When and if a plan to create an 850-acre forest on the edge of St Albans gets the go ahead it will create the largest new native woodland the people of England have ever seen. Neil Skinner joined residents on a guided tour on Saturday.

It's a development of immense size and scale; far in advance of anything the area has witnessed before – a project which dwarfs any supermarket or housing estate past or present.

Why, then, has it created such limited local opposition and why is the £8.5 million project necessary at all? Why spend so much money on a project many of us won’t live to witness in its full glory?

These questions I posed to project backers the Woodland Trust as I embarked on a tour on Saturday.

“Why not build it?” asks Woodland Trust officer Louise Neicho, one of three staff members on hand to answer questions.

“This is about leaving something positive behind for future generations, rather than just bad debts, climate change, and pollution.

“This will be here for hundreds of years, thousands of years to come. What better gift could we leave behind to future generations?”

It’s a powerful, oft repeated argument that’s hard to disagree with. Indeed, it’s pretty tough to find a single dissenting voice against the scheme; this despite the fact most people I asked will be long dead before it reaches full maturity.

First mooted in July last year, the scheme is likely to get final permission from the Forestry Commission in the coming months, with planting, depending on £4million of outstanding funding, likely to start in spring 2010.

Although the project does not need formal planning permission, the trust needs the forestry commission to approve the scheme after an environmental impact assessment.

Rick Sanderson, chairman of the Wheathampstead Preservation Society, said that, although originally sceptical, his members were now in full support of the plans – so much so that they recently made a £1,000 donation to the scheme.

“It came right out of the blue so naturally we had a lot of questions," he explains. "People were worried it would change the landscape and didn’t want a large visitor attraction on their doorstep.

“But after hearing the trust’s arguments we’re right behind it. It’s an important scheme for the whole country so we’re lucky to have it so close by.”

This national importance is emphasised in the trust’s glossy accompanying literature, handed out to the more than 50 residents who turned up for the two tours.

The UK, apparently, languishes at the bottom of the European woodland league, with a mere 12 per cent coverage compared to 44 per cent in other parts of the continent. Extricate from this the vast wooded areas in Scotland the comparative poverty of England becomes clear; a poverty not just of aesthetic beauty but of fragile woodland species – 78 of which are thought to on the verge of extinction.

Again, it’s hard to argue with redressing these balances, but slight concerns do remain about the number of visitors that will be drawn to the site by road and rail.

It’s a question I put to Louise.

“No, not at all,” she replies, “we’re not the National Trust. Of course we want to attract people to enjoy the site but this is not about making a visitor attraction; we’re not going to start building cafes and picnic areas around here. The idea is to make this as natural as possible.“

What, then, are they going to build? After ploughing and seeding the land the trust will be left with a grassland meadow. Into this they will plant the thousands of saplings necessary – leaving some open spaces behind.

One of the scheme’s other main benefits, adds the trust, is what now won’t be built in the area. With the East of England Plan knocking on the door of the Green Belt and future generations expected to knock through it, the forest should make any development in the locality impossible.

This, perhaps, is Heartwood Forest’s most powerful selling point.