Members' update on Countryside Stewardship
Confor has updated members on its activity to raise widespread and significant concerns about the operation of the Countryside Stewardship scheme and to drive improvements to the scheme.
In an email, England Manager Caroline Harrison stressed that Confor has collated member concerns and highlighted them in meetings and correspondence with officials and ministers - as well as in the media.
She listed the main concerns as:
- Countryside Stewardship is a complex joint scheme, out of line with modern light-touch approaches
- Its IT system is totally inadequate
- The application process is poor - a mix of digital and paper forms not in keeping with the digital age
- Application windows are too short
- The goal posts for applications keep moving and applicants lack clarity on what is required
- Forestry Commission staff are knowledgeable and helpful but staffing is inadequate
- Poor guidance on the Government website
Confor Chief Executive Stuart Goodall met with Defra, Forestry Commission and other groups in London this week. A range of actions were agreed, including:
- Forestry Commission to inform applicants immediately if there is an existing agreement on land.
- FC to organise an easy application process map for Countryside Stewardship and timescales.
- FC to discuss good practice on large-scale applications with FC Scotland colleagues
- FC to support a consistent approach by Woodland Officers through training and guidance
FC has also agreed to look at providing regular webinars on Countryside Stewardship, while Defra and FC will explore extending the woodland creation application window and consider bringing forward the window opening for 2017/18 so there is more time for people to put in outline applications - and to also explore the option of two applications windows.
In response to concerns raised by Confor, nursery businesses and others, applications have been fast-tracked and while this will likely be too late to assist the nurseries sector in this planting season, FC has committed to speeding up approvals. Further detail on improvements to be made to the scheme is expected from FC shortly.
Commenting on the potential impacts, Miss Harrison said: "The livelihoods of professional foresters are threatened as clients pull away from woodland management due to the scheme's complexity.
"There are huge implications for woodland creation - not only will planting targets not be met, but nurseries will be left with millions of plants. Most will not ‘carry over' to another season, and will have to be destroyed at great cost."
She added: "Confor has had many calls and emails about this issue and has already raised concerns at the highest levels. We will continue to campaign vigorously on this issue on our members' behalf."
In the email to members, Miss Harrison listed the actions Confor has taken;
- Canvassed members for their feedback and collated all concerns
- Passed these concerns to the Applicants Focus Group (http://www.forestry.gov.uk/england-afg)
- Met to review regulation and processes to make life easier for Woodland Officers and administration staff to do their job - January 2016
- Written to Forestry Minister Rory Stewart direct. He has asked officials to set up a meeting, which we are pursuing as a priority
- Met senior DEFRA officials, including Tom Surrey, to explain the issues. He has chased up the ministerial meeting and briefed the forestry team
- Worked with other groups to highlight the issue in the national media: British woodland at risk as planting scheme in chaos - and will continue to drive further coverage
- Responded to the DEFRA consultation and stressed the need for better guidance
- Spoken with Forest Enterprise England to explore whether they could undertake additional emergency re-stocking to aid the nurseries sector (they are not able to at this short notice)
- Updated members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry on the issue
- Worked with the devolved administrations as these issues affect members working across borders