Navendu Mishra MP, Catherine West MP, Ian Byrne MP, Lord Blencathra, Lord Benyon, Lord Carrington, Baroness Young of Old Scone, Simon Baynes MP, Jason McCartney MP, Theresa Villiers MP, Iain Dow (representative for Dr Lisa Cameron MP), Minesh Parekh (representative for Olivia Blake MP) and Kay Haw (representative for the Earl of Kinnoull).

Apologies: Kerry McCarthy MP, Michael Fabricant MP, Kirsten Oswald MP, Tony Lloyd MP, Baroness McIntosh and Baroness Bennett. Several of these had expressed a desire to become Vice Chairs. 

1. Introductions

The Chair welcomed all members to the meeting of the APPG for Woods and Trees. He explained that before turning to the report and discussion items on the agenda, AGM activity needed to take place. 

2. AGM

Jason McCartney MP was nominated as Chair by Simon Baynes MP. This decision was proposed by Lord Carrington and seconded by Baroness Young of Old Scone. This appointment was unanimously approved. 

All members on the call, including Michael Fabricant, Kirsten Oswald and Baroness Bennett, were proposed as Vice Chairs by the Chair. This decision was agreed unanimously by all members on the call. 

3. The State of UK Woods and Trees

Dr James Cooper (Woodland Trust), gave a short introduction to the ground-breaking new report by the Woodland Trust, The State of UK’s Woods and Trees 2021, which was published a day earlier and had widespread media coverage. Chris Reid (Woodland Trust) then provided a brief overview of the main findings of the report. 

The State of UK Woods and Trees report is divided into 4 themes. For each theme the key findings and top facts were described in Chris' presentation. 

1. Although woodland cover has been increasing and has nearly tripled in the last 100 years, woodland wildlife is decreasing so it begs many questions. 

    • It raises issues around the impact of non-native tree species planting in the UK and the isolation of existing woodlands. 
    • Trees Outside Woods make up almost 20% of the UK's total tree numbers. Half of the UK's woodland resource is conifer and half are broadleaf. 
    • However, we know the condition of native woodlands is not good. Only 7% of woods are in a good ecological condition. 
    • The consequences of this are dramatic with wildlife declines being the biggest seen since records began. 

2. Woods and trees are vital as we all depend on them in one way or another. 

    • A major benefit is they help us to fight climate change. Research shows that new woodland helps lock up carbon, but it was previously unknown just how much carbon is held by ancient woodlands. 
    • It turns out ancient woodlands hold 37% more carbon than other woods and a lot of this is locked up in their living material and the soils. 
    • Furthermore, ancient woodlands have the potential to sequester more carbon over time. They are not locked in a carbon balance as previously assumed but are instead projected to double carbon stores over the next 100 years. 
    • People don't have good access to woodlands. Only 16% of people live within walking distance of a 2ha wood. I-Tree surveys help to quantify a lot of urban tree benefits. 
    • Since 2017 23% of schools across the UK have planted with the Woodland Trust through the Trees for Schools programme. 

3. Threats to woodland and drivers of change. 

    • The main message from this section of the report is that woods and trees are subject to a huge range of threats including historic such as the plantation of non-native species on ancient woodland sites which continues to have legacy effects, and current and emerging threats like pests and diseases. 
    • Some threats are more recent such as the visible changes to phenology. Spring is now happening 8.4 days earlier than it was in the 1880s and this is having a drastic impact on woodland bird species in particular whose young now miss out on bumper numbers of caterpillars owing to an earlier spring. 
    • Invasive plants and pests are also having massive impacts on woods and trees. Biosecurity at the borders is a key issue to help protect the health of woodlands. 
    • The report goes into detail about a range of other threats but highlights that one of the biggest is still a lack of information or information not being used effectively. This explains why we continue to see such a large loss of irreplaceable ancient woodland despite recent changes to strengthen their protection in the NPPF. 

4. What's being done 

    • The key finding is there is a lot happening with woods and trees and there are many case studies of good things happening, but the scale of the challenge is dwarfing the good works being done. We need to do lots more to tackle this.
    • Deficits exist between targets and delivery on tree planting and protection in all countries of the UK. 
    • One of the actions the report encourages is for planting to be done using UKISG (UK and Ireland sourced and grown) assurance schemes to help maintain biosecurity. There is also an identified need to substantially upscale nurseries producing trees for planting in the UK. 
    • Progress is being made to restore plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS) but more action is needed to deliver a higher transition of areas from PAWS to semi-natural ancient woodlands. 

Chris proceeded to outline 4 areas where evidence suggests we should be heading as a nation:

  1. Expanding woods and trees in the UK and the proportion of native species.
  2. Enhancing and protecting what we've got. 
  3. Improve the evidence so we can monitor more of what's happening on the ground.
  4. Investment into the sector is needed from lots of sources. Collaboration across business, government, NGOs and private landowners will be needed to tackle these issues, which can't be done individually. 

4. Q&A

Jason McCartney MP asked what quick wins exist for the government to act on here and now.

Dr Cooper said that the Environment Bill needs amending to address nature's recovery and this would benefit woodlands. New planning reforms need to protect what we've got and encourage high ambition when it comes to integrating trees into new developments.

The report calls for 30% canopy cover in new developments. The EFRA Committee inquiry into trees and woods is also important and the Chair (Neil Parish MP) is very engaged in this new report so if the findings come across loud and clear this could improve a government response.

We also need more projects like the Woodland Trust’s Heartwood Forest in Hertfordshire which featured on television earlier in the day. The Northern Forest, which works with the grain of the growth and regeneration agenda, also shows the kind of ambition which is possible.

Jason McCartney MP noted the support of himself and a growing number of his colleagues for the proposed ‘State of Nature’ amendment to the Environment Bill.

Chris Reid also emphasised the importance of expanding agroforestry to provide a quick win.  

Theresa Villiers MP made a number of  points. 

  1. The Planning for the Future white paper, depending on how it is interpreted and implemented, could involve radical change to the planning system, including the removal of local input which is helping to protect individual trees and woodland areas so it would be helpful for us as a group to follow this debate in future. 
  2. The second point/question was enquiring over what work is being done on litter in woodland areas. She expressed concern about the damage done to woodland areas by this, especially during lockdown. 

Dr Cooper agreed with these points and expressed the hope that the new plans would be an improvement on those brought forward last year. Regarding the second point he highlighted that the Woodland Trust meets with Defra along with other landowners to discuss a range of impacts of increased visits to sites. Litter issues are certainly a growing area of concern that needs more attention. 

Iain Dow (representative of Dr Lisa Cameron MP) asked if there are individual targets for nature recovery for local authorities to work towards. He is a member of a volunteer group trying to plant trees but said that they were often meeting obstacles more about the maintenance of the trees than the planting. 

Oliver Newham (Woodland Trust) responded by highlighting that the Woodland Trust has a high engagement with local authorities across the country and that one ambition would be for Local Nature Recovery Strategies, if adopted, to be a key player in helping to set regional opportunities for delivering this. Some local authorities have targets but not all. 

Lord Blencathra made a point about additional quick wins for the government. One would be to press government to expand nursery capacity because we import millions of plants. So many diseases including ash dieback come from this process. Since the Agriculture Act allows Government to spend money on farming and related areas, surely there should be some capacity for including nursery expansion in related activities? This would be good for biosecurity, jobs and the country.

Andrew Allen (Woodland Trust) commented that on nurseries we understand that there will be some funding from the Nature for Climate Fund for the nursery sector, but we are unsure of how this will look when the details emerge. 

Simon Baynes MP highlighted the importance of the wide set of May elections in promoting engagement with woods and trees and opportunities to bring new policies to light with the inclusion of woodland in manifestos. He was pleased that so many parties and candidates were addressing this with their pledges to the electorate. Dr Cooper responded that it is heartening to see what is coming through in the manifestoes and encouraging to see what is coming through from the Westminster elections a few years ago. Simon Baynes MP paid tribute to the Woodland Trust for raising this issue up the political agenda. 

Baroness Young asked about new grant systems. She pointed out that the data in the report shows that the quality of our existing woodlands is poor. In order to rectify this we will need to construct a grants system that better incentivises management for the future and how we can develop a hardwood market in the UK. This development will be essential because if woods are only intended to benefit biodiversity then we will spend a fortune on subsidies for this. There is a huge international hardwood market and acting in this way would reduce our imports in it. 

Lord Carrington added that without money none of these ambitious planting programmes will happen so we need government to come up with schemes to help tackle all of the issues raised. 

5. England Tree Action Plan

Andrew Allen provided an update on the England Tree Action Plan, as the England Tree Strategy is now known. He emphasised that the plan, when it comes, will seemingly focus more on delivery more than policy reform. It is at an advanced stage so we are expecting the launch of documents after Purdah. He indicated that it could be produced individually or alongside the Peat Strategy. 

It is expected to cover 4 areas:

  1. Expanding woodlands through the Nature for Climate Fund. 30,000ha of new woodland is the target for planting in England by 2025. The fund is the key source to deliver this and will also improve nursery capacity to help deliver this. Nature, climate and people will need to be brought together by the plan. In the past we have seen pressure coming from hectare targets which has then led to people and nature benefits being missed in the race to grab climate goals of planting. 
  2. Protecting what we've got. This section needs to look at current ecological conditions including the prevention of importing diseases. We are hoping to see more information based on knowledge of existing ancient trees and woods. Data is out of date. Looking for improvements to TPO systems. Also looking for deer management. 
  3. Evidence. The mantra to act on is right tree, right place, right reason. However, we need more evidence to support where these trees go to deliver wider ecosystem benefits. 
  4. Trees and forest economy. We do expect the strategy to talk about the development of commercial timber and the domestic nursery sector. There should also be some stuff on skills improvements in local authorities. In addition there should be more work on developing markets around carbon and water and ecosystem services. 

The expectation is this will be published early-mid May. 

Lord Benyon asked a question of Lord Blencathra. There is an alternative source of income in the area of carbon and biodiversity net gain offsets and credits. However, there are real concerns that Natural England is developing a proposal to set up and run trading platforms for these which could stifle the market and prevent a lot of investment in this area. He asked if this fear was well founded? 

Lord Blencathra responded saying he hopes he is wrong on this as the idea perturbed him too. While Natural England is interested in quality control for organisations involved in this area, he asked Lord Benyon to email him directly so he could raise the matter with the Chief Executive of Natural England. 

He went on to say that he is very keen to see a 10% net gain apply to national infrastructure projects too which are currently exempt. While the House of Lords has tried to enact this legislative change in the past, he urged parliamentarians to try and stimulate this change in the House of Commons. Giving one example, he said getting HS2 to deliver a 10% net gain would be a fractional cost of the overall project but deliver significant environmental benefits. 

6. AOB

Jason McCartney MP noted that there may be a future joint APPG event focusing on sustainable finance. He also informed the group that a letter had been received from Alok Sharma MP following our request that he address this group and that Lord Zac Goldsmith had been identified as the group's conduit to COP26.

He would try and put in place a future session involving Lord Goldsmith and also work through Bim Afolami MP who is co-ordinating Alok Sharma’s engagement with APPGs ahead of COP26.

Jason McCartney MP also highlighted the importance of developing a pipeline of questions for group members to ask at COP questions in Parliament to raise the profile of woods and trees and their role in Alok Sharma's agenda, also with regard to other relevant departmental questions such as Defra and MHCLG. 

Jason McCartney MP expressed sincere condolences for the loss of Dame Cheryl Gillan MP and Lord Greaves, both former members of the APPG, with Dame Cheryl being a Vice Chair in addition to this. Dr Cooper noted her long standing championing of the cause of ancient woodland.

Dr Cooper added a point about the Dasgupta Review. Kemi Badenoch MP is leading the Treasury response. The Treasury is currently asking departments to indicate how they will act on the report’s findings. It is also understood that it has been shared with G7 finance ministers and pretty well received. It is unclear if the Chancellor will appear before Parliament to set out the Government’s response – clarifying this would make for a good PQ from APPG members and the content of the Review itself should also provide a good source of questions for members. He also highlighted that there is a Lords debate on 28 April on this topic led by Baroness Boycott so this might also provide a great chance to raise the State of UK Woods and Trees report and the need to act upon it. 

Andrew Allen also highlighted that in June we expect to see the government produce its biosecurity strategy and consultation. 

The meeting was brought to a close by the Chair at 2:45pm.