Parliamentary: Toby Perkins MP, Trudy Harrison MP, Simon Baynes MP, Barry Gardiner MP, Margaret Greenwood MP, Lord Carrington, Lord David Clark of Windermere, the Bishop of Ipswich.

External: Anna Brown (Forestry Commission), Cathy Maguire (Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)).

Woodland Trust: Dr James Cooper, Joe Piercy, Rosie Beardmore, Andy Allen.

Apologies: Earl of Caithness.

The meeting began with the AGM whereby Trudy Harrison MP was elected as Chair by a unanimous vote. Simon Baynes MP was elected as Vice Chair and Catherine West MP and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle were elected as Officers in absentia, all by unanimous votes.

After this, the meeting moved on to the main topic of discussion which was tree planting and woodland creation. The new Chair, Trudy Harrison, introduced this by outlining the current ambition to achieve 16.5% tree cover by 2050 across Britain, with England needing to plant 10,000 hectares of tree canopy cover every year to achieve this target. Trudy Harrison called this an “incredible undertaking” and said that last year was the best year for a generation in terms of tree planting but noted that there is a long way to go to achieve 10,000 hectares. Harrison spoke about the UK’s reliance on timber imports, with only 19% being grown within the country. Harrison then called on Cathy Maguire to talk about the OEP’s recent progress report.

OEP’s Progress Report

Cathy began by stating that the progress report is an integrated assessment of England’s environment, evaluating progress against targets and commitments set out by the Government and the actions that it describes. She explained that the Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) is a way to achieve the Government's commitment to leave the natural environment in a better shape than they found it. She said the OEP answered questions such as “is England’s natural environment improving”, “what is working well”, “what is holding back progress” and “how can this be improved to deliver better environmental outcomes”. Macguire explained how the OEP reached its conclusions for the progress report, which showed that there has been some progress, but substantial challenges remain, and that the Government is largely off track to meet targets and other commitments.

Cathy highlighted common themes found in the OEP’s report, including the announcement of key policies and strategies and regulatory frameworks from Government but that these are not developed further or delivered, as well as the Government introducing actions that do not address all major pressures. Cathy added that resources are not given as needed even when tools and actions are understood, and this is evident with biodiversity and non-native species.

Cathy argued that the urgency with which positive actions are being implemented is not enough and gave the example of tree planting. Cathy said there needs to be a shift in emphasis from visions and goals to actions focused on delivery and things need to speed up and scale up with transparency on the quantifiability of goals.

On woods and trees specifically, Cathy said there is an emphasis in the OEP’s report to have further action to achieve goals related to woodland creation, tree planting and woodland management. She argued that there is currently too much uncertainty on nature friendly farming to measure woods and trees outside of woodland target, despite this being a key mechanism for meeting many targets and its important relationship with tree planting. Cathy raised concerns that after the Tree Action Plan ends, ELMS seems to be the only mechanism in the EIP to deliver tree planting. She echoed the National Audit Office’s findings that once within ELMS, tree planting will be competing with many other priorities and there isn’t certainty about how landowners will respond to the different options available.

On opportunities for improvement, Cathy said there needs to be the development and publication of a plan for increasing woodland and tree canopy cover beyond 2025, and incentives need to be in place for tree planting and woodland establishment under ELMS.

Furthermore, nature friendly farming schemes need to be effective and support investment by farmers and landowners with a focus on improving management of woodlands.

Trudy then introduced Andy Allen of the Woodland Trust.

Woodland Trust’s position on tree planting and woodland creation

Andy Allen began by stating there is going to be a significant challenge to achieve 16.5% tree canopy cover by 2050. He said the Woodland Trust supports ambitious woodland establishment targets and its introduction marks a significant step forward. Andy said that the Trust supports the move away from simply talking about hectares of trees towards canopy cover as urban trees and agroforestry all count towards this. He said that the Trust is disappointed that the consultation was originally for a target of 17.5%, which is what the organisation was asked to comment on, and there was a recalculation on existing tree canopy cover from 14.5% to 15%. This means that targets have gone from increasing tree cover from 14.5% - 17.5% to
15% to 16.5%.

Andy said the Trust was keen to see a qualitative target that focuses on benefits to nature and climate alongside a quantitative target, which seems more focused on climate. He argued that a lot of woodland establishment does not appear in official statistics, for example those planted by conservation volunteers, natural colonisation and the Crown Estate’s work. He said these “are not trifling amounts” and get us closer to achieving targets. Andy added that alongside the availability of grants to support woodland creation, land availability is also an issue as well as convincing landowners to establish trees on their land; trees are long-term commitments.

On why the targets and progress is important, Andy highlighted the impact this has on funding, stating that if it appears that large amounts of public money are not being translated into trees planted and targets being achieved, the Treasury is less likely to provide money in the future. He said that there needs to be an emphasis on the progress actually made and the time and effort put into investing into the sector. Andy also spoke about the Climate Change Committee’s seventh carbon budget and baseline assumptions about woodland establishment in the future.

He said that at the moment, the baseline is there will be 30,000 hectares by 2025 but we are not going to meet this, and it would take out the energy and momentum built over the last few years. Andy argued that this momentum creates investment in the sector, research and the money put into nurseries. He suggested the implementation of a smarter metric that captures schemes not currently captured in Forestry Research’s work.

Andy concluded by saying that the Trust wants to see a replacement Trees Action Plan in the next  government to cover things like landscape scale creation, protection and restoration which is equally as important, as well as skills.

Trudy Harrison introduced Anna Brown and briefly spoke about the impact of tree disease on tree planting efforts.

Forestry Commission’s position on tree planting and woodland creation

Anna began by talking about the “lag phase” every time a new grant comes in, which she said impacts the England Woodland Creation Delivery Target as people need to understand what the new grant means for them and their land. Anna called the target “really challenging” and agreed with Cathy that the country is not going fast enough. She said she finds it frustrating that, despite the climate and biodiversity crisis, there isn’t an emergency response that everyone is taking seriously. She highlighted the 40% increase in 2023 from the previous year on tree planting rates and argued that, though it isn’t at the right level, the trajectory is positive.

Anna said that money is the predominant reason to encourage landowners to change direction and spoke about the new rates under the England Woodland Creation Offer whereby stackable payments which include biodiversity and water quality mean there is up to an additional 12,700 per hectare that landowners can get. She outlined the maintenance payments which have been increased from £350 to £400 for 15 years, with the aim being that at 15 years landowners can make money on timber. Anna argued that not enough of the 1.3 million hectares of existing woodland is under management which makes it difficult to manage deer and squirrels.

Anna said that there are other figures that are trying to be achieved, including food security and timber security, and neither should trump the other. She also spoke about the need for diversity in trees with a mix of native broadleaves, conifers, non-native broadleaves and non-native conifers, arguing that without this tree disease will wipe through the country.

Anna spoke about the work the FC has been doing with Natural England which makes the case for trees and explains the types of trees they want to see. She said it would be good for the Woodland Trust and other NGOs to work on a statement to work out a case for trees. Anna also highlighted the introduction the woodland creation fast track which offers a 12-week turnaround for applications that plant in low sensitivity areas and are UKFES compliant. She added that there will also be an extra £1100 per hectare for these applications. Trudy said it would be great to promote this across the board.

Anna raised Andy’s 16.5% target and the Trust’s concerns that it isn’t ambitious enough and that the 17.5% was preferable. She argued that people misquote this figure, and the actual target is “at least” 16.5% which means people should be aiming higher than that. She also asked for more information on the additional 5000 hectares that Andy said may have been planted during this Parliament.

Labour Party’s position on tree planting and woodland creation

Shadow Defra Minister for Labour, Toby Perkins MP discussed what a Labour Government would do for nature. He started by reiterating what Andy said about the introduction of a tree planting target being a positive step forward. He highlighted the OEP’s findings that the Government is offtrack to meet environmental ambitions and said a priority for Labour will be providing more detail and addressing the OEP’s recommendations. Toby argued that a plan is only as good as its implementation regarding the species abundance target and said there is a sense that the Government has let this part of the EIP drift and is at risk of missing the first set of legally binding targets set out in the Environment Act 2021. Toby said Labour sees nature as a vital component of the country’s heritage and wellbeing and it will be a priority for a future Labour Government.

Toby stated that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and said that sustainable management of trees and woodlands can play a significant part in reversing trends. He acknowledged that for commercial forestry and native woodland species, tree cover is increasing but not fast enough to meet the statutory commitments of 16.5% target. Toby said the focus should not just be on conifers and there needs to be breadth of tree cover. He stated that the sector needs to be confident that there is going to be consistency in approach and though Labour agreed with the Government’s approach they are concerned about whether they are on target to be achieved. Toby said another priority for a Labour Government will be to find replacements for the England Trees Action Plan and the Nature for Climate Fund. Toby called for greater political leadership locally and nationally to ensure money is spent on nature and climate schemes, referring to the Nature for Climate Fund returning £77 million to the Treasury last year. Toby also highlighted the importance of nursery supplies, biosecurity and skills. He said the cost of underachieving on tree planting goes beyond the restoration of nature and capturing carbon, failure to achieve these targets also exacerbates inequalities. Toby concluded by stating that the intentions of this APPG are ones that are absolutely consistent with the Labour Party.

Anna was asked how the current Secretary of State for Defra, Steve Barclay MP, could be encouraged to meet these targets before the end of Parliament. Anna said that the APPG works for all parties because trees are apolitical. She picked up on Toby’s comments about not focusing on just conifers, saying that the tables have been turned too far, and to hit the net zero tree planting target, there needs to be 30% conifer within that, and the country is struggling to hit 10%. Following on from this, Ana was asked if the UK has got to a point where there will be no net loss of conifers. Anna said that the UK has important things like the PAWS restoration and open habitat restoration, and though she is supportive of both it means a lot of conifers are removed so you need to consider that no net loss of conifers and we need to plant 30% to hit net zero.

There was a discussion about the importance of this for the timber industry and Anna spoke about the impact of drought and the larger eight-toothed European spruce bark beetles on trees in Eastern Europe and Germany. Anna said there have been cases of this disease in the South of England and praised the Woodland Trust’s involvement in managing this. She critiqued the idea of native species, arguing that it is based on an arbitrary point in time and that with a changing climate the UK will have to look further south, whilst keeping natives. Anna made a suggestion to get the woodland carbon code into Emissions Trading Scheme and the upcoming consultation on that point.

A question was asked about the Natural Capital Framework for uptake and maintenance work and whether the FC has taken this into consideration for deciding where to plant. Anna said that regarding the England Woodland Creation grant there are additional contributions for those who plant trees closer to urban areas and encourage access to woodlands. She highlighted the work of Forestry Research on the impact of woods and trees on physical health, social prescribing, mental health, crime rate, and spending rates in city centres. She stated however, that the natural capital model doesn’t look at the utilisation of timber and anyone can plant a tree, but it is about managing those trees, making sure pests are controlled, squirrels and deer are controlled to turn trees into products. She added that this model assumes low utilisation.

Another attendee asked how skills and training can be achieved at a local level. Anna said that the FC has a degree level apprenticeship which in recent years has had over 800 applications for 15 places. She said this has led to other industry places becoming available, the FC having kickstarted this programme and pushing this forward more widely. Anna stated that there are jobs for everyone in the industry and this needs to be promoted.

Trudy Harrison brought the meeting to a close and thanked the outgoing Chair, Simon Baynes MP, for steering the APPG in the right direction.