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Securing a future for woods and trees

This blog was going to be about the Government’s manifesto commitment to produce a 25 Year Plan for the Environment, the initial framework for which we were expecting to be launched any day now: but the referendum result has rather changed all that!

The proposed 25 Year Plan was always quite a bold aspiration, seeking to look ahead well beyond the normal political cycle – recognising the intergenerational importance of our natural environment. We welcomed that approach.

However, that task has just become a little more complex – not least because the recent flurry of activity around the 25 Year Plan was essentially an England-focused activity, led by Defra. The spotlight is now firmly on the whole of the UK.

Leaving the EU

Leaving the European Union, in some shape or form, will have numerous ramifications across many areas of our lives and could have the biggest impact on our natural environment for a generation. More than 40 years of participation in the EU has seen all parts of the UK establish a cumulative framework of policies, regulations, guidance and incentives designed to protect and value our natural environment and to do so in a way that sits alongside the needs for social and economic progress too. My colleague James Cooper flagged these issues in an earlier referendum-themed blog.

The resulting suite of Directives on Habitats, Birds and Water (amongst others) will now be up for review and may be open to major changes. But perhaps the biggest impact will be from the inevitable dismantling of the UK end of the EU-wide Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), accompanied no-doubt by a lively debate as to what to put in its place – bearing in mind that around 70% of the UK is farmland and management of that land has been heavily influenced (if not constrained) by the rules of the CAP.

In any rules-based system, like the CAP, there are doubtless some winners and losers and often a clutch of unintended consequences too – not to mention the nexus between creative interpretation of said rules and downright perverse incentives.

Unravelling the complexities of Brexit

Throughout all of this, I think it’s fair to say that wildlife, biodiversity and landscape conservation have suffered a classic swings and roundabouts journey. Right now, new woodland creation rates are at their lowest ebb for many years. There are many areas of ancient woodland converted to plantations in the past that are yet to be restored or have their biodiversity greatly improved. There is considerable confusion and some reluctance on the part of many landowners to embrace woodland creation or additional tree planting for fear of transgressing the rules of the various CAP regulations and losing payments in other areas. Interpretation of the rules even varies from one part of the UK to the next.

All of this despite the growing evidence of what even modest increases in woodland cover and carefully-sited tree planting can do to boost air quality, improve agricultural productivity, intercept pollutants, reduce soil erosion, help manage runoff, provide shade and shelter for livestock and crops, and contribute to wider natural flood management approaches.

Whilst Ministers have often spoken about wanting us to have the best environment in the world, it now seems vital that they show us right from the outset that unravelling the complexities of Brexit will not deter them from aiming so high. The recently announced Brexit Unit (to be headed by Oliver Letwin) is a case in point – full consideration of the environment within its terms of reference and some reflection of this in its participants or sub-groups would be a pre-requisite for success.

Delivering transformational change

This all means confronting the fact that our environment is not in a good state right now – despite the existence of those policies, directives, regulations and incentives – so clearly there is more to do to deliver a long term plan for restoration and conservation of species, habitats and ecosystems. But more than that, as I was suggesting in my recent Wildlife and Countryside Link blog on the potential 25 Year Plan, we need to work out how to deliver a transformational change in the way we interact with the natural world.

We need to start a national discussion about what sort of environment we want and how we want to achieve it. There appears to be a serious disconnection between society as a whole and the natural world, and a feeling that there is little an individual can do to change anything. Which one came first, the disconnection or the feeling of dis-empowerment? The order doesn’t really matter, what does matter is that things should change.

Gate leading to ancient woodland in autumn
Ancient woodland like that at Coed Kernow is under threat (Photo: WTML)

There is always a risk in starting a conversation that proposes change, particularly where the environment is involved: too often, in various parts of Government, there seems to be a ready view that the environment is little more than an annoying impediment to growth. But not pushing for change would simply continue the “business as usual” scenario and all the evidence shows that things are not currently working well for our natural environment. Right now there are more than 500 ancient woods at risk of damage or destruction from development activity, and numerous ancient oaks and other veteran trees are devoid of any form of real protection under current approaches to planning.

Clearly, much of the existing legislation and regulatory framework has been very effective; we should build on our successes. For example, we know that protecting habitats and species with the help of both domestic and EU legislation has been truly beneficial, but as the Lawton Report showed, we need to do much more; the classic bigger, better and more joined up approach to habitats means working across whole landscapes and thinking much more about nature being integral to our management and use of resources now and in the future. Recent analysis and hard environmental economics tells us how much Natural Capital is tied up in our woodlands and forests – and how much more could be delivered efficiently by expanding woodland cover in the right places.

An environment fit for the future

Government at all levels in the UK has a clear role in developing the future frameworks to secure the achievement of the ‘world’s best environment’; both to identify and remove barriers – including perverse subsidies – and to use regulation and legislation as a backstop to prevent or deflect inappropriate or damaging activities. There is also a clear requirement to ensure that the right assessments are made and data is collected, analysed and published so that we can all maintain an oversight of what is actually happening.

All the better if this can be done with a far less dictatorial approach from the centre. Although this may mean some of us in the conservation sector need to consider how dictatorial we can seem on occasion. Any new approach to environmental legislation must engage those who already know and understand the issues, but will also need to engage effectively with a much broader range of stakeholders, as well as communities and people on the ground, reflecting what they want to see and enabling them to achieve it.

The result of the referendum may have been unexpected but we should not be frightened of change. A Britain that is optimistic and outward looking internationally has to be a Britain that is a good steward of its own wonderful natural environment. We all need an environment that is fit for the future.