Center Parcs and Oldhouse Warren

Center Parcs development threat to Oldhouse Warren Ancient Woodland

This summer (2021), Center Parcs announced they would be progressing plans for a new holiday village at Oldhouse Warren, an ancient woodland near Crawley in West Sussex. Ancient woodland is an irreplaceable habitat that is highly protected, so we are extremely concerned about these proposals and have been urging Center Parcs to reconsider and look for an alternative, more suitable location.

We wrote to the Center Parcs CEO in October this year expressing our concerns, but only received a short response, acknowledging receipt of our letter but saying nothing of the content. This is thoroughly disappointing given that Center Parcs claim they are committed to maintaining and enhancing wildlife and wild habitats.

We have now published a Joint Statement setting out why Oldhouse Warren is the wrong location for Center Parcs in Sussex:

  • The proposed site at Oldhouse Warren is entirely ancient woodland, an irreplaceable habitat that has been around for centuries and potentially millennia. It must be protected, not destroyed.
  • Development in ancient woodland is prohibited unless there are “wholly exceptional reasons.” Building on ancient woodland goes directly against national planning policy and all the relevant local plans and policies in Sussex
  • Building here would damage a protected AONB landscape. Oldhouse Warren forms part of the historic Worth Forest, an ancient woodland landscape within the High Weald AONB. The government’s own definition of an AONB is a “fine landscape…whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so outstanding that it is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them.”
  • The development would harm the neighbouring SSSI ancient ghyll woodland, a sensitive site that is currently undisturbed.
  • Building here goes directly against the Prime Minister’s commitment to protect 30% of the UK’s land by 2030. This promise is based on the flawed assumption that 26% of land in England is already “protected” by AONBs, National Parks and other designations. Oldhouse Warren sits within the High Weald AONB and will be destroyed by the Center Parcs proposal, not protected.
  • Development here is a barrier to nature's recovery and the creation of a functioning Nature Recovery Network. Oldhouse Warren is located within a Biodiversity Opportunity Area – an area identified as presenting the best opportunity for enhancing biodiversity - and is part of the wider ancient Worth Forest, which links habitats across Horsham and Mid Sussex districts.
  • Development here will cause a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions, releasing the carbon stored in ancient, undisturbed soils and felling trees that currently absorb carbon dioxide. This is clearly not compatible with our legally binding Net Zero targets or the government’s pledges in the recently-published England Trees Action Plan.

How you can help

1. Please help us by contacting Center Parcs and asking them to look for an alternative location.

You can use the email contact form on the Center Parcs website [N.B. when filling in the contact form you will need to select a ‘Type of Enquiry’ but none of the options are really relevant, so just select any.]

You can also Tweet @CenterParcsUK or post on their Facebook Page using the hashtag #SaveOldhouseWarren

2. Contact the local MPs and the leader of Mid Sussex District Council

We are asking Center Parcs to reconsider and look for another, less sensitive location - but if they pursue their current plans, development of Oldhouse Warren must be opposed and rejected by the relevant authorities.

Please contact the Leader of Mid Sussex District Council – Jonathan Ash-Edwards and the relevant MPs for the area – Jeremy Quinn, Mims Davies and Henry Smith

You can also Tweet @JAshEdwards or post on his Facebook Page using the hashtag #SaveOldhouseWarren

If you live in Mid Sussex, you can also contact your local councillors.

Background information

What development is proposed?

Center Parcs announced their intention to submit a formal planning application to create a sixth park in the UK. They have stated that the park would comprise 900 lodges plus a tropical swimming centre, recreational facilities, shops, restaurants, car parks, roads and other associated infrastructure. The company has identified Oldhouse Warren, an ancient wood that covers 553 acres, as the proposed site for development.

Has Center Parcs already bought the wood?

Center Parcs has secured an option agreement to acquire the privately-owned ancient woodland at Oldhouse Warren, south of Crawley, West Sussex. Option agreements are usually entered into as security for both the developer and seller when planning permission for a piece of land is not already granted.

Is there a planning application?

Not yet, Center Parcs have said they are hoping to submit a planning application in 2022.

Why is this case so significant?

Under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which governs development in England, development in ancient woodland is prohibited unless there are “wholly exceptional reasons.” To date this criterion has only applied to national infrastructure projects such as HS2. If the Center Parcs proposal is given the go-ahead, it has the potential to open the floodgates for other inappropriate development within ancient woodland, namely developments related to leisure and recreation. This is at a time when we should be doing everything we can to protect and restore wildlife, especially irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland.

What is ancient woodland?

Ancient woodland is defined as land that has been continuously wooded since 1600AD. Ancient woodlands have been around for so long that they have developed special communities of plants and animals not found anywhere else. It is an important habitat and in urgent need of protection.

Ancient woods are irreplaceable, which means once lost they cannot be replaced. No amount of tree planting can make up for the loss of ancient woodland habitat. This is because the complex community of soil fauna, microorganisms and fungi simply cannot be recreated. It is impossible.

The UK has lost much of its ancient woodland, and today it covers less than 3% of the UK’s land area. Ancient woodland is our richest terrestrial wildlife habitat, with complex ecological communities that have developed over centuries and contain a high proportion of rare and threatened species, as well as being important carbon stores.

What are Plantation Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS)?

PAWS account for roughly half of all surviving ancient woodlands across the UK. They are ancient woods that were once predominantly broadleaf but have since been planted with fast-growing timber crops, often non-native conifers, typically within the 20th century. The trees might not be centuries old anymore but the soil is – and since the land has always been woodland, there is a wealth of life in the soil including dormant seeds, ready to grow if given the chance. Across the UK, restoration is taking place on PAWS sites to gradually remove the conifers and enable the recovery of the ancient woodland habitat to the benefit of the wildlife that depends on it.

As well as the irreplaceable soil, many PAWS sites still include lots of other ancient woodland features. In the case of Oldhouse Warren, many important features remain among the Scot’s Pine and Sweet Chestnut plantation that dominate the site. This includes ancient and veteran marker trees and archaeological features, such as pillow mounds (artificial rabbit warrens). It is also home to scarce bird species such as Goshawk, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Marsh Tit that thrive in this undisturbed location.

Can the impacts of development on this site be mitigated?

No. Development within ancient woodland is highly impactful to its function as an ecosystem and as a home for wildlife. With other developments, direct impacts such as tree and soil loss can be avoided by siting development outside of the ancient woodland and ensureing appropriate buffers prevent indirect impacts. However, in this case the whole of Oldhouse Warren is ancient woodland, there simply isn’t anywhere you could put buildings outside of the ancient woodland. This proposal would be entirely within the ancient woodland and would be hugely damaging.

What needs to happen at Oldhouse Warren?

We are asking Center Parcs to reconsider and look for another, less sensitive location. Ideally somewhere where that can create new woodland through planting and natural regeneration that helps nature to recover, not harm it. If they pursue their current plans, development of Oldhouse Warren must be opposed and rejected by the relevant authorities.

In an ideal world, this ancient woodland site should be gradually restored from PAWS to Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW). Grants and advice are available to landowners to restore such sites and charities such as the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the Woodland Trust are able to offer advice and facilitate access to grants, such as the Government’s Green Recovery Fund. This funding was even recently made available to restore nearby PAWS habitats.

Have you tried to contact Center Parcs?

Yes, the Sussex Wildlife Trust wrote to the Center Parcs CEO expressing our concerns and asking them to reconsider. Unfortunately, we only received a short response acknowledging receipt of our letter but saying nothing of the content. This is thoroughly disappointing given that Center Parcs claim they are committed to maintaining and enhancing wildlife and wild habitats.

Why don't Sussex Wildlife Trust start a petition?

    We’ve seen that a petition has been set up. Whilst we are really encouraged that everyone is so keen to show solidarity against this development, we feel that, at this time, there is more impact in people writing directly to Center Parcs to show their concern. It is quite easy to sign a petition and also easy for Center Parcs to ignore it. However, by making them respond to individual complaints, we hope that the company will really have to consider the distress it is causing. If Center Parcs submits a planning application, then the charities will work together to make it easy for as many people as possible to object to the application and show support for our cause.

    Why don't Sussex Wildlife Trust crowdfund/Appeal/Team up with RSPB and Woodland Trust to buy the land?

      We understand why people would like us to buy the land, but at this time it is not up for sale. Even if it was, the average cost of woodland in this part of the country is about £10,000 per acre, so at 550 acres, we would estimate Oldhouse Warren costing about £5.5 million! As charities we have to think carefully about any acquisitions, not least because of the long-term costs of managing sites for wildlife and people. We also think it is a sad indictment of planning controls if charities have to buy land to protect it from unsuitable development, when the planning legislation and policy is meant to be there to ensure only sustainable development occurs. Ancient Woodland and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are very highly protected under national policy. This should be enough for Center Parcs and the landowners to realise that this is the wrong place for their development, without a charity having to step in.