Officials were urged to put more faith in professional foresters and cut red tape at the latest meeting of the APPGF.

THE All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting held its first in-person meeting for two years on Tuesday, 26 April – a spring reception and lively political discussion in the Churchill Room at the Houses of Parliament.

Lord Goldsmith, whose broad responsibilities include forestry, addressed a large number of Confor members and other stakeholders, along with Confor chief executive Stuart Goodall and Forestry Commission chair Sir William Worsley. The FC’s chief executive Richard Stanford also contributed to a wide-ranging discussion focused on the UK’s need to plant more wood-producing forests to grow more of its own timber.

The event was attended by 13 parliamentarians, including some engaging with the APPG for the first time – such as Mary Foy (Labour MP for City of Durham), Nick Fletcher (Conservative, Don Valley) and Jonathan Lord (Conservative, Woking).

Ben Lake, Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion, was re-elected as chair of the APPG, along with vice-chairs Deidre Brock and Drew Hendry (SNP), Lord Clark (Labour), Lord Carrington (cross-bench) and Lord Colgrain (Conservative), all in attendance.

Also present were Labour peer Baroness Young (chair of the Woodland Trust), Conservative peers Lord Blencathra and Lord Harlech, and cross-bencher Lord Cameron of Dillington.

Ben Lake MP opened the meeting by expressing delight that the APPG was meeting again in person after so long – but he also thanked the Confor team behind a series of excellent and well-attended online events over the last two years.

He had two key messages: that modern forestry was not about ‘either-or’ choices between wood-producing forests and amenity woodland, and that the UK must take more responsibility for producing its own wood. 

“We must make a long-term decision to grow more of our own timber,” he said. “We cannot carry on relying on importing wood, as rising global demand means this will inevitably increase pressure on fragile fara-way forests. The UK cannot continue to export its forest footprint.”

Forestry Journal: Lord GoldsmithLord Goldsmith

Stuart Goodall reiterated some of the key points made by academic Dr Andrew Cameron at an online meeting of the group in January and hammered home the point about the UK needing to take much greater responsibility for its own future timber supplies.

He said: “A reduction in the availability of UK-grown wood is already baked-in to our future. Official forecasts show that we will have less wood available from the late 2030s than we have now – unless we act and act immediately. If we do act, then we can make a significant difference – for wood supply, biodiversity, levelling up and net zero.

“We have a responsibility to grow more UK wood and all four countries will have to play a part in achieving that.”

Mr Goodall also said the Ukraine crisis threatened to exacerbate wood supply challenges.

He added: “We will always be a huge importer of wood products, and we have a strong regulatory system in place to ensure that the timber we import is from legal and sustainable sources, but other countries aren’t so strict. The pressure on fragile forests overseas will almost certainly increase as pressure on supply increases, and with the war in the Ukraine that imbalance will be felt earlier and harder.

“That raises a vital issue for us here in the UK. Do we adapt to this new reality and produce more of our wood here in the UK or do we seek to maintain strict controls on imports and cherry-pick sustainable timber, leaving other countries with less stringent rules to damage those fragile forests we all want to protect?”

Mr Goodall introduced Lord Goldsmith, who stressed the wide-ranging benefits of tree planting and the challenges of competing land uses. He also recognised the UK was not using enough home-grown timber in construction and must do better.

Lord Goldsmith said: “We are committed to building a lot of homes. We need to use more sustainable material to do so – and we do not use nearly enough timber in this country.

“That can and must change, and we need to be in a position where we can supply that wood and meet that demand.”

Lord Goldsmith also said there was “no credible pathway to net zero that does not involve trees”.

He reiterated the UK government’s ambition to meet its challenging target of planting 30,000 hectares of new woodland annually by the end of this parliament, with England contributing an increasing share of that as laid out in the England Tree Action Plan, published almost a year ago.

Hitting the target will require a huge effort, with current annual planting sitting at less than 14,000 hectares – with 80 per cent of that happening in Scotland.

Lord Goldsmith said the England Woodland Creation Offer was enabling a huge range of different planting, from new native woodland and riparian planting to commercial softwood forests. “Good management of commercial and highly productive woodland can benefit the economy, employment and nature too,” 
he said.

Confor member Charles Bridgeman, manager of Leaton Knolls Estate in Shropshire, urged the minister to put more faith in forestry professionals, who knew which trees thrived in which environments. He said there was far too much bureaucracy in forestry – and Lord Goldsmith agreed. He said bureaucracy should be reserved for the land that needed it, where there was ambiguity about planting (like areas of deep peat, for example), but the default position should be to allow planting in areas where there was no ambiguity. “We will struggle to meet our planting targets unless we bear this in mind,” he said.

Lord Goldsmith had to leave at this point to deliver a speech on Zimbabwe, but promised to contact Charles Bridgeman and arrange to visit his estate.

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After Lord Goldsmith’s departure, several speakers returned to the point that bureaucracy was a real blocker to planting and the large number of investors wanting to plant trees in the UK were in danger of being put off by the challenges and barriers placed in their way.

FC chief executive Richard Stanford said his staff were very nervous about making mistakes with planting applications and part of the problem is the length and complexity of the application form.

Staff were also under pressure to deal with large numbers of applications to plant small areas of woodlands, Richard said. Good quality applications for larger schemes (of 50 hectares or more) would get “gold star treatment” if applicants approached the FC early, he added.

Richard highlighted some of the major issues with forest planting applications as wading bird populations and archaeology and asked: “How much ridge and furrow do we want to protect?” He also noted the need for clearer guidance on wading birds, a point welcomed by Andrew Weatherall, principal policy officer (woodlands and forestry) for the RSPB.

FC chair Sir William Worsley said importing 80 per cent of the UK’s timber was “irresponsible”. He added: “We are going to have a timber shortage quite soon and we need to be looking at productive forestry.”

READ MORE: UK tree planting: George Eustice and Mairi McAllan respond to Forest Research report

David Leslie, joint managing director of James Jones & Sons, said his company was planning an investment of more than £40 million in a sawmill in Durham, but his firm and other wood processors needed certainty of future timber supplies to green-light such large investments.

There was a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, covering a range of issues including the fear that investors could be deterred from investing in forestry because of changes to carbon “additionality” rules which could discriminate against profitable productive planting schemes and result in lost carbon benefits.

Stuart Goodall stressed that wood-producing forests could deliver significant biodiversity benefits and insisted it was time for critics of productive planting to stop making outdated and false comments that they did not deliver for nature. The UK Woodland Assurance Standard demanded this was the case, he said. 

Reflecting on the event, Stuart said: “It was such a pleasure to be meeting face to face again with the minister, MPs and peers, and Confor members, and the topic of the day was extremely pertinent. As the world changes around us, how can we here in the UK take more responsibility for achieving net zero in an environmentally responsible way (both at home and abroad) and unlock the economic benefits of increased wood production and consumption?”