Woodland culture, local voices and putting the case to Treasury
It’s fair to say we were delighted with the response from our supporters to our request last month for questions to put to the Forestry Minister, David Heath. The planting event, on 22nd March, at our new Alhampton Hill site in the heart of his Somerton and Frome constituency, afforded the opportunity to ask the minister a number of questions drawing upon the vast enthusiasm and knowledge of those who took part in our ‘Tell Owen’ campaign. Timely too, given the recent publication of the Government Forestry Policy Statement.
The dozen questions that our Chief Executive posed were selected from the hundreds of comments and suggestions you sent in and reflected the issues and main themes put forward by supporters. They covered a wide range of territory, from ancient woodland protection and woodland creation, through to international deforestation to outdoor learning.
We filmed the questions being posed by Sue Holden and answered by David Heath, and we have also split the film up so you can watch David respond to each question individually (click the link below each section) or in sets of three, as shown below each section.
On the question of ensuring ancient woodland protection from development, David Heath talked about ancient woodland being ‘a precious commodity’ with ‘a very high value in planning terms’ but that had to be set against what local people want; he says ‘local people have to take the value of what’s on their doorstep into account’ as well as Whitehall:
Regarding the need for substantial increase in woodland cover: David Heath responded that ‘yes that’s what I want to achieve’ and referred to what some readers may have previously heard referred to as the ‘woodland cover of Chaucer’s time.’ The importance of community groups in making this happen was emphasised as was the importance of the Forestry Commission, and he expressed a desire to create a ‘forest culture’ which he said was ‘extraordinary’ had been lost:
On how trees fit with the ‘Greenest Government ever’ commitment: this was seen in terms of the legacy for incoming governments of something valuable and useful being put in place with a momentum it would be hard to turn around:
>> These three questions are also available to watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmhK0rKkahY
In response to the question on tree diseases: his argument was that it was clear that imports were not the only way diseases had come into the UK and that the more it was looked at the more clearly it was found in mature trees. The issues had ‘highlighted a very interesting dynamic within the trade’ around planting seeds and then sending them abroad to be grown on – something which he felt appeared to have little logic. He contrasted the situation on animal health with the ‘much less well equipped plant health’ situation. The UK needed to become a healthy haven and he spoke of working up proposals to put the country in a stronger position:
David Heath was asked about what the UK government is doing to halt the destruction of the rainforests? The Minister made the point that several international wildlife “societies are now listing tree species as endangered” as well as wildlife, and that this was a positive move:
The need to increase was emphasised in the question around urban tree cover. The response was that this was as important in urban as in rural areas and when urban tree cover was lost it could be harder to get back. Plane trees were cited as a particular example here:
>> These three questions are also available to watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7kpSVzvjVE
On the issue of the future of Forest Services and the possibility of merger with Natural England; there came back the by now familiar answer that there was no way forest focus or expertise was going to be lost and the need to not be concerned about labels, citing the example of arrangements in other parts of the UK. A point was made too, about putting the public forest estate beyond the reach of politicians:
In terms of the question about woodland being as important to well-being as growth: the response was that whilst economic growth is important, we need to find better ways of expressing the importance of the natural environment. Some things were irreplaceable such as ancient woodland – ‘once its gone, its gone’:
On the question regarding ancient woodland loss to HS2: David stressed that it wasn’t his call but there were plenty of arguments why HS2 was a good thing. What you had to do he said, was to try and minimise the effects and he would be arguing for this in the process:
>> These three questions are also available to watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxQDOT0STY8
In response to the question on access and educational facilities in woodland: David said the desire was to enhance, not simply maintain. He went on to develop this into a point about management, stating that he wanted to ensure that all woodlands were managed, not just the best:
On the subject of teaching nature and ecology in the National Curriculum – also the subject of a recent Trust campaign – the response was that there was a need to avoid over-prescription but the best schools understood the importance of the environment around them and the need take the pupils out. He also recalled visiting Tor Woods near his own school as part of the school year:
Finally, on cross-departmental buy in, a question I was very keen to ask: he talked about making your case and that with the recent Government Forestry Policy statement money had gone into the system that was not previously there:
>> These three questions are also available to watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqRF4PTMoWs
Thank you to the 230 people who took the time to suggest questions and topics for David Heath to respond to. Viewers and readers can draw their own conclusions, but the picture which emerges from this is that we have a Forestry Minister who is enjoying the brief and is especially keen to develop the new ‘woodland culture’ that is the central pillar of both the Government Forestry Policy Statement and the preceding Independent Panel report. There is a will, hopefully, to kick on with the woodland creation that is essential to restoring that culture and an obvious need to be creative about how this is stimulated. Good too, that David Heath recognises that with ancient woodland, in his own words: ‘when its gone, its gone.’ We hope that he and his fellow Defra ministers will also encourage No 10 to return to thinking about pushing the measurement of well-being back up the agenda and not heeding the criticisms of those who have derided it as a ‘happiness index’.
However, reading between the lines, a picture also emerges that ancient woodland – as if we didn’t know – remains vulnerable, both from forces desperate for economic growth at any price that Defra isn’t able to resist; and from a tendency to present awkward choices as a matter for the local community (plainly with HS2 and other major infrastructure projects that isn’t the case). One thing that is clear is that whilst we may have a pretty positive new forestry policy with which the majority of stakeholders are, by and large, fairly pleased; we also have a major new challenge on our hands with tree diseases.
David Heath talked about the need to make the case to Treasury and that ‘there is a good story to tell.’ He says he will play his part and make that case. We also know however that Government departments have been told to expect a 10% cut to budgets. It’s more important than ever over the coming weeks leading up to the Spending Review’s publication that those who care about them speak up about the value for money of woods and trees. One thing of which we can be sure is that other Government departments and their stakeholders will not be shy of fighting their own corner in relation to spending needs.
James Cooper, Head of Government Affairs