CONFERENCE: Strong support for industry from Forestry Minister

13 December 2022

The UK’s Forestry Minister has pledged to drive up productive planting and to “slash the time it takes to plant a tree” in a speech at a major policy conference organised by Confor.

Trudy Harrison MP told the Westminster event: “We want more timber in construction to build homes across the UK and to do that, we really need more conifers.  

“Trees answer so many of our grand challenges, including net zero, and Levelling Up as so many forestry and wood jobs are outside the south-east.”  

She said the ‘conifer v broadleaf’ debate was not an issue and that she wanted more mixed-species, multi-functional woodlands. “I’m surprised what all the fuss is about as I enjoy wonderful conifer woodlands, and their wildlife and biodiversity, but I also enjoy broadleaf woodlands and their many benefits. This is a non-issue for me.” 

She described the fact that the UK grew less than 20% of the wood it used as “unacceptable” and said she wanted to work with the industry to tackle this and use more home-grown timber. 

“The manifesto commitment is well-known - to plant 30,000 hectares every year [during the lifetime of the current parliament] - but we are still woefully short,” she said. “We are serious about forestry and timber and about hitting the planting target." 

Later, she said: “Without you being able to do what you need to do [plant trees], I will fail to hit my manifesto commitment and that is not an option”. 

Reducing bureaucracy was vital, the Minister said: “I want to slash the time it takes to plant a tree. I hear horrific stories. I want to take a chainsaw to the time it takes to plant a tree." 

She said the sector had to deal with “too much doctrine” and promised regulatory reforms, including simplifying Environmental Impact Assessments for new forests.  

Later, Richard Stanford, Chief Executive of the Forestry Commission, also pledged to get rid of unnecessary regulation. Having a double consultation on planting schemes was “nuts”, he said,  while he also called for the time given to statutory consultees to comment on planting schemes to be reduced to 28 days in line with the planning system. 

Mr Stanford said the climate crisis demanded “action, not prevarication” to ensure many more trees were planted. He urged everyone to “follow the science” and understand that a wide range of resilient species - including productive conifers - had to be planted. 

“Let’s stop this dogma of native woodlands good, conifers bad,” he said. “Trees are all good. Idealism and purists have their place but we need informed decision-making using science and data. 

“We have got ministerial support so let’s get behind that and get these trees in the ground.” 

Mr Stanford said the England Woodland Creation Offer had seen a large increase in the number of schemes coming forward but the majority were small - an average of 4 hectares. Approval times were improving, he said, and there was enough land to plant all types of trees - around 3 million hectares of suitable land after “contentious areas” like National Parks were removed. 

He concluded by calling for greater collaboration, saying: “We need pragmatism and delivery over purists and prevarication. Champions of woods and forests are too few to be divided.” 

Mike Childs of Friends of the Earth (FoE), who co-wrote FoE’s report Why The UK Needs More Trees, which supports doubling UK tree cover by 2050, also called for collaboration. The report recognised that timber production was an important objective of new planting to increase tree cover in the UK significantly, alongside a wide range of other objectives. “There are a myriad of reasons for us to be more ambitious about planting trees - and that includes being much more ambitious about what the productive timber industry can do,” said Mr Childs. 

He said that farmers and conservationists needed to work with the industry and Government as part of a timber sector deal designed to double tree cover in England by 2050. ”We need to get all parties around the table - not everyone leaves with everything they want, but that’s the nature of compromise and discussion,” he said. 

The conference also heard about plans for a 40-year National Wood Strategy for England, to be completed by March 2023. Tom Barnes, who is writing the strategy with Confor's Deputy CEO Andy Leitch, urged anyone interested in the subject to share their ideas. "This Strategy will be practical, short, clearly-written and action-oriented," he said. "It has a single focus -on planting, growing, investing in and processing conifer and broadleaf trees in England - to produce wood and wood products." 

Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor, warned that the UK was losing large areas of productive forestry - with only 1280 hectres planted between 2011 and 2021, while 31,000 hectares was removed during the same period.

However, he said afterwards that the conference could signal a turning-point, agreeing with Climate Change Committee chair Lord Deben that forestry and wood had a "remarkable opportunity" and urging the industry, government and NGOs to work together and with the farming community to grasp it.

“We heard a unified vision to plant much more productive forestry to deliver a wide range of environmental and economic benefits,” he said. “What was different was that we heard that not just from industry, but also from the minister responsible for forestry, the Chief Executive of the Forestry Commission, the Climate Change Committee and a leading environmental body. There was a very positive energy about the event and we need to turn that into delivery - and gather around initiatives like the England Wood Strategy and Timber in Construction Roadmap to start making remarkable things happen.”

* Confor would like to thank the three conference sponsors - Gresham House, Scottish Woodlands Ltd and Tilhill.