I am a co-owner, with other family members, of Thorpe Woods, an area of woodland in Thorpe St Andrew on the north-eastern edge of Norwich.
We have proposed that part of the woods be used to build new housing, and that the rest of the woods become a permanent public woodland park.
Because any proposal to build houses generates controversy, and in the interests of transparency, here is the background.
My family bought the woods in the 1950s as commercial plantations and planted or replanted large areas of conifers as a timber crop. Over the years a combination of thinning, cropping and wind-blow has led to the woods becoming more mixed, as deciduous trees have grown up through natural regeneration.
Our aim for the woods, since the woods passed to my generation in the 1980s, has always been not only to make a financial return but also to do something good for the community.
The situation today
We are now at the stage where many of the remaining trees are mature and ready for felling, in a phased programme over the coming years. As with all felling plans, this has been agreed and approved by the Forestry Commission and follows standard good forestry practice.
So we need to decide what the future of the woods should be: continue as commercial forestry, or change their use? They are on the edge of the built-up area of Norwich, and will soon be surrounded by planned new developments, so in our view commercial forestry is no longer the best use for them.
Broadland District Council, which is the local planning authority, says it needs several thousand new houses to be built in the area. We have suggested that some hundreds could be built in part of the woods, which at about 200 acres could accommodate them in a minority of the land. The rest could then become a public woodland park, funded by the new housing.
The new woodland park would be handed over to an independent body, probably a local charitable or community trust. It would no longer be managed as commercial forestry but for (a) recreation and (b) improved biodiversity and ecological connectedness of the green spaces on that side of Norwich. So the benefit of the proposal is twofold: homes for people who need them, and a large new permanent woodland park alongside them.
A suggestion was made at one point that Thorpe Woods were ancient woodland. But the late Professor Oliver Rackham of Cambridge University, one of the country’s leading ecologists, researched the question and confirmed that Thorpe Woods are not ancient woodland but were planted from the second half of the 19th century onwards, on what was open heathland.
All new housing uses land that would otherwise be green or brownfield sites. The council has said that there are not nearly enough brownfield sites available. So green sites will have to be used, whether fields or woods. Sites closest to existing cities or towns have the lowest impact in terms of carbon emissions, as travelling distances are reduced.
If parts of woods are going to be used for housing, which would reduce the impact on agricultural land, it is better to use woods that have been relatively recently planted and managed as commercial forestry than woodlands that have a greater age or greater biodiversity.
With our agreement the Norfolk Wildlife Trust surveyed Thorpe Woods in 1997, and as a result of that survey Thorpe Woods was designated a County Wildlife Site. One of the main reasons was the presence of dry-heath and acidic grassland flora, which historically flourished when the land was open heath. When the woods were planted, in the 19th and 20th centuries, these plants reduced but are still present particularly on rides and paths as they do not have a tree canopy over them.
The proposed woodland park would be managed so as to increase biodiversity, possibly opening more areas up or even returning some spaces to heathland, to allow the heathland plants to increase in number in those areas.
The proposal is outlined at our development partner's website, here. It is made very respectfully, knowing that there will be different views and that because it’s about housing, and also because it involves woodland, this is a sensitive subject. There are indeed objections to the proposal – to find them search online for Thorpe Woods.
We hope there will be a courteous and open debate as Broadland District Council considers the pros and cons of each potential location for new housing and the pros and cons of a new public woodland park.