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Woodland Trust at the Labour Party conference

This week Brighton gave a sunny welcome to the Labour Party for its annual conference, and the palm trees lining the glistening seafront weren’t the only cause for some autumnal tree-related cheer.

The Woodland Trust held a rousing event on the fringes of the conference, with speakers Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister; Huw Irranca-Davies MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee; Cllr Rory Palmer, Deputy Mayor of Leicester and Chair of the Leicester Health and Wellbeing Board; and Katharine Knox, Programme Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Titled ‘Natural Capital: Bringing the good life to all with woods and trees’, the event was chaired by Austin Brady, Conservation Director at the Trust.

Natural capital as a route to climate justice

Kicking off the debate, Austin explained the concept of natural capital as the natural systems which deliver priceless resources and social benefits, underlining how trees and green spaces situated close to people can help health and well-being and add value to developments and infrastructure.

Katharine Knox built on this by explaining how natural capital can help to mitigate the effects of climate change, which fall disproportionately on the lowest-income households in society.

Drawing on her work on climate justice, she explained how deprived areas on the front line of flooding and extreme weather, for example, could benefit from carefully located natural capital investment, in particular in the form of trees and woods, and welcomed the work of the Woodland Trust in helping to make this happen.

Difficult circumstances…

In response, Rory Palmer painted rather a bleak picture of the state of local government finances, and, with the upcoming Spending Review expected to herald further cuts to local authority funding, argued it will be even less a case of “doing less, with less”, and more a case of “doing nothing, with nothing”.

However, he said there were opportunities for local authorities to take advantage of, including building alliances with organisations like the Woodland Trust and making good use of Health and Wellbeing Boards, given that public health is now at the forefront of the local agenda.

He called for a joined-up approach involving local spatial planning as well as MPs and local businesses to face this challenge head on and to advance progressive environmental policies at a local level.

… but cause for optimism

Huw Irranca-Davies sounded an optimistic note by citing the revival of cod stocks in the North Sea as evidence it is possible to reverse trends even in challenging circumstances if science, business and politics worked together.

He said he wanted to return to ambitions under the previous Labour government, when hundreds of thousands of trees were planted and over 100 new woodlands were created, and said the valuing of eco-system services should be key to policymaking in development.

Huw credited the Government with having responded positively to many of the recommendations of the Natural Capital Committee, including committing to a long-term plan for nature; accepting the need for monitoring and for getting natural capital into their normal accounting practices by 2020; revising economic assessments; and the extension of the Natural Capital Committee until the end of this Parliament.

However, he questioned who would monitor these commitments over the long term and whether the political will was there to ensure that government departments are sufficiently connected up to deliver. He also called for natural capital to be built into infrastructure plans, and stressed the importance of funding.

The most important machines on the planet

Outlining the myriad of benefits brought by woods and trees, Barry Gardiner dubbed trees as “the most important machines on the planet”.  However, he warned of a big difference between planting for commercial forestry, which had been found to generate negative value, and planting near to towns and cities, which could bring huge benefits.

Barry mourned the loss of the Labour Party manifesto’s commitments on woodland policy after the party lost the previous general election, saying “some things are sacrosanct, and our policy on woodlands was one of them.” He said this policy included giving the Forestry Commission new statutory powers to protect and maximise ecosystem services provided by trees; increasing woodland cover to 15 per cent; and configuring woodlands close to population centres in order to maximise access.  

“Some things are sacrosanct, and our policy on woodlands was one of them.”
Barry Gardiner MP

Barry also warned of the “complete devastation of ancient woodland by HS2”, and said the Government’s proposals to plant more trees in compensation showed a lack of understanding of the importance of heritage woodland.

He warned that without a proper valuation of natural capital, we won’t get economic growth or sustainability, and noted: “These are things that we don’t talk about on the conference floor, but they make such a difference to people”. 

From the floor

The debate was then opened up to questions from the floor, with contributions from Angela Smith MP, Baroness Young of Old Scone, the WWF, as well as local councillors and party members.

These included questions around support available at a local level for woodlands at risk from local planning (to which Austin Brady replied that the Woodland Trust provides tool kits, as well as a national network of volunteers); about confidence among the panel regarding the Sustainable Development Goals and the Government’s commitment to meet them; about incentives to plant trees on the greenbelt; about fracking and about the low levels of designation of ancient woodland as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

Attendees were given a copy of the Woodland Trust’s new publication, Woodland indicators by parliamentary constituency (PDF, 3.6MB) – why not take a look and see how your constituency fares?

The Woodland Trust will also be holding events at the Conservative and SNP conferences.

Watch this space for more party conference updates