If it hadn’t been for the furore over the European Union budget at Westminster yesterday (Wednesday 31 October) events themed around trees, woods and forests could easily have been at the top of politicians’ radar again.
The former Chair of the Independent Panel on Forestry, the Bishop of Liverpool, was speaking at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and indicated that there would be debates in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords on the government’s response to the Independent Panel’s report.
And while Mr Speaker John Bercow MP was spearheading Parliament’s contribution to the Woodland Trust’s Jubilee Woods project by planting an apple tree on Speaker’s Green, the Secretary of State was presiding at the National Forestry Stakeholder Forum at DEFRA’s offices.
Compared with the consensual upbeat feel to the July meeting of stakeholders about the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry, yesterday’s crowded gathering attended by both the new Secretary of State and the new Forestry Minister, David Heath, was a much more sober affair, even though some speakers tried to inject notes of optimism into the proceedings.
The rapidly unfolding crisis of ash dieback was a big cloud hanging over the room. We learnt from the Secretary of State that DEFRA are now seeing plant health issues as a major issue to match animal health issues. He invited those present to an emergency summit next week on the disease and said that the Scientific Task Force to be chaired by DEFRA Chief Scientist Professor Ian Boyd will make an interim report by the end of November.
When we managed to lift our eyes to the longer term themes raised in the Panel report, discussion focused on trying to work out priorities and to tease out where government’s role ended and others began. We learned that the work within Forestry Commission and DEFRA to produce the government response was progressing on schedule and coming to fruition with some emerging conclusions but that it was still not too late for stakeholders to contribute. (And you can still support our call for action on the Panel’s report at http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/campaigning/our-campaigns/panel/Pages/forestrypanel.aspx.)
It was good to hear David Heath saying of ash dieback in the House of Commons on Monday 29 October that “we will not fail in our fight against this disease through lack of resources.” But the big unanswered question is whether resources will be simply be diverted to deal with the ash dieback crisis and leave no flexibility to support the future implementation of the Panel report. Surely if ever the Panel’s arguments about investing long term but modest sums of public money into the huge public benefits which woods and trees provide to our lives have any resonance, now is the moment for the government to accept this.