After the storm of the public forest debate earlier this year, there has been a period of quiet reflection for the Independent Panel on Forestry. The Panel was appointed by the government to look at all aspects of forestry in England, including the future of public forests (and to act as a human shield so government ministers don’t have to say anything about forest policy for 12 months).
The Panel was set up in March and began its work by listening to what the public wanted to say through a ‘call for views’. Over 40,000 responses, several site visits and a number of meetings later, it has just published its interim report.
It was clear from early on that the Panel’s deliberations were going to be subject to a degree of scrutiny. As well as the challenge set out by the Trust, a ‘ginger’ group consisting of seasoned environmental campaigners, academics and former Forestry Commission staff, pledged to ensure that vested interests did not mar the independence of the Panel’s work. ‘Our Forests’ also used the Freedom of Information Act to ask about discussions between NGOs and the government in the run up to the abortive consultation around the Commission’s forests.
So what does the Woodland Trust make of the Panel’s interim report?
We very much welcome the Panel’s initial conclusion to retain a public forest estate which will adapt and evolve in the future. We’re also pleased about its desire to see a step-change in action to increase woodland cover and more access to woodland. Another welcome recognition is the need to restore damaged ancient woods.
But we are very disappointed that it has failed to make a commitment to review the strength of woodland protection. This was a strong theme in so many of the 4,000+ individual responses sent in by our supporters to the ‘call for views’.
Just how topical this omission is, can be demonstrated by the recent Autumn Statement announcement to review the Habitats Regulations and the long debate over proposed streamlining of the planning system. These underline that existing levels of protection cannot be guaranteed into the future. We have such a low level of woodland cover with so many pressures on land, we cannot afford to be complacent about protection as an issue. All the more reason for the Panel to be ambitious about woodland expansion too and ensure we bring woods close to more and more people, allowing us all to experience why trees matter so much to our day to day lives.
When the Panel was launched the Trust devised three tests for it’s final report. Here’s our interim assessment against those tests:
|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.||The report makes much of the National Ecosystem Assessment but doesn’t give the conclusions of the Read report (the Stern report for forests) sufficient recognition about the role of trees and woods in mitigating and adapting to climate change.|
|The Panel should be bold and decisive in its recommendations and set an agenda for change, not one based on the status quo.||The Panel clearly says it wants to see change.|
|The Panel should focus particularly its attention on the areas where public passions and concerns were raised during the recently abandoned public consultation, such as access and the protection and restoration of ancient woods.||A mixed bag; the Panel comments positively on access and restoration of woodland (plus open ground habitats) but not on protection.|
Let’s hope the Panel flexes its independent muscle and challenges the government with some really thought-provoking final conclusions come next spring.
Hilary Allison, policy director