LAST week, the Forestry Commission announced it had made changes to "speed up" the consultation process for woodland-creation grants and felling licences.

FC officials said the alterations significantly improved on an "outdated" method that had been in place for several decades. Paperwork delays have long been blamed by contractors for England's tree-planting woes, with the nation falling well short of its target to create 7,500 hectares of new woodland each year. 

READ MORE: Forestry figures speak out after FC promises to 'speed up' planting process

Richard Stanford, FC chief executive, said: “We are committed to increasing woodland and tree cover in England, in line with government’s targets. 

"We have made improvements to speed up the application process for landowners and farmers to help get more trees growing in the land whilst making sure we adhere to our legal obligations."

What do the changes actually mean? 

Forestry Journal:

While details were a little light in the official announcement – and attempts for more clarity went unanswered – a new blog post on the FC's website has provided a bit more clarity. 

Writing last week, Katy Moseley, the national regulations team manager at the FC, said the alterations will "simplify evidence gathering for forestry proposals and remove duplication in consultation requirements, while still adhering to other environmental legislation and the requirements and good practice guidelines set out in the UK Forestry Standard". 

She went on: "This will help reduce the complexity and length of time it takes to apply for and get approval to plant and fell trees."

Practically this means that the FC will use a "more flexible approach" for seeking advice or information on applications where there is no statutory requirement to consult. 

The future approach to consultation will follow a simple set of principles. The FC will:

  • only undertake consultation once, at the earliest appropriate point after receipt of a complete application or plan. 
  • They will reuse advice and information received in that consultation to inform any further regulatory or grant giving decision stages rather than repeat consultation, unless there is a significant change to the proposal
  • only undertake consultation where further advice or information is required to help them make a decision on whether to grant or refuse the application, except where there is a statutory requirement to do so
  • ensure that the County Archaeologist is engaged on all woodland creation schemes
  • return the application or plan to the applicant if it is not complete, if it fails to demonstrate appropriate pre-application stakeholder engagement, or if it fails to show that the proposal meets the relevant requirements and guidelines of the UK Forestry Standard and supporting guidance
  • give those they seek advice or information from 28 days to respond before moving on to decision making (unless there is a statutory requirement to wait)
  • use the Consultation Public Register to publicise woodland creation applications and most conditional felling applications, for a period of 21 days, reduced from the current 28 days
  • use a new dispute resolution process to escalate sustained objections to the Forestry and Woodland Advisory Committee (FWAC) who will review proposals and evidence and provide reasoned recommendations to the Forestry Commissioners for final decision-making

What does this mean for foresters on the ground? 

Forestry Journal:

Initially, there will be little change with the alterations being phased in across several blocks in the coming months. The FC will "increasingly expect" applicants to evidence more clearly that their proposal will benefit the environment and how they intend to mitigate any harmful effects.

  • Phase 1a    

Shortened consultation public register period
Systems changes will be made to shorten the time woodland creation grants and felling licence applications will be on the public register (to 21 days)

READ MORE: Tree planting paperwork 'simplified' as changes made to 'outdated' system

  • Phase 1b    

The FC will only seek advice or information when needed
Publication and roll out of internal guidance and training for Forestry Commission staff

  • Phase 2    

Introduction of ‘consult only once’
Introduction of consultation process as part of Woodland Creation Planning Grant (WCPG)
Amendments to the England Woodland Creation Offer to reuse consultation outcome from WCPG where appropriate

  • Phase 3    

Accessibility improvements to the Consultation Public Register
Look to improve the Consultation Public Register to make it more accessible to the user

  • Phase 4    

Review implementation of new consultation process
After one year of implementation, review how successful changes have been and whether amendments are required

What has the industry's reaction been? 

Speaking to Forestry Journal at last week's Confor Woodland Show, industry figures generally welcomed the changes, but were waiting for more detail to emerge. 

John Bruce, Confor's national manager for England, said: "Trudy Harrison, the forestry minister, has been fairly bullish in saying she wants to take a chainsaw to the time it takes to plant a tree.

Forestry Journal:

"She is really listening to us and she understands that we have fallen well short of our targets in England."