Last night we held a special Parliamentary Reception to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Trust with an audience of politicians, supporters and funders. We are grateful to Neil Parish MP for hosting this and securing a space for us in the Commons. The event provided an opportunity to reflect both on our achievements so far and the very real threats and challenges which lay ahead.
When the Woodland Trust started up as a charity in 1972, trees and woods faced numerous threats from development, disease and neglect which we have worked tirelessly with our supporters to challenge. Since our first purchase of Avon Wood in 1973, we have gone on to buy and protect 1,276 woods which cover 23,850 hectares. We’ve also planted 20 million trees ourselves and with the help of others, restored an incredible 10,000 hectares of plantations on ancient woodland and have helped save 484 ancient woods from development. Despite these achievements, it is very clear that trees and woods continue to face new threats from both disease and development, and as I reflect on the success of our first forty years, I am reminded of the famous and oft used mantra “A lot done, a lot still to do”.
The Prime Minister provided some warm words in a letter presented by our host. He noted,
“The Woodland Trust has grown to be one of the most important conservation charities in the country. Through its excellent and dedicated efforts, it has made a telling and vital contribution to the preservation and improvement of the United Kingdom’s woods and forests. I have no doubt that, with its committed and enthusiastic members, it will continue to inspire communities across the country to enjoy and value our woodlands. I would take this opportunity to offer the Trust and its members my best wishes and every success for the next 40 years.”
The event was much more than a celebration of the Trust, but one which also celebrated our natural environment and the need to cherish and protect our trees and woods in the face of increased threats, both natural and man-made.
We were delighted to be joined by the Environment Secretary, Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, who picked up on this important theme. He provided reassurances that he is willing to consider ‘radical solutions’ to tackle the growing threats to our woods and trees from disease, as well as making changes within Defra to ensure that plant health is taken as seriously as animal health. He noted,
“I think we have got to have a completely radical rethink on how we handle plant diseases. Up until now they have been seen as a free trade commodity. I am just not sure that is appropriate now given the huge importance of forests and trees as part of our national heritage, as part of our natural environment and a key part of our £12bn rural tourism”.
With this support from the Prime Minister and Environment Secretary for retaining and protecting our environment and natural heritage, it is somewhat disconcerting that the same view is not shared across Government. In an interview with BBC Two’s Newsnight (to be broadcast tonight) the new Planning Minister, Nick Boles MP, has claimed that we need to increase the amount of land available for housing in England from 9% to 12%. The Telegraph has estimated the impact of this will be ‘an increase of 1,510 sq m, more than twice the area covered by Greater London’. In defence of this policy, Mr Boles is quoted as saying,
“The built environment can be more beautiful than nature and we shouldn’t obsess about the fact that the only landscapes that are beautiful are open – sometimes buildings are better”.
Although this could perhaps have been taken out of context, in isolation it betrays an outdated view on the natural environment and one which is out of step with Coalition Policy, as articulated through the National Planning Policy Framework and the Natural Environment White Paper. No-one could question the need to provide more and better homes and, as Nick Boles points out, to ensure that they are accompanied by access to quality green space. But this statement not only ignores existing land availability, it fails to recognise that some aspects of nature are irreplaceable. Unlike new buildings, ancient woodland cannot be recreated. We are told by the Government that economic growth and environmental enhancement can go hand in hand but this kind of statement does little to promote confidence in its commitment to a balanced approach.
Development can bring with it an insatiable demand for aggregates which also needs to be addressed in a way which balances economic and environmental interests and means saying “No” when the environment in question is irreplaceble. This leads me to reflect also on the Trust’s involvement in the Oaken Wood Public Inquiry, where we are hoping to prevent the needless destruction of 32ha of ancient woodland. This is an important test case which could crucially set a precedent for the way planning applications for mineral extraction which impact on Ancient Woodland are decided upon in future and further reaffirms our commitment to ‘No Further Loss of Ancient Woodland’.
As that plays out over the next three weeks, we must retain the fortitude of our Founder, Kenneth Watkins MBE. The case, being undertaken as we see the impact of ash dieback (Chalara fraxinea) unfold, provides an important reminder that trees and woods will continue to face challenges; whilst the Trust is still around we will continue to fight to protect them.
Steve Mulligan, Government Affairs Officer