Forestry "provides post-Brexit answers"

18 April 2018

Forestry can provide answers to many of the questions posed by the UK Government's consultation on the future of the rural economy after Brexit.

That was the view of Sir Harry Studholme, Chairman of the Forestry Commission, at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry, chaired by Chris Davies MP. The APPGF discussed Defra's paper, Health and Harmony: consulting on the future of food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit. 

“The questions [in the consultation] are framed in terms of agriculture, but many have forestry answers,” Sir Harry said.  

“I think Defra is listening. Normally, consultation papers are issued with a sense that there is  an answer in mind. I think this is a genuine consultation with genuine questions being asked. I am impressed by Defra’s desire to be on top of this.” 

Sir Harry noted that every £1 spent on the Countryside Stewardship scheme delivered, on average, £3.60 in benefit, but where that £1 was spent on forest management, it delivered £5.60. “A future prosperous rural economy needs forestry at its heart,” he said. 

Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor, welcomed references to forestry and timber in the consultation about what will replace the Common Agricultural Policy, but called for greater depth and detail. He suggested the draft Bill be named to reflect the move beyond simply agriculture to forestry and wider land uses. 

Guy Horsington, Defra’s Deputy Director for Future Farming Policy, said the final title of the Bill had not been decided and noted Mr Goodall’s comment. 

Mr Horsington outlined the key aspects of the consultation and said: “At the heart of our thinking is that public money should be spent on public goods."  

He defined public goods as “things that benefit more than just the recipient and cannot be rewarded by the market alone” and added: "Our new agricultural policy in England should be underpinned by the principle that pubic money buys public goods.  

“The pre-eminent public good is environmental public good. We need to have a conversation that is about much more than the production of food."  

Mr Horsington said a future Environmental Land Management scheme could have a number of features, including: multi-annual agreements; a user-friendly focus; innovative mechanisms; capital grants; and funding for collaborative projects. 

He described CAP’s Direct Payments scheme as “poor value for money, untargeted and undermined farmers’ ability to improve business profitability”. 

The three options for change were progressive reductions in payments, applying a cap to the largest payments or applying a different cap to a higher or lower number of payments. Mr Horsington said it was not yet confirmed when the new system would start, but it was expected to be 2020 or 2021. 

The meeting was also atended by Fiona Harrison, Deputy Director of Climate and Forestry at Defra. She said she welcomed direct engagement with the forestry sector as it had just been added to her portfolio. 

Both Sir Harry and Mr Goodall stressed that forestry delivered multiple public goods. In the ensuing discussion, Lord Inglewood, a member of the APPGF, asked if food production, and by extension wood production, was in itself a public good. Sir Harry said growing timber delivered many wider public goods - such as wildlife habitats and carbon sequestration - but most landowners were not paid for providing these goods. 

Mr Goodall warned of ‘unintended consequences’ if wood production was not recognised alongside other public goods. Forestry and tree planting had been undermined as an activity by the support given historically for agriculture through CAP, and if productive forestry continued to be excluded, then it could be damaged further. This would threaten rural jobs and an important low-carbon sector.  

He noted that all managed woodland included significant areas, often as much as 40 per cent of the area in new woodlands, that was managed for wildlife and the environment. This provision of public goods was supported by the productive component of the woodland, and did not attract continued public funding. 

Mr Goodall encouraged those in the forestry sector to respond to the Health and Harmony consultation, which closes on 8 May. Confor’s initial response is here