This Wednesday saw a very welcomed debate on the Governments’ response to the Independent Panel on Forestry’s recommendations, led by the Panel’s Chair, the Rt Rev James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool.
Given that the Government’s new Forestry Policy Statement has been generally well received, and the House of the Lords often provides a more considered forum for debate than the more febrile atmosphere of the Commons, this week’s debate provided an excellent opportunity to air some of the key questions that have emerged since publication.
The debate included interventions from a range of speakers who had excellent tree credentials, including two former foresters, the Vice-President of the International Tree Foundation, a former President of the Arboricultural Association, Treasurer of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Horticulture and a number of self confessed tree enthusiasts. Whilst the format of the debate – roughly an hour with around five minutes for conclusions- doesn’t of course do full justice to a subject we all think worthy of lots of air time, a good range of topics were covered and the all speakers received a copy of the Woodland Trust’s brief in advance.
The introduction from the Bishop of Liverpool was an inspiring statement on the benefits of trees and woods. The Bishop eloquently summarised the key findings of the Government’s response, noting that he was delighted with its content, and concluded by stating the need to retain political will and consensus to ensure that the Panel’s recommendations are fully implemented. One significant departure he made from the Panel’s report was a personal suggestion to explore linking payment for ecosystem services to utility bills. He noted that this “would show the public their worth and provide money to invest in our ecosystem infrastructure”. Labour’s spokesperson Baroness Royall, noted that she liked this concept and hoped it could be explored further.
The debate that followed demonstrated clear, cross-party support both for the Panel and the subsequent Government Policy Statement on Forestry. A number of very interesting and poignant concerns, that we share, were raised about the timetable for implementation, the impact of the Triennial Review on Forest Services and the Forestry Commission, the constitution and function of the proposed new Trust that will manage the Public Forest Estate and the impact of the reduction in CAP funding on the Government’s new target to increase woodland cover to 12%.
Defra’s spokesperson in the Lords, Lord De Mauley, paid tribute to the work of the Panel, and noted his belief that the Government’s policy response “went further by setting out a new policy approach to our forestry responsibilities based on the clear priorities of protecting, improving and expanding our woodland assets”. Responding to the concerns raised, he noted that Defra are working on an implementation plan for the 37 actions in the policy response which will be published in later in the Spring. He declined to provide further detail on reorganisation of Forest Service and the Forestry Commission but sought to reassure Peers that “any changes strengthen our national forestry expertise”. He also provided little detail on the new Trust, but confirmed that they will be seeking stakeholder views on the body, its function and charter. On the issue of CAP funding, DeMauley noted that Government are currently negotiating the new rural development programme and will also be consulting on this matter later in the Spring.
In conclusion, we were treated to a high quality debate that pleasingly demonstrated strong support from Government and all sides of the House for the Panel’s recommendations and the policy that has emerged to deliver these. The challenge for all of us is to keep the pressure up to ensure that policy is now translated into action.
I would like to end with the words of the Bishop, who eloquently expressed this challenge “The voices of the people showed how fertile England is for trees, the independent panel prepared the ground, the Government’s response is like a planted sapling, and the water to make it grow must be the political consensus and will to ensure that these recommendations are now translated into policy” – Rt Rev James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool.
Steve Mulligan – Government Affairs Officer