'Emerging consensus' on rural future

3 October 2017

There is an “emerging consensus” around the need to develop a rural policy and funding system which supports the whole countryside, a packed Confor event was told.

Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of The Woodland Trust, was speaking at a Fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, which launched Confor’s new discussion paper A Common Countryside Policy. 

She said: “There is an emerging consensus on the future of our countryside; it’s not binary - not farming or forestry or environment. The CAP system is completely out of whack and we need a new system that allows everything to flourish, and doesn’t just reward a minority of farmers. We need some kind of contract where farmers and landowners deliver public good for public money. 

“It will be complicated and difficult - but what an opportunity.” 

Stuart Goodall, Confor’s Chief Executive, said: “Our Common Countryside Policy paper is not about Confor saying ‘These are our demands’. It’s about us contributing our ideas on how we design a new system of rural policy and funding after Brexit, which takes all land use into account, in particular forestry - and targets funding at positive economic, environmental and social outcomes for the countryside.” 

Mr Goodall highlighted the wide range of benefits that forestry can provide, but noted that the forestry sector had to be careful in its use of language and not come across as attacking farmers: “We want to start a conversation about solutions; how people can choose the most suitable activity for their land in future." 

He continued: “We need to show that it’s not an either/or - for example, hill farmers can retain the same number of sheep and plant trees with the woodland providing shelter for those sheep, but also have a significant cash crop from the trees.” 

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Conservative MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, urged anyone interested in the future shape of rural policy and funding to share their views. 

She said: “We have lots of trees in Northumberland but we want more. I know lots of constituents who want to plant trees but don’t necessarily know how to go about it." She said the application for a large new planting scheme at Doddington North Moor in her constituency had been a very frustrating experience and that the bodies involved - Forestry Commission and Natural England - did not seem to work well together. “It has been a constant battle to bring the project to fruition,” she said. 

Defra Minister Dr Therese Coffey MP, whose portfolio includes forestry, admitted that the Government was well behind its target of planting 11 million trees during the lifetime of the current parliament. 

She said: “The Countryside Stewardship scheme is complex and not working how we would like it to work, but there are other big forces affecting planting, including Brexit and land values.” 

Dr Coffey said she supported a “right tree in the right place” policy but that all planting had to consider the impact on the environment. She said she hoped that an approval for Doddington would “hopefully unlock a flood of applications for the Woodland Carbon Fund”, but noted she had been advised that too many applications were not up to scratch. “They require a lot of effort by the Forestry Commission and if you have a system where too many applications fall at the first hurdle, you have to put that right.” 

Stuart Goodall said there would always be some poor applications, but that when he had investigated this previously, only “a tiny minority” were sub-standard and most applications by professional foresters were high quality. 

Later, Mr Goodall presented Confor’s Common Countryside Policy discussion paper to Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove MP.  

At a dinner with Confor members, the Secretary of State was briefed on the strength of the forestry and timber sector, and the need for a step-change in productive planting to secure its longer-term future.