council provides yet another example of development-driven death by a thousand cuts to the area’s dwindling biodiversity.

Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council is the Local Planning Authority for the town and what remains of the surrounding countryside. In theory, decisions regarding biodiversity and planning matters are guided by a council document called Supplementary Planning Document: Landscape, Biodiversity and Trees.

On page 55 of the document, section B6 states ‘A minimum buffer of 20 metres should be provided between the edge of the woodland/tree belt and the development.‘ Minimum environmental buffer zones exist for hedgerows and rivers too.

Yet on Wednesday 10 May 2023 the Development Control Committee DCC, arbiters of final decisions on planning matters, voted to ignore this requirement and approve application 22/02564/FUL to develop land for housing immediately adjacent to a tree belt – without a requirement for any environmental buffer zone to protect the trees and shrubs. By contrast, the application acknowledged and incorporated an environmental buffer zone for a river adjacent to the proposed development.

A previous application for a house on this particular site had been refused by the DCC and by an Appeal Inspector.

Only three councillors voted to reject the application and by a majority decision the Development Control Committee approved the application. This was despite recommendations for refusal of the application by council officers including the biodiversity officer and the historic environment team. The council officer’s detailed preparation and recommendation for refusal was professional and I would mark them 10/10. Regarding the elected councillors on the DCC, watch their debate online and mark them yourself.

The DCC meeting can be viewed on YouTube and provides illuminating insight into the process of council decision-making. Fast forward to about 1 hour 56 minutes for the start of the relevant discussion relating to planning application 22/02654/FUL.

The application was brought before the DCC, and championed for approval, by local ward Councillor Jo Slimin (Liberal Democrat).

One DCC member, Councillor Ken Rhatigan (Conservative) was confident enough in his ecological expertise to argue at the meeting that, on the basis of a brief site visit, the tree belt ‘was not of value‘, the trees ‘were not ancient or valuable‘ and that trees ‘could be replaced if one was impacted by the development.’ Let’s hope those last words are not prescient because ‘could‘ does not mean ‘must‘. His insightful arguments are worth a listen on the YouTube video and he went on to propose that the application be approved. Councillor Andrew McCormick (Labour) seconded the motion to approve the application.

In terms of planning, a tree belt is a belt of trees, and is defined by its existence, not its ancestry. Regardless, the tree belt being discussed by Councillor Rhatigan is venerable. A tree belt’s age is indicated by the number of species it harbours. In this case a minimum of 15 woody tree and shrub species are present, suggesting a continuity of woodland habitat stretching back several hundred years.

Tree belts and woodlands are habitats. What defines their significance is the web of life they support. Anyone familiar with the subject knows that the environmental and ecological importance of tree belts and woodlands does not necessarily derive from the age of their component trees but from their ecological communities. Nearby Pamber Forest Nature Reserve received its Site of Special Scientific Interest designation for its invertebrates rather than its trees, few of which are older than 180 years. Nevertheless, it qualifies for Natural England’s definition as Ancient Semi-natural Woodland.

Other proximity indicators hint at the significance of the tree belt affected by application 22/02564/FUL as a biodiversity hotspot. Within 100 metres of the site there is a breeding population of Great Crested Newts, plus Western Barbastelle and 6 other species of bats have been recorded. Expand the radius to a nearby ancient tree-lined byway and you can add Hazel Dormouse. All of these species are protected by schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, for what that’s worth.

I spoke at the meeting arguing the ecological case for a 20 metre buffer zone to protect the tree belt. When I had finished speaking, I was greeted by stony silence and none of the councillors could be bothered to ask me a question, such was their level of commitment to biodiversity. Had they done so I could have expanded further on the environmental significance of the site. And in view of the fact that I had already emphasised the presence of Barbastelles and 6 other bat species in the vicinity I would have reminded them of the paragraph on page 55 of their own Supplementary Planning Document that states: ‘Where it is considered the woodland and/or tree belt form part of an important wildlife corridor, for example of particular importance to bats, or where the woodland is ancient in origin, then the council will expect buffers exceeding the 20 meters (sic) minimum‘.

At the same meeting the DCC chose to keep in place a requirement for a 20-metre environmental buffer zone to protect another nearby tree belt – planning application 20/00962/ROC. The buffer zone relates to an ancient byway whose northern end is roughly 50 metres from the Tree Belt affected by planning application 22/02564/FUL

Above: the Ancient Byway that was discussed in the context of planning application 20/00962/ROC at the DCC meeting, with three botanical indicators of ancient woodland in view. Interestingly, the agent acting on behalf of the applicant maintained that the Tree Belt harboured no indicators of ancient woodland and that it was nothing more than an ‘overgrown hedgerow’. His illuminating argument starts around 56 minutes into the YouTube video. The stretch of tree-lined byway in question is proposed for designation as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation and has Tree Preservation Order status.

These two contrasting planning decisions illustrate that the fate of environmentally sensitive land can be decided on a whim, and that ultimately legislation and policy supposedly there to protect wildlife and the environment counts for little. It is at best optional in the planning process and its implementation dependent upon the way a given councillor ‘feels’ about an application, and not necessarily the facts of the matter or planning policy.

In light of the above decision regarding application 22/02564/FUL Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council’s claims to have green credentials seem like empty rhetoric. And the environmental and biodiversity crises that even the council acknowledge exist are, at least at the local level, in large part of their own making. When it comes to existing native wildlife, Biodiversity Net Loss rather than Gain seems to be the order of the day.

There are more examples of the environmental consequences of planning decisions made by Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council’s Development Control Committee in the book The Biodiversity Gardener. No doubt the situation in Basingstoke is being repeated up and down the country.

Here’s an offer to Basingstoke & Deane councillors – as far as I am aware there is no requirement for them to have formal ecological training and yet they are being asked to decide on matters that relate to the environment and biodiversity. Along with fellow local naturalists, I would be happy to provide them with a crash course in environmental education and local natural history. Failing that, there is always the option of deferring to council employees who do have expertise in these matters – namely Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council’s Biodiversity Officers.

So, what hope for wildlife? Right now, none at all, at least in Basingstoke, save for the actions of a few individuals with an environmental conscience and a willingness to put the future of our natural world before self-interest.

A final thought for Basingstoke residents: if planning permission can be granted for building in a location that has so much going for it in environmental and historical terms (close proximity to an ancient tree belt, a main river and two Grade-II listed buildings), and against the recommendations of council planning officers, then any greenfield site near you is now in the firing line of speculative developers. Nowhere is safe and sooner or later it will happen to you.