FAILURE to meet England's tree-planting targets "will become the norm" unless ministers constructively engage with all stakeholders. 

That's the view of the chief of industry body Confor, who has said forestry minister Zac Goldsmith must do more to make it easier for large-scale planting projects to secure planning permission. 

According to Stuart Goodall, many have found it difficult to get the greenlight, with "changes to rules and an apparent unwillingness by the regulator to stand up to any opposition to planting schemes" taking the brunt of the blame. 

READ MORE: NAO says DEFRA 'did not do enough' to ensure 7,500 ha tree planting target was realistic

The criticism from Confor's chief executive comes hot on the heels of a report by spending watchdog National Audit Office (NAO), which found DEFRA had failed to ensure planting targets of 7,500 hectares each year in England were "achievable". 

“The NAO report highlights something we all know," Stuart said. "It’s highly unlikely that the UK Government will achieve its aspiration of increasing planting in England to about 7,500 hectares a year in the next two years.

"Given that there’s a climate crisis and this is a key action in the plan to secure net zero by 2050 it’s hugely frustrating that it’s still so difficult to secure permission to plant productive forests at scale, which will be required to achieve the target.

Forestry Journal: Stuart Goodall Stuart Goodall

"I’ve spoken with a number of applicants who have robust applications, but are frustrated by changes to rules, an apparent unwillingness by the regulator to stand up to any opposition to planting schemes, and a lack of constructive engagement at times by Natural England.

"The minister Zac Goldsmith has to grasp this issue or failure will become the norm.”

As we told previously, the NAO report criticised officials for failing to set realistic goals and for launching a major scheme to reach them - the Nature for Climate Fund Tree Programme - before it had been fully developed. 

As part of the government's net zero strategy, DEFRA will need to "overcome significant challenges" to hit the annual target by 2025, NAO chiefs said, including finding enough qualified staff. At no point in the last 50 years has the yearly rate of tree-planting in England reached 7,500 ha and it has only risen above 6,000 ha in three of the last 50 years. 

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Despite its efforts, [DEFRA] is not expecting to achieve the amount of new tree-planting in 2021-22 that it set out to, and should have done more to make sure its targets were realistic." 

The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, said: "The challenge of climate change requires stretching targets and high ambition.

"The NAO report acknowledges that we have worked at pace in difficult circumstances to rise to this challenge but we are under no illusion that there is more to do.

Forestry Journal: George EusticeGeorge Eustice

"That is why we will treble the number of trees planted rates by the end of this Parliament, backed up by over £500m.”