Following the publication of the Final Report from the Independent Panel on Forestry, James Cooper from the Woodland Trust urges the Government to take forestry seriously
Few could have predicted when David Cameron and Nick Clegg had that
famous rose garden press conference that nature - in the form of the public
forest estate - would prove such a politically explosive issue. It provided one
of the defining moments and earliest U-turns of the Coalition's history and now
the Independent Panel on Forestry set up by the Government in the wake of that
row has published its final report. It provides Government with the chance to
turn negative headlines into positive ones if it is prepared to rise to the
As Bishop James Jones, chair of the Panel, says in his foreword: 'The
Panel's work over the last year has shown that our woodlands, managed
sustainably, can offer solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing
The Woodland Trust welcomes the report's recommendations around the
future securing of the public forest estate. We fully support its continued existence. We also
believe that it should evolve rather than remain static - with the objective of delivering more public
benefit in the future. We are encouraged
by Caroline Spelman's early intervention to confirm the estate will remain in
It is important to remember however, that the Panel was briefed to
look at forestry policy overall not just the public forest estate, and we
welcome the ambitious and positive recommendations it has made to drive
England's woodland policy forward. In particular those around increasing
woodland cover from 10-15%.
The wide experience of Panel members means it has provided some very
positive foundations which Government will need to build upon in its response.
Not just in relation to the public forest estate but in terms of the potential
of woods and trees generally. The response should be bold.
This needs to form part of a wider move away by Government from
seeing forests as politically dangerous and recognise that there is an enormous
opportunity to deliver here on wide a range of policy agendas simultaneously
from public health to carbon sequestration to food alleviation. There is a
great chance to showcase the principles underpinning the Natural Environment
White Paper that 'people cannot flourish without the benefits and services our
natural environment provides'.
Woods and trees are particularly good at delivering those benefits
and services but with woodland cover in England at 10% - amongst the very lowest in Europe- creating
new woods in the right places needs to be a top priority.
The benefits of trees and
woods - not least in relation to the creation of more liveable communities - was
a key strand of Natural Policy Choices,
a report produced by ResPublica for the Woodland Trust last year. It noted that
the Panel's work represented 'a welcome opportunity to extend the benefits of
an inheritance which the public demonstrably values'.
The Government has stated that it has an ambition for a major
increase in the area of woodland in England. Projects like the Woodland Trust's
Jubilee Woods are showing
that an ambitious approach to woodland creation can be delivered on the ground
and can bring together a diverse range of interests to achieve common goals.
Protecting and restoring irreplaceable ancient woods - which cover
only 2% of England - should also be a top priority. At a time when Natural
Capital and the prevention of deforestation are high on the international
environmental agenda then securing the very best of our own forest resource and
placing it on a sustainable footing for the future should be a high priority.
Government needs to re-connect with the public on forests by
harnessing that interest shown around the time of the proposed sell off in a
positive way. This means engaging them in the development of an ambitious new
forestry strategy for England. As the Panel report's foreword says: 'Put
simply, the planting of trees and woods, their conservation and management are
essential elements of our common life'.
The different strands within forestry - economic, social and environmental - deliver right across all three aspects of sustainable development, as ResPublica's report, Natural Policy Choices: Why trees and woods matter, argued. Government now needs to show leadership in
bringing them together, stimulating and incentivising delivery. An ambitious
approach to woodland creation is an opportunity for Government to grasp. If it
does so, the potential is enormous - savings to the public purse and public
benefit can be delivered simultaneously.
Great good can come of what was once a crisis if Government acts
decisively and shows that it takes forestry seriously.