Developers could be permitted to build on ancient woodland as the pressure to build homes and roads increases, says the environment secretary.
Clearing ancient woodland for houses and roads could be allowed as long as developers promise to plant 100 new trees for each ancient one felled, the environment secretary said.
Owen Paterson told the Times that “biodiversity offsetting” could give “a better environment over the long term” and would allow major infrastructure projects to be built.
Critics say such plans put woodlands “up for sale” and that there is no evidence that the planting preserves biodiversity.
The environment secretary cited the Birmingham M6 ring road as an example of successful “offsetting”: 10,000 old trees were removed to build the road, but a million new ones were planted.
There is no evidence translocation is effective … it is a salvage operation at best Woodland Trust
The department for the environment stressed it was “extremely unlikely” that planning permission on the site of ancient woodland would be given to anything but a major infrastructure project.
However one such project already on the cards is the High Speed 2 HS2 rail link from Birmingham to London which would affect 43 ancient woodlands according to the Woodlands Trust. The Trust also criticised the idea of relocating trees.
“Proposals to ‘mitigate’ for ancient woodland loss within the ES (environmental statement) include translocation. This means picking up ancient woodland soil, moving it elsewhere on a lorry and using it as a basis to plant new trees.
“There is no evidence translocation is effective and no methodology is given as to how exactly it will be carried out. It is a salvage operation at best, and should only ever be referred to as ‘compensation’, since ancient woodland is irreplaceable and cannot be mitigated for.”
One pressure on the green belt is the need for more housing provision. And the shortage of houses in the UK was shown up starkly on Friday by a 8.4 per cent surge in house prices, according to annual figures released by Nationwide.
Everywhere in the UK saw an increase in house prices, with the highest increase seen in Manchester – 21 per cent – and a low in Carlisle of 1 per cent.
The market revival has been “broad-based” Nationwide building society reported – spread across the UK as a whole. The average price of a house in the UK is now £175,826.
In real costs London is far and away the most expensive part of Britain to buy a house with the average property price reaching £345,186.
Northern Ireland is the cheapest with a typical property costing £111,612. Across England, prices have increased by 8.6 per cent year-on-year to £205,084 typically.
Mr Cameron dismissed fears that his Right to Buy mortgage scheme was inflating prices and causing another house bubble. He suggested that critics including his own cabinet member Vince Cable were being London-centric when they said that the house market was inflating.