Minister 'confident' 2015-2020 planting target will be hit

12 January 2017

Forestry Minister Dr Therese Coffey has said she is "confident" that 11 million trees will be planted in the lifetime of the current parliament - despite Confor's calculation that it will take until 2027 to meet the target.

Dr Coffey said she thought the 11 million trees target would be "comfortably hit" during the lifetime of 2015-2020 parliament while giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry into forestry in England this week. 

She said: "2010-15 saw an increase in tree planting on the previous five years, but we have seen a drop since we moved to the new Countryside Stewardship scheme, introduced last year - but in the second round of applications, we have seen an increase." 

The introduction of the £1m Woodland Creation Planning Grant and the £19m Woodland Carbon Fund - both following requests by Confor - would make a real difference to planting figures, Dr Coffey told the committee. 

"[There were] complaints about complexity on approvals but that's working better," the Minister said. "I'm confident we will be planting more trees and comfortably hit the target we set ourselves by the end of this parliament." 

She said later that IT problems at the Rural Payments Agency were being addressed: "In terms of processing grants, I expect to see a step change by the end of this quarter." Dealing with the bureaucracy around environmental regulations would take longer, she admitted, while stressing that progress was being made. 

Questioned by Labour MP Angela Smith, who chaired the committee hearing, Dr Coffey said reaching 12 per cent of woodland cover in England by 2060 was "an aspiration" rather than a firm target. She added: "2060 is an aspiration, but at the moment we are focused on delivering 11 million trees in the lifetime of this parliament." 

However, despite repeated prompts by Angela Smith - and the Minister's fellow Conservative MP, Rebecca Pow - Dr Coffey refused to say she would press hard for the forestry and timber sector to have a greater role in future industrial strategy. 

Ms Smith stressed that timber, like food, was a crop and said Dr Coffey and Defra must do more to promote the industry. Rebecca Pow also urged Dr Coffey to work harder for the sector, saying there was "lots more mileage in the timber industry".   

Both Angela Smith and Rebecca Pow stressed that there had to be better incentives to plant more softwoods following a long period of Government focus only on native hardwood planting, which threatened to starve the industry of long-term softwood supply. Earlier in the session, Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of The Woodland Trust, said that more woodland of both types needed to be planted. 

Chris Davies MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry, highlighted the 'timber gap' from the 2030s onwards, when the supply of domestic softwood timber starts to fall, despite increased demand - putting jobs at risk. "We need to talk to the industry to sort this problem out," Mr Davies added. 

Dr Coffey said she recognised the decline in the planting of softwoods and that this would have an effect on the amount of timber coming onto the market - and said she would meet with the industry. 

Following the hearing, Confor Chief Executive Stuart Goodall said: “It is clear from the minister’s evidence that other priorities have dominated her time and that she has not yet found the time to really understand the issues and opportunities that are important to the forestry sector, which contributes £2 billion annually to the UK economy and employs close to 80,000 people. 

"The big issues include Brexit, promoting the forestry industry in government strategies and additional action to help achieve the planting target. However, I welcome her offer to meet with the industry to discuss these and have made contact to arrange a meeting.”