Let’s use Brexit to make tree planting rates shoot up
By Sam Hall, senior research fellow at Bright Blue.
Brexit, and the UK’s departure from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), present an historic opportunity to increase levels of forest cover. The EU-determined rules governing the current system of rural payments do not effectively support domestic UK priorities, such as increased tree planting. In its post-Brexit system of agricultural support however, the UK Government can and should align the funding with the goals set out in its 25-year environment plan.
There is a clear need for greater ambition on forestry. Current planting rates lag well behind what are required to meet the Government’s manifesto commitment of 11 million new trees in this Parliament. In fact, with forestry covering just 13% of the UK’s total land area compared to the EU average of 38%, there is a strong case for attempting to exceed this.
These sluggish planting rates mean the UK is missing out on the multitude of public and private benefits that woodland provides. Trees create and sustain vital ecosystems that enable diverse wildlife and nature to flourish. In the uplands, they help improve soil and water quality, while slowing water flows which reduces flood risk. Downstream, in cities and towns, they help to absorb harmful air pollution, protecting public health. Trees are also an important economic resource in the tourism, leisure, and timber industries, while storing carbon dioxide which mitigates climate change.
In May 2017, Bright Blue launched a new campaign calling on the Government to commit to improved tree planting grants as part of its post-Brexit agriculture policy. This call, published in the Daily Telegraph, was backed by a range of voices from Confor and the Woodland Trust, to CPRE and the National Trust. One of the issues that the campaign highlighted is how CAP currently disincentivises farmers from planting more trees because their direct payments get reduced as they assign more land to forestry.
Moving in the right direction
Happily, there are signs the Government will rationalise these poorly designed incentives for farmers and landowners after Brexit. In his Green Brexit speech in July 2017, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, explicitly mentioned woodland creation as a priority for future support as farm payments become reoriented towards delivering public goods. The Government’s recent Clean Growth Strategy also suggested this new mechanism of agricultural support would be used to encourage a new network of forests that can help with meeting legally-binding climate change targets.
As the UK exits CAP, Bright Blue is urging the Government to replace inefficient food production subsidies with a market-based mechanism for commissioning ecosystem services that is integrated with our policies to protect the natural environment. The market provides farmers with a price for food without needing subsidies. Public funds, therefore, should be targeted at where the market fails to deliver important public goods. Woodland creation should be a priority for this new system because it can provide multiple benefits.