Thursday saw the beginning of a new chapter for Forestry Policy. It’s been a long journey, but the result is a fairly promising platform.
Just over 6 months ago, the Independent Panel on Forestry’s Final Report was published, setting out a range of recommendations united by the call for the development of ‘a new woodland culture’. We were pleased to see in response to the publication the then Secretary of State saying the Public Forest Estate (PFE) was safe. Therefore the first thing to applaud in the official response to the Final Report is confirmation that a new body should hold the PFE “in trust for the nation” – the Government has listened to the hundreds of thousands of voices demanding that it remains in public ownership.
There are other highlights that, as a Panel member, I’m particularly pleased to see acknowledged in the response. We now effectively have a new forests policy for England. We have a woodland expansion target for first time in England. We have got reaffirmation of ‘Keepers of Time’ which has an objective of no loss of ancient woodland. And crucially, the Government has got the message about working in partnership to create a new woodland culture in England.
But there are a few remaining issues. The Government has a rather limited view of what protection means – development through the planning process is still a major threat to ancient woodland, despite the repetition of the qualified protection in the NPPF. We’ll find out in June, when the decision on Oaken Wood is due, whether Defra’s fine words on protection hold any sway with the planning ministers. PAWS restoration is mentioned, but no new implementation strategy promised – it should have the same priority as open habitat restoration. Many initiatives are deferred for future consideration or discussion.
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is the future of Forest Services; the part of the Forestry Commission which currently provides advice and support on economic as well as the social and environmental aspects of forestry. If the government is serious about the woodland culture, Forest Services has a key leadership role in relation to the 82% of England’s woodland outside of the PFE. We have some concerns, first aired by Hilary Allison, that Austin Brady will expand upon in another blog.
We are one of several partners implementing forestry policy on the ground, with a good track record on woodland management, PAWS restoration, policy development, engaging with schools and community groups, and of course planting millions of trees! The partnership approach is the way forward, but this is a two-way process – we will deliver more if the government help us to help them. So let’s keep the government to account on what they’ve promised to deliver, or consider, in the future.
*Keep the debate alive and catch up with more posts in our ‘Forests Report’ series: https://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/category/forests-report-2/