A new name and new faces made for a fresh outlook at the most recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting. Carolyne Locher reports from Westminster.

AS the last gasp of Storm Ciara whipped through the trees bordering Black Rod’s Garden, the entrance to the House of Lords in Westminster, on 11 February, the newly renamed All Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting (APPGFTP) convened for the first meeting of the new parliamentary session.

The meeting’s timing coincided with the Prime Minister making a statement on transport infrastructure (HS2) to the House of Commons, so it seemed unlikely many MPs would attend. Nonetheless, Lord Colgrain, Lord Carrington, Lord Caithness, Lord Clark and Baroness Young (chair of the Woodland Trust) took their seats, as did two young parliamentary civil servants, who explained they write for ‘post’ publications (briefing summaries of public policy issues offering parliamentarians advance knowledge of key issues before they reach the top of the political agenda).

Lord Colgrain, acting chair of the APPGFTP, welcomed all to the meeting and explained it is his role to get this APPG up and running, with former officers “either having lost their seats at the last election or moving to other roles”.

The first order of business was to elect four new APPG office bearers. Ben Lake, MP for Ceredigion (Plaid Cymru), made a timely entrance and agreed to take on the chairman’s role, with Lords Carrington, Caithness, Clark and Colgrain assuming other responsibilities.

The day’s presentation, ‘Forestry and wood processing in the UK: why we need to get tree planting done now’, was given by Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor.

He said: “Following the zeitgeist surrounding tree planting, we are renaming the group. The presentation will give an update on the sector, the interest in planting, and the context.

“During 2019’s general election, trees came to prominence because of ‘net zero’. Previously, climate change aspirations were about reducing emissions. Under net zero, it became about offsetting as well. Tree planting is one opportunity to deliver that.

“Reports written by the UK committee on climate change highlighted this and Theresa Villiers, (then) secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said on January 8th, ‘This was the first election where there was a bidding war between the parties on tree planting’. From our perspective, the bidding war was fantastic. Most ambitious was Labour, who promised two billion trees by 2040. The Liberal Democrats offered 60 million trees a year. The Greens 700 million trees by 2030. The Conservative party offered 30,000 ha by 2030.

“30,000 ha. Is that UK-wide or for England alone? England has, in the last few years, been averaging 1,300 to 1,500 ha a year. Last week, we asked forestry minister Zac Goldsmith what England would commit to. There is no scoop. Our best guess is 9,000 to 10,000 ha a year by 2025 and moving on from there.”

Planting 30,000 ha a year was last achieved in the 1970s. “By 2009 to 2011, we were planting under 3,000 ha a year. Last year, the figure jumped to a total of 13,000 ha, with Scotland planting 11,200 ha in total. To move from that to 30,000 by the end of the decade will be challenging.”

Outlining Confor’s current activities, Stuart said: “In England, we are working regionally, in places like Northumberland, with county councils and local stakeholders to develop local forestry partnerships. At COP 26 in Glasgow, in November, we are looking to work with government on a forestry and timber event, focused on how to deliver tree planting.

“We are launching Wood Co2ts Less, a campaign that says using more wood is actually good for the environment and helping to tackle climate change. Wood locks up carbon. Growing more trees locks up more carbon. The amount of energy required to produce timber is comparatively low and it therefore produces less emissions and is easy to recycle.

“As the second-biggest net importer of wood products in the world after China, we have a global impact and a global responsibility. Using the UK’s forests to produce wood in a sustainable way reduces our global environmental impact. With the global demand for wood set to increase and not many forests being planted across the globe, even a small increase in demand will put pressure on supply. 40 to 45 per cent of our broadleaf resource is undermanaged. Managing woods sustainably has a positive impact for biodiversity, for local employment and for climate change.

“As well as planting, we want more management and more wood products being produced. In the next parliamentary session, we are looking to hold government account on its pledges: tree planting targets and meeting zero-carbon targets. Forestry and wood are part of this and we must get the message out there.”

Parliamentarians can help by holding government to account in Westminster Hall debates and at Prime Minister’s Questions. “We have suggested to Neil Parish, chair of the EFRA committee, that it is time for another inquiry into forestry and tree planting. He did not say no. Speak up for local forest enterprises. On March 24th, Forestry Minister Zac Goldsmith will present the #TheFutureisForestry Essay and Video Prize, which answers a question linked to trees and carbon. Generally, we need to make sure that forestry is kept on the government’s agenda.”

Lord Colgrain opened the Q&A:

Q: We are the second-largest importer of timber and 45 per cent of our broadleaf woodlands are unmanaged. Why, when we have a country that can grow trees, is forestry in such an appalling state?

A: We have lost the cultural connection of managing forests to produce products and the cultural sense that interventions in forests are positive. Plant a forest and everything happens so slowly that we forget where wood products come from. This is changing in Scotland, where we have seen more planting and management. In England, we need to change that understanding so that people do engage and want to manage their woods. If we can change the mindset, we reduce the number of unmanaged woodlands and start to reduce our imports as well.

Q: Surely, a major aspect of this has to be the commercial return? A large forest area will give a return, whereas in a small area in the south of England it is hard to make a commercial return.

A. Wood prices are relatively high now. For unmanaged woodlands, the obstacle is often a lack of access to advice on how to access the timber. Then there is the cost of the additional infrastructure (roading, stacking areas). We have called on government to offer a capital grant for that ‘one off’ infrastructure intervention. Alongside access to advice, people can then start to manage their woods. For relatively small woodlands, this could work.

Q: The planting figures (aspiration) are quite impressive. What are the main blockages?

A. It must be a UK-wide endeavour. Scotland is hoping to plant 12,000 ha this year. Wales has suitable land but no grant scheme in place. When there was £1 million or so, it was hugely oversubscribed, showing the desire to plant a lot more in Wales. In England, we need to change the mindset towards changing the land use. The process of planting permission has to be quicker and the officials must be much bolder, accepting that not everyone will be happy, but that overall it is the right thing to do. We are now in a climate emergency and the evidence is clear: trees lock up carbon. We should get on with it!

Q. Getting permissions quickly would make a difference. For me, it is the scale of what is being asked for. I want a land-use strategy for England. There are many competing demands for land. Friction could be removed by taking a strategic view on the most appropriate use for land and having it deliver multiple benefits rather than just one, otherwise there will be more friction.

A. Availability of land is key. Since leaving the CAP has been confirmed, more in Scotland have expressed interest in planting trees, not by coming out of farming but by diversifying. As of next year, there is 17,000 ha of interest more than there is funding available. In northern England, there is also more interest, but concern that the process is just too long. I am in favour of a regional approach to land use and engaging with local people. We took the NFU to planting sites in Northumberland and they were receptive.

In Wales, we want to avoid planting whole valleys full of trees. There is more employment (and higher-value jobs) in managing trees than in sheep farming, but these jobs don’t appear overnight. Highlighting suitable areas and introducing planting into these areas, you then start that transition of the economy, which is vital and beneficial for farming communities. It is trying to get to the point where people see it as an opportunity and embrace it as a choice. With clear national guidance, you can then target funding and facilitation of the initiative.

Q. Would you agree that, given our past record, 95 per cent of what we are going to plant is never going to reach maturity in a commercial woodland?

A. If we plant, are we going to see that woodland managed on an ongoing basis? We should. Creating a woodland and then walking away is suboptimal. We must address the issue of management. It is linked to future timber income and carbon values. Some will invest and then take a return on the carbon or from the future sale price of the timber.  Without this, we will add to our unmanaged woodland resource.

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