Policy statements about trees lend themselves to rather richer prose than other government policy documents. And so it is that the Government’s response to the recent House of Commons EFRA select committee inquiry into forestry is more readable than many similar government responses of this type. We are told that “trees help connect people with nature right on their doorstep. The right tree in the right place can cool and clean the air, reduce storm water runoff, reduce noise pollution, and enhance the health and wellbeing of our urban communities – improving and creating the places where people want to live, work, visit and invest. The integration of urban trees into planning and development is essential to connect the natural and built environment.”
These are words that we would be pleased to see grace many of the public and private sector strategies we seek to influence. Indeed if they better informed Sheffield City Council's current thinking then the very regrettable loss of valued street trees there might not be taking place. Unfortunately, however, on their own these words are not nearly enough.
Why does this matter?
The select committee's job is to scrutinise the work of Defra and this was the first such inquiry into forestry policy specifically for some time. We submitted detailed written evidence and Woodland Trust CEO Beccy Speight was among those who gave oral evidence. We welcomed the Committee’s report when it was published back in March challenging the Government on planting rates and loss of ancient woodland.
The Government’s response was an important opportunity therefore to communicate a real sense of purpose for woods and trees as we forge a new policy for land use to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and, crucially, changes are made to the National Planning Policy Framework following the Housing White Paper – offering the opportunity to strengthen ancient woodland protection.
The problem with the Government response as it stands is that whilst it acknowledges the problems, there is little clarity about what is going to happen next.
On ancient woodland for example, it restated the position of the Housing White Paper that there is a desire to move to protection equivalent to that offered to the green belt. But as the Woodland Trust has set out to government – with the benefit of legal opinion – however well-intentioned this may be it won’t do the job when it comes to delivering real protection that works on the ground. We warmly welcomed the manifesto commitment to strengthen protection for ancient woodland as the breakthrough for the campaigning work of the Woodland Trust and the supporters it represents. But unless the same protection is offered to ancient woodland as that enjoyed by the built heritage, we will continue to lose it at an alarming rate (over 500 ancient woods are under threat in England at present) and the manifesto commitment will have been watered down to something which is merely presentational.
On planting, the response acknowledges some of the criticisms made around landowner engagement, such as the complexity of the grant application process and the desire for an integrated land scheme covering both agriculture and forestry. But a greater boldness about the opportunities for tackling low woodland cover offered by both the development of a new land use policy to replace the CAP and the forthcoming 25 year plan for the environment – and a sense of how we might get there – is disappointingly lacking. The Government’s Clean Growth Strategy published last week was more promising in this regard – including as it did a welcome reference by the Prime Minister in the first paragraph of the foreword to the importance of protecting forests.
The kind of ambition shown by the Natural Capital Committee in its recent advice on the 25 year plan to the Secretary of State, Michael Gove is what we want to see informing policy at this crucial time. We welcome, therefore, the Chair of the Committee, Neil Parish, writing to Michael Gove and pressing for greater clarity.
What needs to happen next?
The 25 year plan needs to really show some ambition about acting on the evidence base when it comes to expansion of tree cover. It needs to embrace the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee along with the Woodland Trust's call for a new Northern Forest which will bring a strong and much needed natural environment dimension to the Northern Powerhouse. These actions in turn need to pave the way for an Agriculture Bill and new land use policy that will break down the old barriers between forestry and farming and incentivise landowners to plant far more trees for the many public benefits they offer.
When it comes to ancient woodland protection the stakes are incredibly high at the moment. The Government is currently considering the responses it received to its consultation on the Housing White Paper this summer – including 15,000 from Woodland Trust supporters – and we expect to see its proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework set out in the new year. That means the issue of ancient woodland protection is being looked at right now! It's crucial that government understands the urgent need to amend planning guidance. Show your support by adding your name to our Enough Is Enough campaign.