In the midst of another turbulent time for the UK government, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting met to discuss strategy. 

THE autumn APPGF&TP meets in the Churchill Room at the Houses of Parliament.

The breakfast meeting, sponsored by Gresham House and Forestry England, takes places within 24 hours of Steve Barclay MP being announced as the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Since her position as Forestry Minister is uncertain, keynote speaker Trudy Harrison MP does not attend.

Following a warm welcome to parliamentarians; members of the House of Lords; representatives of the Forestry Commission, Forestry England; and DEFRA and Confor members, Chair of the APPG Ben Lake MP says: “This is an important, hectic, time. Confor has been working hard to get the value of forestry and wood recognised in the economic and environmental policies launched next year. This morning we discuss some of the challenges and the way forward.”

Forestry Journal: Richard Stanford, chief executive, FC; FC chair Sir William Worsley; Baroness Young; Tom Barnes, MD of Vastern Timber.Richard Stanford, chief executive, FC; FC chair Sir William Worsley; Baroness Young; Tom Barnes, MD of Vastern Timber. (Image: FJ)

Thanking Trudy Harrison MP for her support of both the sector and the APPG, Lake says: “It is a pleasure to continue chairing this APPG,” and introduces Philip Dunne MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.

Dunne had been expecting a (now two months overdue) government response to the EAC report, ‘Seeing the Wood for the trees: the contribution of forestry and the timber sectors to biodiversity and net-zero goals’. He says: “The new Secretary of State will have a mountain of material (in his in-tray) to get through. Hopefully a response to our report will be close to the top.

“We launched the inquiry because government commitments and pledges for increased tree planting (ETAP) were not being met. This report was informed by our work on ‘Sustainability in the Built Environment’, looking at the extent to which timber is increasingly in demand as a construction material across the world. The UK imports 81 per cent of its timber. If the home demand increases, there will be increased competition for imports. 

“Government is not meeting the challenge of planting 30,000 ha of new woodland every year across the UK. Across the UK, the public and private sector combined have planted (on average) 13,500 ha each year for the last four years.”
 In the 1980s, when fiscal regimes (tax benefits) made it attractive, over 30,000 ha were planted a year. “Fiscal stimulus can change things: government can stimulate further planting if they are so minded.”

Forestry Journal: Philip Dunne and Stuart Goodall. Philip Dunne and Stuart Goodall. (Image: FJ)

He shares some thoughts raised in the report, the EAC calling for “responsible woodland planting as part of the Land Use Strategy, defining what kinds of trees should be planted in what kinds of places”, possibly with specific targets for timber production (softwood and hardwood).

“Under the Forestry Standard (currently under discussion), it is likely the area of softwood plantations within new woodlands will be reduced from 75 to 65 per cent (for biodiversity). Increasing the overall area planted will accommodate this.

“Changing the narrative of ‘broadleaf good, softwood bad’ will help. Obsessing over native species ignores the facts of climate change. The Forestry Standard must promote the use of those softwood and hardwood species that will survive, planting as wide a variety as possible to offer our woodlands the best chance of survival.

"Learn about the growing conditions in other countries, import species of disease-free trees that we are (as yet) unable to grow ourselves, and then stimulate domestic production.”

Since the EAC’s inquiry, government has extended (EWCO) woodland maintenance payments from ten to 15 years, and published the ‘Biomass Strategy’, in which the proportion of biomass used from certified sustainable sources in the UK is to increase from 70 to 100 per cent. 

Dunne asks: “How do we achieve the planting targets? As land management support moves towards a system of payment for public goods, the role of private capital will be significant. The City of London, the largest trader of carbon credits around the world, can help develop natural capital markets, and government has legislated for this with Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). From January, any development looking to secure planning consent will have to identify the impact on biodiversity, providing a 10-per-cent increase in biodiversity either onsite or offsite (within the UK).

Potentially, this could lead to 2,000–3000 ha of land annually being made available for nature, providing an actual underpinning for BNG. There is a role for forestry and it may form part of the stimulus for how the government reaches its target.”
Dunne suggests that government (one of the top four landowners in the country alongside the Crown, the Church of England and the National Trust) plant trees on its own land to help to meet targets. “It would also help if government departments were encouraged to bring forward land for forestry.”

Finally (and hopefully already in the new Secretary of State’s in-tray), “the ‘Timber in Construction Road Map’ must be issued ASAP. It must say what support government intends to give, so that the processing and sawmilling sector is able to transition to produce more of the construction-grade materials that this country is currently importing. There is no reason why we cannot produce more of this material at scale in the UK, given the right signals from government.”

Stuart Goodall, CEO of Confor, says: “The EAC report is timely as we consider wood production in England for first time in this century, the 20th century being primarily about fibre production. This century, increasing interest in environmental matters changed that. Rather than recognising that sustainability is about balancing environmental objectives, England’s focus turned to environmental peri-urban forests and managing forests for timber became unfashionable.”

Forestry Journal:  Stuart Goodall, CEO, Confor. Stuart Goodall, CEO, Confor. (Image: FJ)

In England, the general response to creating conifer woodlands is, “‘it contains no biodiversity or environmental value: it is purely about economic activity’. Evidence demonstrates that this is untrue, but we haven’t been able to drive through inclusive policy-making in England. 

“In England, strategies always contain ambitions and actions, far more than can be delivered in the time allowed. Those concerning wood production are always the actions left behind.”

Goodall found Minister Harrison’s support for productive forestry – for fast-growing conifers within the woodland mix, for creating and supporting rural jobs, producing timber and supporting rural industry as a key part of delivering environmental and net-zero objectives – heartening.

“If industry calls for increased productive planting, what people hear is ‘ plant conifers’. It is not ‘either/or’; this thinking has to change. The EAC report highlights delivering timber in construction to contribute to lower emissions. People like that. Realising that this timber is softwood – white wood – and to produce more we need to plant more conifers, because of outdated perceptions they then say ‘we don’t want more conifers’.”

The EAC report highlights the need to reduce the UK’s reliance on imported timber. “We could say ‘we will use our wealth to buy more timber’, leaving poorer nations to do without. But we have to take responsibility for ourselves, for a low-carbon economy and for jobs.” Taking responsibility doesn’t mean planting ‘the right tree in the right place’. “Some people won’t like the tree chosen, so it is never in the right place. Evidence is needed as to why productive forests must be created and of their biodiversity benefits. Policy decisions need to be made on the basis of evidence, not perception.”

In Scotland, the sector has government support. The Welsh government is starting to engage. In England, there has been talk of a ‘sector deal’, part of the effort to get the government to use more home-grown timber in future. However, it is very much work in progress and the National Wood Strategy for England would need to be signed off first.

The APPG will work with any minister to build on the gains of the last 12 months, be it on the ‘Timber in Construction Road Map’, the ‘National Wood Strategy for England’, or on a ‘sector deal’. “This modern, sustainable industry can contribute to net zero. We need support and recognition to be able to do that. We cannot plant, harvest, or manage woodlands without UKFS approval. All that has to happen in a positive partnership with government and the public sector.”

Tom Barnes, MD of Vastern Timber, is a hardwood sawmiller and timber merchant.

Forestry Journal: Tom Barnes, MD of Vastern Timber.Tom Barnes, MD of Vastern Timber. (Image: FJ)

He has written the ‘National Wood Strategy for England’ (NWSE), following numerous conversations with sector members. The document is written within the context of government’s statutory target of creating 16.5 per cent woodland and tree cover by 2050, a shortage of wood fibre globally (approximately 25 years) and the crises of climate and biodiversity.

Barnes says: “The NWSE provides next steps: what can be done now to move the sector on. A ‘business as usual’ approach will not achieve statutory targets and it will not improve the fibre supply situation. To have the chance of change, we cannot rely on ministerial beliefs. If we want a long-term industry with long-term goals, we have to collaborate to pull them together.” 

The NWSE will launch at the Confor Policy Conference in December. Barnes boils the document down into one word: “Clarity.” 

He continues: “Of the 16.5 per cent tree and woodland cover by 2050, clarify what woodland type we mean: conifer or broadleaf? How are we going to plant them? How much do we want? Where is it going to go? Who is paying?”

Barnes calls for clarity on:

• “What timber is. 95 per cent of the time it is softwood. Softwoods cannot be replaced with hardwoods. It is unpractical to give over land to growing a fibre crop that takes hundreds of years to grow.  Don’t make presentations calling for more timber, and end by saying you are going to focus on broadleaves.

• “What woodland management is, and on the meaning of buzzwords like ‘resilience’ (commercial as well as environmental) and ‘innovation’.

• “Clear and consistent support for productive woodlands.  [Despite] hearing great things from Minister Harrison, her Defra team and the FC,” timber is still rarely mentioned.

• “The target for productive woodlands. Put a number on productive conifer for construction and how much will come from our own woods. State the hectares needed to produce this timber (NWSE asks for 104,000ha).

Forestry Journal: Philip Dunne MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.Philip Dunne MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. (Image: FJ)

• “Long-term uses of fibre, and a clear, consistent and positive narrative about woodland creation, managing and harvesting.

• “A clear and timely woodland-creation application process for those who cannot do it without aid.

• “The phrase ‘the right tree in the right place’. There is no such thing. The phrase is a way of evading difficult details, the decisions and conversations about the trade-offs we have to make.”

• “Talk about which trees, in which places, to achieve what objectives, with what outcomes, paid for by whom. Specifically answering: how much productive woodland; going where; containing which (improved) species: producing how much timber; locking up how much carbon; for how long?

“The sector must come together so that we all get the woodland types we are collectively interested in. They are all important, but they are not all the same.”

A short panel Q&A led by David Lee, with Tom Barnes, Stuart Goodall, Ben Lake MP and Anna Brown (director of Forest Services, Forestry Commission), gives Brown the chance to provide clarity.

On timber security: “Timber security is needed. The UK cannot carry on importing at the current rate. The FC now mentions timber in publications.”

On targets: “People keep saying 16.5 per cent tree cover. It is at least 16.5 per cent.”

Forestry Journal:  Olly Hughes, MD of Gresham House. Olly Hughes, MD of Gresham House. (Image: FJ)

On land-use strategy: “Nature recovery and habitat restoration is important. We need to do many things, and in doing so, ensure enough conifer and broadleaf is planted to help us meet the targets.”

Putting numbers on productive planting, Brown cautions against setting specific targets for productive planting, saying it should be seen in a wider land-use context.

On taking action here and now for the longer term, she previously asked Tom Barnes, “Where is the implementation plan?” Barnes agrees that it is currently missing: “Collectively, we haven’t worked out the mix or balance yet.”

On the UKFS: “To clarify, it is the percentage of a single species that has changed, not the percentage of conifers. You cannot have the same amount of single species because of the threats like spruce bark beetle.” 

On squirrels: “ A squirrel and deer management strategy will be launched in the near future.”

David Lee confirms the APPG will send a letter to the Secretary of State asking for a written response to the EAC report.