Westminster debate puts forestry at the heart of political agenda

8 December 2016

MPs from all parties urged the UK Government to do more to meet its tree planting targets at a Westminster Hall debate which put forestry at the heart of the political agenda.

The debate, secured by Chris Davies MP, Chair of the All-Party Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry, recognised forestry can deliver a broad range of economic and environmental benefits - and stressed the important role played by conifers in providing timber to support jobs and investment in rural communities. 


Mr Davies, MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, said: "Forestry and wood-processing supports at least 79,000 low-carbon jobs and is worth nearly £2 billion annually to the UK economy. Industry body Confor believes those figures could be significant underestimates."


He said most people were surprised the UK is the third largest net importer of wood products in the world, behind China and Japan, adding: "The reason for our reliance on imports is simple.  Woodland cover in England is only 10 per cent.


"The Worldwide Fund for Nature has calculated global demand for timber, paper and energy from forests is set to triple by 2050.  If we don’t plant more trees now and continue to rely on imports, the UK is going to be competing against other economies for a natural resource that we can - and should - grow more of at home."

Mr Davies urged fellow MPS to note that surveys showed 80 per cent of people agreed that ‘a lot more trees should be planted’. However, current planting rates in England are the lowest on record and had raised concerns about deforestation. "This is simply not acceptable,” Mr Davies said. "The application process that farmers and landowners are required to go through to access funding for planting is complex and costly. It can, and it does, put people off.”


Mr Davies said significant new tree planting could provide solutions to a whole range of 21st century problems: delivering jobs and investment to rural areas; reducing the impact of climate change and flooding; creating habitats for threatened wildlife and places for people to enjoy; and providing timber to build much-needed new homes.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed and vice-chair of the APPGF, agreed: “These are not issues that require quick fixes, they need a considered, long-term approach… and that’s where forestry comes in.

"So why are we failing? We have set a modest target [11 million trees in the 2015-2020 parliamentary session] and we will fail to meet it unless something quite miraculous happens.

"Rather than looking at this unambitious target of 11 million trees, I have suggested closer to 200 million trees. There is a big difference in those numbers - but with political will and an understanding of the benefits, we can aspire to go much, much higher.


“Let’s support good planting schemes by getting them through the application process quickly and efficiently - not miring applicants in paperwork and delay.”


She highlighted  the plan to plant 600,000 trees at Doddington North, near Wooler (in her constituency) - "almost half the number of trees planted so far in 18 months in the whole of England”. It was, she said, "a great example of modern, mixed forestry - a range of tree species planted with open spaces and designed to fit into the existing landscape”.


Mrs Trevelyan continued: "People love trees. Confor and The Woodland Trust both support a policy of ‘the right tree in the right place’. At the moment, we seem to be pursuing policy of almost no trees in no places. Why are we making it so difficult?”


Drew Hendry, SNP MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, said: “Forestry and wood-processing is a very important part of the of the economy in my constituency; when we grow trees, we grow careers.” He highlighted the role of the Scottish School of Forestry in delivering higher and further education and very practical courses. Chris Davies stressed later that jobs in forestry and wood processing, were now “highly-skilled, highly technical positions”.

Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Chair of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee, said: “Wood is a living crop that grows and matures and we use it for building and in our houses – but we sometimes forget that.”

Calum Kerr, SNP MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk, made a similar point: “Trees deliver many other benefits [he later mentioned their enormous contribution to climate change targets] but they are a crop and people should not be put off by that.”

Mr Kerr also pressed the Government to move from rhetoric to action in increasing tree planting, while Sue Hayman, Labour MP for Workington and Shadow Floods Minister, called on the minister to turn around “very disappointing” planting. She planted 500 trees on her own land to reduce the impact of flooding and had seen a surge in interest in the role of trees in reducing future flood risks.

Minister for Forestry, Dr Therese Coffey, said the ambition remained to plant 11 million trees in the lifetime of the current parliament - although Confor has calculated that it will take until 2027 at current planting rates to achieve this.

Dr Coffey also stressed that the long-term ambition of 12 per cent forest cover by 2060 remains the aspiration - although another Confor calculation suggests this requires around 5000 hectares (about 11 million trees) to be planted every year to achieve this.

The Minister suggested that lower planting rates often followed the introduction of a new grant scheme, but said the response to both phases of the £1m Woodland Creation Planning Grant fund - suggested by Confor - had been encouraging and hoped for a similarly positive response to the £19 million Woodland Carbon Fund, launched last month for the lifetime of this parliament.

In terms of barriers and delays. Dr Coffey said: “Countryside Stewardship applications that do not require Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) are being handled pretty quickly and it’s the larger schemes where the challenges are. We remain keen to minimise and streamline regulatory burdens where appropriate and are considering consulting on EIA regulations including those relating to forestry.”

She called for more commercial forestry investment by the private sector and said the Government was committed to working with the industry to do this. 

Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor, said: “This has been a brilliant week for forestry and timber. With the committee hearing and Westminster Hall debate, we have put the industry - and the desperate need to improve planting - right at the heart of the political agenda.

“There is a much greater understanding among politicians of productive forestry and the fact that modern, mixed forests can deliver simultaneously for the economy, environment and communities. 

“There is lots of work to do to ensure we have the political will and practical systems in place to deliver enhanced tree planting - but Confor will continue to lead the way.”