The importance of retained woodland in future housing developments

By Grant Leggett, Executive Director, Boyer (part of Leaders Romans Group)

Over a hundred years before the climate emergency became a global concern, it was recognised that, ‘He who plants a tree, plants a hope’.

Today that mantra carries particular resonance. In light of rising temperatures, increased toxic emissions and decreasing biodiversity, it is scientifically proven that trees are fundamental to our survival, and their potential extends into all areas of life: the practical, social and environmental.

Today England’s woodlands are more valuable than ever before. They cover just 10% of the country – poor comparison to the EU average of 38%. This figure is set to increase to 12% by 2050 under current regenerative plans but this is not enough according to Rewilding Britain, which is pushing for a doubling of the country’s woodland cover over the next decade to help absorb 10% of current UK greenhouse emissions annually and protect declining wildlife.

Facing up to the fact that the built environment has had a role to play in the reduction of woodlands, the development industry is doing its bit. My own organisation, Leaders Romans Group has literally planting a tree for every house that it sells, alongside a raft of other sustainability initiatives. Others in the property industry are implementing similar projects.

Local authorities, too, are prioritising woodlands as the ‘green’ component in new developments, moving away from well-manicured ‘hard’ landscaping and towards a more natural landscapes. This is partly influenced by the Environment Act’s requirement for a minimum 10% biodiversity net gain which is due to become a legal requirement this month. It also stems from the desire for more ‘usable’ public open spaces that came into existence during the pandemic. Consequently developers throughout the country, including London where I am based, are favouring architecturally-designed or ornamental high maintenance lawns and topiary with softer, more useable spaces, including woods and wildflower meadows. Local authorities are also allowing several of their green spaces to be left to re-wild, although the cynic in me suggests that may be more to do with maintenance budgets than a planned biodiversity effort. But the ultimate ‘usable’ public space is undoubtedly existing woodland.

Initial fears that untended spaces would impact on property values have been proven ill-founded. In 2022, LRG carried out some research the impact on property values across all local authority areas in England and Wales. It concluded that homeowners are prepared to pay a premium for a home close to woodlands and that this figure has increased in the last two years: homes located within 50 metres of woodland attract a 6% price premium, a rise of 2.4% since the start of the pandemic.

This is unsurprising taking into account a considerable increase of appreciation for woodlands post Covid: woodlands visits rose from 170m in 2016-17, to 296m in 2020-21; and the annual number of visits to the forests managed by Forestry England rose by 74% between 2016 and 2021.

So woodland is vital in the planning of new communities. This has been demonstrated in the recent increase in counter-urbanisation and an above average rise in rural house prices. Whereas in 2019 the square footage of a home was deemed the single most important factor in buying a property, post-Covid, in 2022 this was replaced by access to outdoor spaces.

Informal public open spaces vary considerably and yet woodlands remain the most popular. Perhaps this is the versatility of woodlands, offering opportunities for natural play, quiet walks and in London in particular, the opportunity retreat from the sight of buildings and infrastructure and to remove oneself from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Of course the potential for London developers to provide large expanses of woodland within a scheme, the viability of which depends on a certain density, is limited. Accordingly, many developers in London are both delivering access to woodlands and practical assistance for the management of nearby woodlands. In Buckinghamshire, for example, developments within proximity to woodland are required to pay a maintenance cost and in some cases may be a physical contribution. In some cases this is provides through a SANG (Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space) – which presents another opportunity to landowners.

The value attached to woodlands has never been higher – putting those who are selling developable land which includes woodland in a strong position in the market.

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