Reaping what we sow
by Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
I don’t need to tell you all how many benefits trees bring to our society. From locking up carbon dioxide, to preventing floods, improving mental health and capturing air pollution, trees are a real boon to our public life.
It’s not just the social or environmental benefits. Trees have measurable economic value. The Natural Capital Committee stated in a recent report that 250,000 hectares of extra woodland generates £500 million of benefits for every year of its existence.
But there’s a problem. England, and the UK as a whole, is well behind on tree planting rates. Just 10% of England is covered by woodland. That compares to 31% for France, 37% for Spain and a total EU average of 38%. We will never reap the benefits if we don’t start planting more trees and woodland.
In March 2017, the EFRA Committee, which I chair, published a report on forestry in England. We urged the Government to be bold and aim for a target of 15% coverage by 2060. At present, the Government only aims for 12% coverage. But at current planting rates the Government will struggle to hit even that.
The Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which provides farm owners and woodland owners with funding for environmental activities - including woodland creation – is not fit for purpose. The whole system is tortuous and complicated, involving the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency. The entire scheme is financed by the EU, adding to the complexity.
And for all its bureaucracy, it’s not boosting tree-planting rates. A mere 700 hectares of woodland were planted last year – far lower than the 5,000 hectares needed annually to even hit the 12% target. Something better is needed.
As with many environmental policies, Brexit offers the chance to create something new. We need to design a one-stop shop for forestry, in which all the funding and administration of forestry is unified in one agency. A simple grant scheme is needed to encourage and support landowners to plant more trees.
Providing more help and support for tree planting marries well with Michael Gove’s aim for post- Brexit subsidies for landowners to encourage ‘environmentally responsible land use’. After Brexit, we can begin to tailor our support systems to boost our natural environment. When the current support regime ends in 2022, landowners will have to compete with other public goods for subsidy. Tree planting should be at the top of the list for receiving support to provide environmental and societal benefits.
A new Agriculture Bill will be published in the New Year to ensure that, as we leave the EU, we have an effective system in place to support farmers and protect our natural environment. The Bill provides a golden opportunity to give farmers comprehensive support to increase tree planting rates. I look forward to scrutinising the Bill – and preceding white paper – in 2018.
So let’s be bold on tree planting and go for the ambitious 15% target. Give farmers the right support and a one-stop shop to get it and our tree planting rates will blossom.