Horsemeat, papal resignations, 10p tax rate. The Government’s new Forestry Policy Statement, even – or is that especially? – in the world of Defra politics, feels more than a fortnight ago already.
A couple of weeks on, as the dust settles, people have also had more time to reflect on the Statement. Whilst remaining of the view that it is a good platform, they are finding heightened significance in the odd statement here, a caveat there or indeed, finding even more ominous omissions.
One thing that has been at the fore over the last six months or so is the talk of ‘a new woodland culture’. That was the very engaging, over-arching narrative of the Panel’s report and in a refreshingly frank address to the All Party Conservation and Wildlife Group (APCWG) this week, the Forestry Minister, David Heath spoke of how the absence of such a culture in the UK contrasted with other Northern European countries (one hopes that the fact of our low level of woodland cover has occurred to Government as one of the key reasons).
The Policy Statement calls, on page 31, for sector partners to set out what they will do to deliver the policy and states that ‘together we will grow a woodland culture fit for future generations’. That is a worthy aim we can all support. However, developing a shared culture means more than just us enthusiasts re-doubling our efforts to engage and deliver (important though that is).
It also means others within Government playing their part. One of the striking things is that the Forestry Policy Statement is a Defra strategy but the Natural Environment White Paper (in theory, the parent document) is a cross-Government one. Yet when you read the Policy Statement, so much depends so much on other departments playing ball – from Local Enterprise Partnerships supporting forest industries and recognising the role of a well treed environment in attracting inward investment, through to public health policy finally acting on what is becoming a mountain of research on the physical and mental health benefits of greenery.
It’s pretty clear where the big gaps lie – and Mr Heath wasn’t too keen to talk about HS2 and ancient woodland the other day. Indeed, you’d have to look hard for acknowledgement of development pressures in the Policy Statement at all, but within the text it’s clear there are wins on offer here across a wide range of policy areas for a Government trying to salvage the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ mantle. If it is serious about taking them.
David Heath concluded his remarks at the APCWG by stating that forestry was a policy area he felt ‘optimistic’ about. That is good and it should be the case. We are in a sector offering enormous value for money - at a time when it has never mattered more - by delivering on so many agendas at once. But we need to make sure that ‘optimistic’ doesn’t become shorthand for soft, dealt with, filed away.
This means playing our part in delivering, but also in holding people to account right across the Government machine. The Woodland Trust wrote to all MPs the day after the policy was published setting out its initial views. There are opportunities on offer within the Statement for constituencies across the country… but it will mean people and politicians keeping a close eye on its delivery, encouraging communities to participate and helping to ensure the more reluctant parts of Government play their part. That doesn’t mean opposition for the sake of it because there are good things within the Statement that any party could sign up to – for example confirming of commitment to ‘Keepers of Time’, the previous Government’s ancient and native woodland policy. But the development of a shared woodland culture will not be achieved if forestry policy slips into the ‘disaster avoided, safely filed away’ category. It means keeping the debate alive.
James Cooper, Head of Government Affairs
*Keep the debate alive and catch up with more posts in our ‘Forests Report’ series: http://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/category/forests-report-2/