The facts about Boxwood

Local Stevenage Liberal Democrat councillors became aware a few weeks ago of the proposed sale by auction of plots of woodland in parts of Boxwood. Like some others, we have researched the facts from both East Herts District Council (EHDC) and the Forestry Commission.

  1. Boxwood is wholly within the EHDC area, with boundaries to the west with Stevenage Borough Council (SBC) and to the north with North Herts District Council (NHDC). The boundary with SBC is adjacent to Chells Division of Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) and Manor Ward of SBC. Since these areas are held exclusively by Lib Dem county and borough councillors, we naturally have an interest in what happens to Boxwood. Apart from anything else, the area is extensively used by residents for recreation, dog walking etc.

  2. After the recent appalling consent by EHDC for building over 600 houses nearby at Gresley Park, it is natural that all locals will be nervous when we see that a natural resource like Boxwood is up for sale.

  3. Boxwood is privately owned (not owned by EHDC, HCC or SBC). The sale was originally advertised by auction for 14 July 2020 involving only part of the Boxwood and that part split into 8 parcels of land about 0.6 ha each. This seems to have been withdrawn and now it seems to be with a different agent for auction in two plots on 28 July 2020 and 29 July 2020. The western plot is 12.1 ha and the eastern plot is 11.7 ha. The sale is leasehold for 500 years.

  4. The lease of the woodland was compulsorily purchased by the Forestry Commission in 1956 – possibly because of a call at that time for the UK to become self-sufficient in wood supplies, following wartime shortages. The lease was then sold to a private owner in the early 1980s, probably because at that time the Forestry Commission were rationalising their woodland assets and decided to sell those which were leasehold and keep those which were freehold.

  5. In particular, note that contrary to some factually incorrect claims, Boxwood was not sold following the 2011 directive from the coalition government to dispose of some woodland assets. In any case, that directive was withdrawn within a month after negative consultation responses.

  6. Boxwood is protected because it is designated green belt and ancient natural woodland in the EHDC Local Plan. For development e.g. housing, to take place, this would need the Local Plan to be revised and EHDC say that they have no plans to look at the Local Plan for about another 10–15 years. They also report that they have no plans to allow building on Boxwood.

  7. The fact that at least one of the selling agents has published a plan with indicative housing layouts in Boxwood has added to confusion and misinformation.

  8. EHDC state that the only buildings that would be allowed would be any to do with maintaining the land as woodland, but that a plot of 0.6 ha would be too small to justify even this. Note that the plots of 0.6 ha seem now to have been withdrawn in favour of marketing the whole site in two sections, east and west, (see point [3] above).

  9. Possible uses are as an educational resource, private quiet enjoyment or harvesting the wood growing there which – in the case of, for example, long, straight beech trunks with no branches and knots, would be lucrative. Anyone wanting to harvest wood in this way would need a Forestry Commission licence and the Forestry Commission would consult with EHDC before agreeing such a licence. Note that some wood has already been harvested some time ago from a rectangular clearing in the middle of Boxwood, which is not unusual, in order for an owner to recoup some of the costs of acquiring and maintaining a woodland.

  10. In addition to the protections already mentioned, a request was made recently to EHDC for a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) to be placed on all of Boxwood. This was agreed on 9 July 2020 and the TPO was served on the owner on 10 July 2020. The owners have 6 months to object, but after that EHDC will make the TPO permanent. A TPO means that anyone wishing to cut down a tree which is the subject of a TPO has to get planning consent from the local authority, in this case EHDC.

  11. I asked a few weeks ago if SBC would consider purchasing Boxwood, but was told by the officials that there is no capital budget available for doing this.

  12. It seems that the only realistic route now, for us to protect the amenity of Boxwood, is to protect the footpaths through the wood to make them legal Rights of Way (RoW). There are currently no RoW through Box Wood.

  13. My colleague Cllr. Tom Wren is looking into making footpaths through Boxwood into legal RoWs. Initial discussions have taken place with HCC, who are the relevant authority for RoWs. It seems that in order to do this, he has to gather evidence that the footpaths have been used regularly and unrestricted for a period of at least 20 years. If you can supply such evidence then please contact Tom Wren at [email protected] Tom will provide the required evidence form, collate the information and would then make application to HCC.

  14. It is worth noting that all the restrictions in the world about building on Boxwood are only as good as the enforcement of the legislation. It has been the case that, elsewhere in the UK, unauthorized building has happened on parcels of land which have been purchase privately and these developments have been later authorized.

I hope that this fully explains the background and facts, as given to me by various official bodies, and shows a way forward over protecting footpath access for local recreation

Cllr Robin Parker 14 July 2020


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