Center Parcs fury: Nature groups warn chain will ‘tear heart’ out of ancient woods

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The company’s proposal is likely to include lodges, a tropical swimming paradise, shops, restaurants and a car park spread across an area the size of 350 football pitches. The Woodland Trust, Sussex Wildlife Trust, RSPB, CPRE – formerly known as the Campaign to Protect Rural England – and Sussex Ornithological Society fear the “devastating” impact the plans would have on 550-acre Oldhouse Warren, which forms part of Worth Forest.

A former medieval hunting ground, the forest is part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) adjoining a site of special scientific interest.

Oldhouse Warren is hailed by the groups as providing a foraging and breeding site for rare species of bird, including Goshawks, Marsh Tits and Firecrests.

They are calling on Center Parcs to rethink the plans and find another site which would not result in the loss of irreplaceable habitats.

The groups have described the development at Oldhouse Warren as “simply unacceptable”, adding that Centre Parcs’ scheme would “tear the heart out” of Oldhouse Warren’s “irreplaceable ancient woodland”, resulting in “irreversible loss of habitat”.

They say the proposal promises to put to the test the effectiveness of planning policy giving ancient woods and AONBs exceptional protection from damage and destruction.

Loss of habitat would make a mockery of Government climate change commitments as well as its manifesto pledge to boost the size of protected landscapes and to plant 30,000 hectares of new trees by 2024, they argue.

In a joint statement, they say: “To consider the destruction of such valuable woodland habitat when the UK has just hosted the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) and committed to end deforestation is unquestionably troubling and steeped in irony”.

Center Parcs is urged by the groups to reconsider taking the plans forward at such an unsuitable site for development.

Jenny Scholfield, South East Regional Director at Woodland Trust, said: “The Woodland Trust manages more than 1,000 publicly accessible woodlands so we understand the importance of helping people to enjoy the outdoors.

“But access to nature must avoid harming nature itself. Building hundreds of lodges alongside leisure centres, roads and car parks within ancient woodland is non-negotiable.”

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Henri Brocklebank, Director of Conservation Policy and Evidence at Sussex Wildlife Trust, said: “Allowing Center Parcs to create a new site here goes against all the relevant local policies and plans, not least the Government’s own commitment to protect 30 percent of UK land by 2030.

“Center Parcs needs to find an alternative location that won’t destroy and degrade ancient habitats.”

Yianni Andrews, RSPB Area Manager for Sussex, said: “The proposed site at Oldhouse Warren is home to rare and threatened birds, alongside irreplaceable ancient woodland habitat.

“It is critical that these special places are safeguarded for now and the future. Not only is this habitat irreplaceable due to its importance for biodiversity and nature’s recovery, but it is also key to tackling the climate emergency by providing carbon storage.”

Center Parcs has secured an option agreement to buy the privately owned woodland near Crawley, West Sussex.

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The company identified it as a suitable site because of its south of London location and transport links.

It expects the development to cost £350m to £400m, generating about 1,500 jobs once open and 1,000 jobs during construction.

A Center Parcs spokesman said: “As part of the pre-planning process, we are conducting detailed ecological surveys which will inform our designs and construction environmental management plan.

“At the moment, we haven’t completed this work so we don’t have anything more specific to share, but rest assured that we take our responsibility to the environment and forests extremely seriously.

“We have more than 30 years’ experience of sensitively managing the woodlands in which our villages are located, carefully nurturing and maintaining the forests to protect and enhance biodiversity.”

He added that Center Parcs’ approach to the development will be a collaborative one, working with the local authority, community and all groups with a specific interest in the site.

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