Summary Assessments of the ‘quality’, condition or status of stands of native vegetation or habitat are now commonplace and are often an essential component of ecological studies and planning processes. Even when soundly based upon ecological principles, these assessments are usually highly subjective and involve implicit value judgements. The present paper describes a novel approach to vegetation or habitat quality assessment (habitat hectares approach) that can be used in almost all types of terrestrial vegetation. It is based on explicit comparisons between existing vegetation features and those of ‘benchmarks’ representing the average characteristics of mature stands of native vegetation of the same community type in a ‘natural’ or ‘undisturbed’ condition. Components of the index incorporate vegetation physiognomy and critical aspects of viability (e.g. degree of regeneration, impact of weeds) and spatial considerations (e.g. area, distribution and connectivity of remnant vegetation in the broader landscape). The approach has been developed to assist in making more objective and explicit decisions about where scarce conservation resources are allocated. Although the approach does not require an intimate botanical knowledge, it is believed to be ecologically valid and useful in many contexts. Importantly, the index does not provide a definitive statement on conservation status nor habitat suitability for individual species. It purposefully takes a ‘broad-brush’ approach and is primarily intended for use by people involved with making environmentally sensitive planning and management decisions, but may be useful within environmental research programmes. The ‘habitat hectares’ approach is subject to further research and ongoing refinement and constructive feedback is sought from practitioners.