So, just over a week to go before the government publishes its response to the Independent Panel’s report on forestry. Seasoned forest watchers are awaiting the response with a mixture of eagerness and mild trepidation.
The timeline on all of this is fascinating – the response comes almost exactly two years to the day after the Government launched its consultation on the future of the public forest estate in January 2011. When public outcry forced it to abandon proposals to sell off most if not all of the estate in February 2011, it launched in the Independent Panel on Forestry in March 2011, both to take the heat out of a tricky political situation and to obtain some high quality insight into not just the future of public forests but also the question of the direction for forestry in England in future.
After 15 months the report was published in July 2012 with an almost unanimously positive response, with a promise not to sell-off the public forests. And now 24 months on, we finally get to know what the government really thinks about forests.
Or do we? It’s clear that the government had to publish now or face embarrassing questions about trying to defer the report for even longer but on the other hand the timing is awkward for three reasons because much has happened in the last six months to create uncertainty and complexity.
For instance, the EU is in denial about CAP reform but discussions about the budget and its broad direction on core principles such as farm support and greening have all but ground to an uneasy halt. But until this is resolved there is no prospect of a new Rural Development Regulation which sets the priorities for land management grants including forestry, an important pillar of the delivery of the Panel recommendations. A further unknown is the outcome of the Spending Review in the summer and whether there will be funds from HM Treasury to match the funds available from Europe.
And then there are a whole series of Triennial Reviews, the Government’s process for testing the purposes and functions of its ‘quangos’. The review of Natural England and Environment Agency will conclude in spring 2013 several weeks after this response is published and the future of Forest Services will inevitably be in the mix with those conclusions, rather than being addressed in a few days time.
And lastly, in response to the burgeoning crisis around tree disease. There is a heavyweight review by Professor Ian Boyd of tree health and biosecurity measures instigated by the Secretary of State in October just as ash dieback was starting to get serious, which will report at the end of March. Tree diseases have thrown into sharp relief the even bigger question of what we need to do to ensure a healthy and resilient woodland resource for the future, which is exactly what the Independent Panel’s report described as its vision for the future.
The Secretary of State’s open letter in December to over 12,000 Trust supporters recognising their immense passion and interest in the government’s response was very welcome; supporters who read it will I am sure have noted it contained three large hints that our expectations might not be fully met, quoting a lack of unanimity over the Panel’s conclusions (who’s been undermining that warm feeling we had back in July I wonder?), plus a need for the recommendations to be ‘viable and affordable’.
Our view is that there are three recommendations which the government could certainly support unequivocally right now; an ambition to sustainably increase England’s woodland cover from 10% to 15% by 2060, working with other landowners to create a more wooded landscape; speeding up delivery of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action Plan by additional investment in research on tree and woodland diseases, resilience and biosecurity controls; and increasing woodland protection through reconfirming the existing Keepers of Time policy and ensuring planning policy and practice reflect the importance of ancient woodland. We cannot afford not to protect and expand woodland cover in England; these are assets which like our natural environment as a whole need to be treated by the Treasury is in the same way as our financial assets before we go into environmental debt on an alarming scale.
So reading the tea leaves suggests there will be some great words from the government about the role of woods and trees because the Secretary of State is after all a genuine tree enthusiast. We will welcome those.
But there will be a number of recommendations which the Government won’t be able to or won’t want to respond to in depth because of all the complications outlined above. The Panel report is likely to remain unfinished business for a while yet; we will all need to keep forests centre stage of DEFRA’s attention to ensure that all those loose ends are properly tied up as soon as possible and to hold government as a whole to account on those promises it does make. We owe that at the very least to our beleaguered and beloved trees and forests.
*Keep the debate alive and catch up with more posts in our ‘Forests Report’ series: https://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/category/forests-report-2/