All-party Forestry Group debates EU referendum

Seven MPs and two members of the House of Lords joined a passionate Westminster debate on the EU referendum and its potential impact on the forestry and timber sector.

Confor organised the discussion at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry (APPGF) meeting at Westminster, with members of the APPGF from all parts of the United Kingdom taking part.

Chris Davies, APPGF Chair and MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, was in the chair and his Conservative Party colleagues Anne-Marie Trevelyan  (Berwick-upon-Tweed) and Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) spoke out in favour of the UK leaving the European Union.

Alex Cunningham, Labour's forestry spokesperson and Stockton North MP, was joined by Martyn Day (SNP) and Danny Kinahan (Ulster Unionist Party) in arguing the case to remain in the EU. Calum Kerr (SNP) also joined the discussion, along with Labour peer Lord Clark and his Conservative counterpart Lord Boswell, who are both vice-chairs of the APPGF.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, also a vice-chair of the group, has taken an active role in the Leave campaign, and voiced her frustrations that the EU was "a locked car heading for a car crash".

She said that the UK paid 6 billion euros into the EU and only got 3.2 billion euros back - and that UK governments outside the EU would continue to support rural industries. She argued that "EU grants are our money" and that good trade relationships with our European neighbours will remain. 

Alex Cunningham argued that there were lots of good examples where the EU benefited the forestry sector, including training grants for businesses. He also highlighted EU collaboration on nature and the environment, which delivered a sense of collective ownership. If the UK decided to leave, we would need to create a whole new set of laws irrespective of EU membership, he stressed.

Martyn Day, SNP MP for Linlithgow, also highlighted the benefits of EU membership. He thought that European regulations had helped forestry and that Scotland's forestry sector had boomed within the EU, citing the significant increase in employment during the economic downturn, which had seen forestry and timber grow into a £1 billion industry.

Heather Wheeler MP said the National Forest is at the heart of her constituency and had helped grow tourism and provide jobs lost during the decline of coal mining in the region. She argued that grant support would not be reduced in the event of a vote to leave.

Both Heather Wheeler and Anne-Marie Trevelyan thought the Prime Minister's deal with Europe wasn't good enough for the UK and that the EU was not sufficiently reformed.

Confor members at the event raised a number of issues, including the future of the CAP scheme inside or outside the EU and the challenges in planting more trees, including a significant amount of land being earmarked for housing which put pressure on available land.

There was also discussion around whether the UK 'gold plated' EU regulations, making them more onerous than they needed to be by taking a tougher stance than other countries. This is one of the issues covered in Confor's discussion paper on the EU referendum and the forestry and timber sector.

Hamish Macleod of BSW, which has a mill in Latvia, said Baltic states saw EU membership in security terms. Latvia, for example, had an entrepreneurial culture and had benefited from EU membership - but applied directives differently from the UK.

Heather Wheeler thought the UK was poor at being there from the beginning of the legislative process to ensure that effective regulations emerged. Calum Kerr, SNP MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk agreed there was a need to get in there at the start, while Lord Clark said we shouldn't be apologising for regulations which had, for example, made huge improvements in health and safety.

Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor, who also took part in the discussion, said integrating farming and forestry was a crucial issue, no matter what happened next, and several MPs agreed that if farmers planted more trees, they could deliver multiple benefits, including reducing flood risks.

At the end of the discussion, Chris Davies polled the people in the room and there was a 50:50 split between those who wanted to remain in the EU and those who wanted to leave. That is slightly closer than the Confor poll on EU membership, which is currently running at 55 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU and 45 per cent wanting to leave. If you haven't taken part in the poll, click here.

Stuart Goodall said: "This was a very important debate for the APPG on Forestry and it was great to see a high level of engagement from politicians across the UK and across the political spectrum. There are very big issues on the table ahead of the EU referendum in terms of regulation, grant support, trade, the labour market and plant health, which is why we published the discussion paper. 

"Confor's role is to facilitate debate and provide information so our members can make an informed choice about the future of the forestry and timber sector within or outside the EU and what both alternatives mean for their business."