Is our once vibrant forestry industry being suffocated by red tape?
It’s no surprise that the Forest Regulation Task Force, set up last year by the Forestry Minister, Jim Paice, was welcomed. This elite panel comprises of forestry experts – including our own UK Operations Manager, Gordon Pfetscher – with specialist knowledge and skills who were invited to join as independent members (not necessarily representing the views of the organisations of which they are part). The group has its work cut out; there are various aspects to regulation that would appear to make it unecssarily difficult to be a forester nowadays and bureaucracy and paperwork could be forcing forestry-related industries even deeper into recession.
One example of this can be seen in the complex application procedures in place for woodland creation and management grants. These are often bureaucratic and long-winded and can take months of deliberation between the initial application and the day when work can finally start. Forest Research (the government advisor on the forestry industry) has shown a considerable increase over the last few years in the perception of grant applications as being unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic. This is likely to be a significant factor in the continuing decline in woodland planting. The annual rate of planting – with only 2,300ha of new trees planted in England 2009/2010 – has been falling steadily and is now less than a third of ten years ago.
And then there is a whole host of seemingly bizarre regulations which may have had well-meaning intentions when first applied, but perhaps are no longer as relevant as they may have been. For instance, what role does Gangmaster licensing have nowadays in the forestry industry? Another question arises over whether the existing regulations are being applied correctly… or even achieving what they were designed to achieve.
But it’s not just a case of regulation holding the industry back; is it protecting the assets that are meant to be its focus? Our own work has recorded threats to 935 ancient woods in the UK. In theory there is protection for all ancient woodland – and yet more than 200 hectares (ha) of ancient woodland was lost and over 26,000ha threatened between 2001 and 2009. This represents some 5% of an already very scarce resource. What’s more, it’s kind of scary that the Forestry Commission currently has no mechanism by which to measure loss of ancient woodland, despite “no loss” being a biodiversity action plan commitment.
The Task Force will be looking at all these issues and more. As part of their deliberations they will be meeting woodland owners and managers and seeking to get as much knowledge as possible of how the current systems work on the ground and how regulations could be changed. There is an interesting list of questions that they would appreciate your views on. The Trust has submitted an initial response and will be providing further, more detailed answers.
This Task Force is a separate body to the Independent Panel on Forestry – which will report to the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman – however, the first test in our six-point challenge is “the panel should build on the numerous reviews on aspects of forestry policy undertaken over the past 10 years and not attempt to reinvent the wheel”. We expect the results from this Task Force will form part of the deliberations of the Independent Panel in a truly joined-up process. In the meantime, if you own or manage woodland the Task Force would like to hear from you before the closing date of 29th April.
Frances Winder, Conservation Adviser