Minutes of the APPG meeting 3 February 2021
Lord Carrington, Lord Framlingham, Simon Baynes MP, Jason McCartney MP (Chair), Caroline Nokes MP, Ruth Jones MP, Geraint Davies MP, Alixe Buckerfield de la Roche (Parliamentary staffer), Navendu Mishra MP, Fiona Bruce MP, Margaret Greenwood MP, Ronnie Cowan MP, Dr Lisa Cameron MP, Dr George McGavin, Mrs Caroline Pereira, Dr Darren Moorcroft, Dr James Cooper, Pete Leeson.
Apologies: Chris Green MP, Caroline Ansell MP, Baroness Bennett and Derek Thomas MP.
Jason McCartney gave his introductions and mentioned future events that the APPG would be looking to run including one on green finance and that an invitation would be circulated to Alok Sharma.
Dr Darren Moorcroft opened the discussion on COP26. He began by highlighting the opportunities this year presents and hailed the USA's new administration's openness to tackling climate change. He also highlighted the importance of trees for health, wellbeing, the economy and societal good.
Dr James Cooper said this year provides an opportunity for the UK to show environmental leadership domestically. There is an important role for groups like this APPG (Woods and Trees) to ensure strong domestic leadership is delivered alongside strong international commitments. The England Tree Strategy is a vital measuring bar of this domestic leadership. The new Nature for Climate Fund and how it is deployed is key. The PM's statement at the launch of the Dasgupta Review was that the baton has now been passed onto policy makers to deliver for nature. It is important to remember that genuine importance must be accorded to nature to ensure the green recovery isn't just seen as green energy (although that is an important part of it). The PM's 10-point environment plan had only one point about nature, but it was a point that recommitted the Government to its tree targets. It was also encouraging that in the PM's addressing of the Liaison Committee his message about nature as well as climate was strong. His focus on nature-based solutions is a key part of ensuring wider inclusivity which also fits with the Woodland Trust's own vision for COP26.
Dr Cooper continued and emphasized that it is vital that the Government adopt the Climate Change Committee's views on climate change. Projects like the Northern Forest show how the natural environment goes hand in hand with the levelling up agenda. If building back better means anything then it must deliver on three areas:
- Protecting ancient woodlands
- Stop importing tree diseases on stock that can be grown in the UK
- To put appropriate native trees into our towns, cities and countryside outside of woods.
The Woodland Trust's own work and research shows that doing this helps to store carbon and increase resilience to extreme weather.
The Environment Bill is key to the delivery of the domestic environmental agenda. It is very regrettable that it has stalled, it is important that it be improved during this time. Dr Cooper hailed the opportunities offered by New Clause 5 to the Bill, which sought a target to be set around reversing the decline of nature by 2030 at the latest. He called for it to be adopted by the Government as a signal of domestic ambition matching global rhetoric.
The second area that needed to be looked at was green finance. This has been identified as key for delivering the aims of COP26. As part of this move, the Treasury (HMT) will soon launch its first green bond focussing on energy and transport. A further bond promoting landscape scale projects would help trees and forests. Dr Cooper proposed that a joint session with the APPG for Sustainable Finance could be a good way of promoting this agenda along with the National Infrastructure Bank also funding green infrastructure. He went on to reiterate the importance of inviting Alok Sharma to the APPG to emphasise the importance of this unified message for the world stage.
3. The role of trees in providing nature-based solutions to flood alleviation
Following the discussion on COP26, Jason McCartney MP moved to the second item on the agenda. He emphasised the importance of Pete Leeson's presentation to him personally given constituency issues around flooding in Colne Valley and neighbouring constituencies.
Pete Leeson introduced himself and his role at the Woodland Trust. He set out that his aim is to produce landscape scale change. When it comes to natural flood management (NFM), he highlighted that the Woodland Trust has a decade of experience in dealing with flood management in Cumbria and is working in many other places as well. He stressed there were three things to bear in mind in any discussion of NFM:
- NFM works
- NFM can be the ultimate buy one get one free policy as it twins carbon sequestration and nature restoration projects
- NFM needs a national champion as it often sits in opposition to existing mindsets of land management.
In NFM the aim is to slow the flow of water from A to B. Multiple mechanisms are at work.
- interception of water
- storage (occurs when water is slowed down and held)
- recycling (when water is reevaporated from surfaces).
Tree planting, hedgerows and land management are vital tools. Hedgerows planted across a slope can slow flows and increase water percolation in the soil. Vegetation creates opportunities for the 3 previously stated aims. He praised the work being done by Professor Nick Chappell in this area which includes his Q-NFM study at Lancaster University assessing the ability of trees to deliver on these 3 aims. A vital point to remember is that as long as relative humidity is below 100% water will be evaporated by trees whatever the weather.
Scalability is very important so of course woodland will have better effects than grazed pasture or individual trees (though the latter is very important still). Hedgerows across water pathways and riparian woodlands slow down the flow and add friction into the system.
The experience from delivering NFM is that it is often a by-product of other actions in the area such as peat restoration and other habitat restoration. Peat restoration is an important cog in the nature-based solutions approach because it will store more carbon and water. We find that NFM measures at a landscape scale also map onto drought resistance delivering added benefit.
Restoration efforts need to be delivered at scale. The Co-op Society in its post-Desmond report showed that 2,200km of open watercourses were visible in the 1800s and this is now 3,300km with the clear implications for cities like Carlisle with faster water transportation hitting the cities. The higher up the catchment water can be stored means it is easier to deal with.
Pete highlighted that his role has delivered more than 1,500 projects and put 2 million trees in the ground. Much of the work pertinent to NFM has been carried out on common ground because of the opportunities to significantly impact flood benefits. Because of the conflicts between personal and public cost gain these are very difficult areas to work. One such project is the 1,040ha Tebay Common project which has seen 60,000 trees planted, covering 12% of the common land in that area. The benefits of NFM were immediately observable from studying the effects of trees. Leaky dams and peat restoration has also been delivered on this site. It is an example of true partnership, with the Woodland Trust leading with support from Cumbria Wildlife Trust and the Lune Rivers Trust working with farmers and Natural England working well together. Together these measures are reported to be lowering peak flows during storm surges.
Pete stressed that NFM requires a land management framework to exert a public good's approach so that it champions over personal/private obstructions. He laid out some of the existing conflicts being that where you may be grazing animals, you want dry ground for the animals to reduce foot rot and to facilitate sileage production. Furthermore, dry land is more saleable and lettable to tenant farmers. This has been the message for the past 300 years in farming which has seen rivers straightened and dredged to remove some of the hazards it poses to grazing efforts.
What is needed to change this mindset is an education for landowners backed up by consistent public messages. Public messaging after the Cumbria 2015 floods was not consistent.
Pete raised some concerns about proposals he has seen for pure conifer plantations. On the face of it, it looks like a win-win with quick carbon sequestration and growth for rapid tree establishment. However, there are issues around the regular felling cycles of conifers, including the damage that is done to the soil with regular felling at scale which can lead to substantial nitrogen losses. To minimise this a better approach would be planting of mixed woodlands including the integration of conifers into these different woodlands.
More than anything there need to be trusted people on the ground to help deliver solutions to individual situations. A long-term investment approach in people is required to deliver this activity. One sign of real hope is regenerative farming where innovative farmers are leading the way forward. This is particularly relevant for both biodiversity and water management because of the reduction of inputs from fertiliser etc and back to basics soil management to improve soil carbon and soil biodiversity. In Cumbria the Woodland Trust is working with innovative farmers and their approach to soils is very important for water retention which in turn reduces flood peaks.
Jason McCartney MP asked a few questions.
How do we make this long-term thinking? A lot of investment is in infrastructure and physical barriers - how do we turn this short-term immediacy into long term planning which is what NFM is all about?
Pete said that there are massive challenges in terms of land management because of the ways we decide businesses, especially farming businesses should work. the short-term public financing of this is a challenge. 5-year schemes under Countryside Stewardship to plant trees don't work because that window is too small. We need to fund these programmes for longer.
More consideration is needed about the need to start at the top of the hill as well when it comes to NFM delivery. The restoration of peatland has been slow so far, but it needs to be improved if other NFM measures further down the valley are to be effective. It is a landscape scale job.
Ronnie Cowan MP asked a question about the situation in Inverclyde. What timescale did Pete envision before widespread benefit is noticeable from NFM/plantation projects?
Pete said there will be an immediate benefit, but it is a long-term game which could take 20 years to deliver. Storage remained an important consideration in any NFM scheme and this could the development of leaky dams and natural storage basins. However, this can't be done on steep slopes so there needs to be a mixture of built work and natural measures.
Ronnie Cowan MP returned to a question about peatland management. He asked how long will it take to restore a substantial area to effective storage?
Pete says it can be done but timing is difficult to quantify.
Dr Moorcroft followed this up and emphasised the importance of green finance to resolve some of these questions. Bringing understandings of tackling carbon together through the lenses of people and nature is vital. Hard infrastructure models depreciate overtime whereas NFM improves with age. The right balance is required.
Jason McCartney MP made an important contribution about work he had been doing with Farming for Moorland which has seen him planting sphagnum mosses with Yorkshire Water and the National Trust.
Lord Framlingham praised the presentation. One of the problems as he sees it is the land that has been concreted over - like in Ipswich.
Firstly, he asked a question on flooding looking at how trees prevent flooding. While appreciating many of the reasons for having trees in the ground, trees take water out of the land in the summer so how is this conflict married? In the winter when it is wet and deciduous trees have no leaves, so how do trees have any effect when it really gets very wet then?
Secondly a question on farmers. Farmers have been 'improving' the land by increasing productivity for all of our benefit for many decades. What is the effect of farmers rewetting the land on food production and feeding the nation?
Pete said these questions encapsulated many of the issues facing the nation and the NFM discussion. In terms of land management, the regenerative farming sector holds the key to unlocking many of these answers. The minimum-till approaches and increasing soil carbon content are significant factors to improving the water-retaining ability of fields as fields that store more water naturally are vital. Arable systems incorporating more stock back into their systems provides more productive systems that store more water. There is big work in agriculture in this area.
A particular issue in the uplands is the compaction of soils that has happened from centuries of grazing and hoof-tread. Trees de-compact the soils which helps to improve percolation. Addressing the point about deciduous trees losing leaves, it is true that it happens in winter but the thing to remember is that a tree has a much bigger surface area than a blade of grass so even without leaves a tree will intercept and retain more water and provide more opportunity for water recycling.
Lord Framlingham appreciated the answers and said that there was a great need for both sides to understand the complexity of the other’s. In East Anglia there is a need to feed trees into complicated agricultural system that have become more complex as generations have gone on.
Dr George McGavin was pleased about the important points made about hedgerows. He proceeded to make a point about the need for joining up hedgerows to enable them to act as important wildlife corridors as well as capitalising on their slowing the flow features. Vital corridors need to be looked after a little bit better. Farmers and landowners should be encouraged to maintain them better than flailing them to an inch of life.
Pete agreed with this view. He hailed the work with Get Cumbria Buzzing to get more hedgerows planted there. Tens of thousands of hedge plants are planted every year. Hedgerows are an easy sell in stock lands but public policy needs to reflect this and their proper management. Dr Moorcroft pointed out that the Woodland Trust works with landowners to plant 100,000m of hedgerows a year.
Lord Framlingham added that this debate highlighted the vital need for seeing the other side of the problem. Nowadays a flailed hedge cutter will do in 10 minutes what it took 2 months for farmers to do by hand. There is an outstanding issue of financing farmers doing good work for the long term which is vital.
Geraint Davies MP added that he believed this area is particularly interesting. He highlighted his own interest as he was in charge of flood management across Wales from 2005-2010. As such he fully backs NFM approaches to flood risk management. The EFRA Committee, on which he sits, is about to publish a report to reference the need to work with natural capital for risk management. He then asked if any consideration had been given to blue carbon for carbon storage and flood prevention?
Might this group consider the use of wood itself as an alternative to concrete for building, given the sizeable emissions generated from concrete production?
He went on to reference the work of Tony Coleman from Cambridge University who is doing research on the replacement of concrete with wood on construction projects.
Dr Moorcroft responded on the point around blue carbon and stressed the importance in looking at all the natural solutions at our disposal. Things like seagrass have a role to play in that. He also acknowledged that the point about concrete being replaced with sustainably sourced wood is valid. The key thing to recognize is we use too much concrete in comparison with structural timber. We could grow more and do it in a sustainable way to lock up carbon. This would be a better approach than burning the timber 30 years down the line as happens now with pallets and fences.
Ronnie Cowan MP raised a point about the importance of hedgerows and asked if hemp could be used as a product for land management? He praised the multi-use of the plant for plastic, clothing and soil.
Dr Moorcroft responded by saying that he wasn't aware of any data saying it's good or bad but suspect its ultimate value is around the management as, like the crops we grow at present, you can do it in an environmentally sensitive way or you can do it intensively. It was noted it would be interesting to learn more and said that more information could be sourced and passed on to Mr Cowan.
Geraint Davies MP expressed interest in producing sustainable plastic from hemp. If we have natural solutions, this group could be looking at them. Jason McCartney MP added that he is very keen on wider sustainability. A possibility was mentioned that we could widen our reach into more areas as we look at COP26.
Geraint Davies MP proposed that it might be worth considering asking Tony Coleman to come and have a meeting about that and also a discussion about plastic and hemp further down the road. This point was noted.
Members were thanked for attending and the meeting concluded.