Minister backs Timber Sector Deal

22 March 2023

UK Forestry Minister Trudy Harrison MP has backed a proposal from Confor and Friends of the Earth to develop a Timber Sector Deal - to bring together Government, industry, green groups and farmers to increase future supplies of home-grown timber.

The Minister also said she would like to contribute to the National Wood Strategy (NWS) for England, being prepared by Tom Barnes of Vastern Timber and Andy Leitch of Confor, that should form a key part of the Deal.

The Minister made the pledges during a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting at Westminster, held on UN International Day of Forests 2023.

The meeting heard about the benefits of an inclusive Timber Sector Deal from Friends of the Earth, Confor and the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission. 

The UK imports 81% of the timber it uses for wood products, with Confor estimating that UK demand could increase by a further 78% by 2050. All parties agreed that simply relying on ever-greater imports is unsustainable.

Confor’s CEO Stuart Goodall, who spoke at the event, said: “It was great to hear the Minister’s continued positivity about increasing productive forestry, to secure future timber supplies and avoid an ever-increasing reliance on imports. She was also very supportive of the National Wood Strategy, and asked for a meeting, which we will arrange to discuss the Strategy and Timber Sector Deal.”

Tom Barnes welcomed the Minister’s positivity, and the Forestry Commission’s aim to make productive planting simpler and to tackle the negativity that can surround it. However, he warned that England was currently “going backwards on productive forestry” and had to turn positive words into action.

Mr Barnes added: “We are at a ‘now or never’ point. We have momentum and desire and we're hearing all the right things, but must turn that into action. Processes and guidelines are still stacked against productive planting and we need to change that. 

“No-one can do this alone. We need consistent messaging from Government, industry and environmental organisations to convince people we need to plant more woodland, manage existing woodland better and produce more home-grown timber.”

Against a backdrop of a forecast reduction in wood supply from the 2030s, both John Paterson of EGGER and David Leslie of James Jones & Sons asked the Minister for guarantees that more wood-producing forests would be planted (and existing productive capacity protected) to secure future timber supplies and give their businesses confidence to invest. Mr Leslie said his company was ready to spend £65 million on a plant in County Durham, but needed security of supply - and expressed concern about large areas of productive forest being removed within Northumberland National Park.

The Minister said she was “absolutely” committed to planting more productive forests, adding: “I can’t send out a stronger message than that we back everything you are doing to create a profitable and sustainable future.”

Ms Harrison said this would involve a clear “presumption to plant” in appropriate areas, and constant work on addressing barriers that stopped people planting trees. Naomi Matthiessen, who leads on forestry at Defra, said there were short, medium and long-term policies in place to remove barriers, which should have an impact from the next planting season.

Trudy Harrison reaffirmed the Government’s desire to increase the UK’s tree and woodland cover to 16.5 per cent (from 14.5%) by 2050. This would require 250,000 hectares of new woodland, and around 400 million new trees, she said, adding: “It’s an ambitious target, but absolutely necessary to support timber in construction. We need a mixture of coniferous forests, mixed woodland and broadleaf trees.” 

She asked for a specific figure of what needed to be planted to provide the wood needed for construction and other uses. Stuart Goodall said Confor had commissioned a specific piece of work to enable that to be calculated more accurately. Around 30,000 hectares of productive forestry had been lost in the last decade in England, he said, and timber supplies from UK forests are forecast to fall from the late 2030s, just as global demand begins to peak as the world aims for Net Zero by 2050.

Paul Brannen of CEI-Bois said at least 50% of new UK planting had to be wood-producing forests, while Guy Opperman, Conservative MP for Hexham, said this was the “bare minimum”. He called for a “kitchen table approach” to new small planting schemes where all interested parties got together early in the application stage to prevent unnecessary and lengthy delays. 

Baroness Young, speaking as a Food, Farming and Countryside Commissioner, reinforced the need for all kinds of planting. “It’s not about either-or conifer/broadleaf - it’s both/and,” she said. “If the tide rises, all the ships float.” 

She thought the 16.5% target was unambitious and should have been higher, but said she was “really keen” on the idea of a Timber Sector Deal.

Minister Harrison noted that Sector Deals had worked in other areas and said she was happy to facilitate discussions to create a successful Timber Sector Deal.

Paul De Zylva of Friends of the Earth said a Deal did not have to be prescriptive, and the most important thing was “bringing the brains into the room together to solve the problems”.

Stuart Goodall said: “We have the Government, industry, environmental NGOs and farmers all saying we can do something really positive. Producing more of the wood we consume in the UK is supported by everyone I speak to. We need to think global and plant local.”

He said key elements of a Deal might include how to get more timber into construction, attract more people into the industry and  scale up the supply chain, from nurseries through to wood processors.

Baroness Young said the way to engage farmers was through agroforestry, to “get them comfortable with small-scale planting before they do the more heroic stuff”.

Summing up, APPG Chair Ben Lake MP thanked the Minister for her very positive contribution and confirmed that the APPG was very supportive of a Timber Sector Deal and wanted to be kept updated on progress.