Confor gives evidence to Westminster committee

18 June 2021

The UK is facing a raw material crisis, and Government policy is not sufficient to increase timber production, Confor’s National Manager for England has told a parliamentary inquiry.

Caroline Ayre was giving evidence to the inquiry into forests and woodlands - and whether the UK can hit its planting target - by the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee.

She said that although the UK is the world’s second largest net importer of timber (after China), with 80% of materials used for wood products imported, not enough is being done to grow more trees to secure long-term timber supply.

Prices for wood products have risen rapidly and global demand is predicted to triple by 2050 - but with supply lagging way behind and too little new productive planting taking place, a wood supply crisis is looming.

Neil Parish MP, EFRA committee chair, thought the UK would hit its target of 30,000 hectares of new woodland by 2024-15 “quite easily”. However, Caroline Ayre was more sceptical - and statistics published the day after the evidence session showed less than half that figure is currently being planted annually (13,410 hectares).

Caroline Ayre said one of the major challenges in pushing up woodland creation was the complexity of grant schemes. This added to timescales and costs, she said: “Even woodland management plans take too long. One Confor member says it is easier to build a house than put a tree in the ground.”  

Another problem was the entrenched views of stakeholders in response to consultations, she added.

Hamish Macleod of BSW, who was also giving evidence, said some applications could take 2 or 3 years.

Asked by both Neil Parish and Neil Hudson MP if streamlining would lead to weaker environmental controls, both Mrs Ayre and Mr Macleod insisted there would be no lowering of standards. The UK Forest Standard (UKFS) was very robust and in Scotland, the Mackinnon review of procedures had “made a robust system more effective”.

“The UKFS offers assurance that all planting is done to the highest standards,” said Mrs Ayre.

Rosie Duffield MP asked if the lack of a skilled workforce was a major barrier. Both Mrs Ayre and Mr Macleod said it was, while Brian Fraser of the Horticultural Trades Association said almost every nursery was using seasonal labour. He also expressed concern about an ageing workforce and said attracting younger employees is difficult.

Derek Thomas MP asked if the Government had put the right support in place for nurseries to supply the young trees needed to hit 30,000 hectares of planting by 2024-25. Mr Fraser said the industry could step up to meet demand given sufficient time but it would be very tough to do this by 2024.

Hamish Macleod said the nursery sector faced uncertainty because the Government had taken too long to focus on what it actually wanted to achieve - and young trees had been destroyed as a result. He said the nursery sector “had taken a beating” in the recent past.  

Julian Sturdy MP asked if there was enough certainty for nurseries now. “The increase is hard to sustain because previous targets have not been met and nurseries have had to be reactionary rather than proactive,” said Mr Fraser. “Increases in production have led to trees not being sold. It’s not once bitten, twice shy - nurseries have been bitten for the third, fourth or fifth time.” Planning was very difficult when Ministers were changing ‘left right and centre’, he said.