Forestry Journal was present for the latest meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting in Westminster, which considered where things stand for the sector in what is sure to be a tumultuous election year.

THE All Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting (APPGF&TP) meets in Portcullis House in a room with views across Westminster Bridge Road to Big Ben. Held on the last business day before MPs break for Easter recess (and the day before the House of Lords breaks for theirs), the expectation is for this annual general meeting to run quickly.

Although topics are still being debated in the house and the time to catch trains back to constituencies is fast approaching, surprisingly the turnout of both lords and parliamentarians is higher than expected.

Current APPG chair Ben Lake MP opens the session with the AGM, swiftly approving the minutes of last year’s meeting, the income and expenditure (none) and the election of new officers: Ben Lake MP re-elected as chair; Trudy Harrison MP, Lord Clark of Windermere and Lord Colgrain elected as vice chairs.

Forestry Journal: Confor's Stuart Goodall Confor's Stuart Goodall (Image: FJ/CL)

Thanking Confor for the roles performed, as APPG secretariat and for the forestry sector, Lake invites Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor, to address the room.

Thanking all those who have offered support over the years, Goodall announces a bid for a Westminster Hall debate on last year’s Environmental Audit Committee Report. “The first element focused on UK forestry and the impact of imports on global biodiversity and deforestation and the opportunities to grow more of our own domestic resource. The second element – which the government responded to yesterday – was more on energy. We want to have that debate before summer recess and will wait to see what comes back [from that request].”

He offers a sector update. “Lockdowns were a tough time for many, but a fantastic opportunity to build things with timber, resulting in significant demand for the industry to provide essential materials for pallets to move around food and pharmaceuticals [and for the home improvement market]. It became an exceptional market. With lockdowns ending and in these troubling economic times, timber prices have fallen and levels of activity have reduced.”

The start of 2024 has seen a small recovery in the domestic fencing market. He is hopeful that the government’s Timber in Construction Roadmap will create confidence in the house-building sector. “Clearly, there isn’t a lot of housing happening at the moment and the market for home improvements has been relatively weak.”

Confor is working to understand why UK house-builders have been using less home-grown timber than previously. “Drivers appear to be a concentration in the timber supply chain through the number of timber merchants who are simplifying the timber they sell, [only] stocking (imported) C24, the grade of timber seen as more suitable for supporting load-bearing weight. By only stocking C24, they are over-specifying the timber going into housing. C16 is the bulk of the market and the UK can only produce C16. We are looking to understand how we encourage people to specify appropriately.” Surveys and analysis will be completed in the next few weeks and a marketing plan devised for turning things around.

It is an election year and Goodall brings news from across the four nations.

In Scotland, government support for planting and timber in construction is waning. “The Scottish government’s ambitious tree-planting targets, 18,000 ha per annum, were reliant on having the grants in place to support that target. Over-committing on their expenditure, at the end of last year they could not balance their budget. Protecting health, education and justice, they made cuts elsewhere. A poor planting year (2022–23) was the result of an inability to approve projects, despite plenty of demand from applicants. That planting benchmark was then used to approve [this year’s] budgets, slashing woodland-creation grants by 41 per cent.” Despite much news coverage, the Scottish government refuses to reverse its decision. In an election year, a backlash against the SNP from within the industry means an opportunity for other political parties to gain support in Scotland.

Forestry Journal: Shadow forestry minister Toby Perkins Shadow forestry minister Toby Perkins (Image: FJ/CL)

In England, the ‘Timber in Construction’ Roadmap, the ‘National Wood Strategy’ (NWSE) and the increasing speed of planting scheme approvals mean that businesses operating across different countries are considering England (and potentially Wales) as ripe for investment, in planting or in downstream manufacturing processes.

“Wales has a new First Minister in Vaughan Gething. Will he roll forward the policies previously put in place, including 10-per-cent tree planting as part of the Sustainable Farming Scheme? There has been strong pushback on this from some of the farming community. I am in two minds on it. On the one hand, I want more trees. On the other, I want to work with willing people. 

“Northern Ireland has restarted its Assembly. Having spoken with the minister and permanent secretary, we feel there is agreement that they are going to give the green light to hopefully create a sense of confidence to approve certain planting schemes.”

Q. “In England, have we reached agreement to have no net loss of timber? In England, only 19 per cent of the timber we use is grown here, and it will get worse unless we intervene. Has there been that commitment yet?”
A. SG: “Not formally. The NWSE sets out that over the last 20 years we have lost 40,000 ha of wood-producing forest, creating only around 2,000 ha in England.

“Forestry is seen primarily as an environmental issue and placed within Defra. But it is an industry as well, with issues of long-term supply, wood production, skills, markets, all of which are not departmental priorities.

 “Civil servants and the Minister have huge influence. We cannot plant trees without government permission. We cannot say how we want to manage the woods (UKFS) or fell trees without permission (FC). What we replant is governed by government grants available.

“Therefore, it is vital that in an election year, with whatever government comes in, that the understanding built up over the last two years continues. If it doesn’t, we will continue with reduced home-grown timber production (loss of investment and jobs), reduced carbon sequestration and, because modern forests are a mix of trees, loss of habitat for biodiversity, while increasing imports.”

Forestry Journal: A wide range of stakeholders attended the event A wide range of stakeholders attended the event (Image: FJ/CL)
Q. “What is the role now of the FC?”
A.  TH: “They have created purple ‘sensitivity’ maps where there is a presumption to plant, reducing planting approval permission times to 12 weeks. Natural England has also been more supportive, so now it comes down to society’s willingness to have a plantation on their doorstep.”
Q. “Maybe we ought to think further about having more urban forests?”
A. TH: “Will you be able to harvest them? There would be uproar if they were used to make toilet paper, but you cannot have toilet paper without cutting trees down.”
Q. “Stuart, what would you like election manifestos to say?”
A. SG, on net loss: “We require an agreement between government and industry on the levels of timber availability for the future to give a benchmark for policymaking and a target level of production that the industry can invest in. Something as simple as that agreement would be a transformational start point.”
On communication: “Work with us on communication about the sector and jobs. The FC can play an important role. Hundreds of thousands of people go into (primarily) conifer forests and have a whale of a time. Then they are told that they  are bad. Join up the messaging: we are managing forests, marketing trees, producing products, people use these places as forests, as does wildlife.”
On skills: “The FC and Forestry England have been doing good work putting in apprenticeships.  The private sector is struggling to recruit but there are lots of jobs.  If the public sector is running recruitment campaigns then providing jobs to five per cent of applicants. Share information with the sector. We could work together to communicate and to take advantage of the opportunities.”
In summary: “Agree a target for future timber availability, action on communication, and work together to get more people into the industry.”
Q. “It seems that the government is failing to plant on its own land; is that correct?”
A. SG: “ Yes, in Wales and Scotland as well, mostly driven by short-term decision-making. It is easy to harvest timber and take the income now. With squeezed budgets, replanting costs are put off until next year and then the next. The repercussions are felt not by current decision-makers but in 30 years’ time, when there is no income and no carbon sequestration. If Natural Resources Wales were to replant its own land, it might be more accepted elsewhere.”
Q. “Are there any updates on disease worth noting?”
A. SG: “Our biggest issue is Ips typographus in Norway spruce. It does not appear to be becoming endemic in breeding. Harvesting the spruce might act as a firebreak. We are starting to see something affecting Scots pine, which could be more of a challenge. Oak and ash still have major issues.”
Q. “When do tree-planting statistics come out?”
A. SG: “June, I think.”
Thanking Confor and invitees, Ben Lake MP closes the session 30 minutes later than was expected.