Our efforts to persuade the government that the principle of investing in forests is critical to the long term well being and health of both society and the wider environment will continue but the Spending Review results will be announced on June 26. Indeed over the past few days it seems that Defra has already agreed its budget with the Treasury over the next three years. Public benefits should be paid for by public money but this principle is going to be harder to argue in the years ahead.
We asked Rod Leslie, a member of Our Forests and an independent environmental consultant for his views on how forests can pay their way in future in the light of a tougher funding climate. Here are his thoughts – do you agree?
“Woodland Trust followers know what woods are worth and they know its about much more than money. However, in the current political environment there are so many good causes crying out for money that its hard to get to the top of the queue – especially when Defra, the Government Department responsible for forestry is seen by politicians as low priority and a sitting duck for further cuts.
But there is another side to the story and it is at the heart of the Government’s objectives: growth and jobs, already largely funded through the Government’s own Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. Since 2007 the Government’s Woodfuel Strategy has charted the way to reduce our carbon emissions whilst benefiting the economy and the environment. Our unmanaged woodlands are just the opportunity Defra needs to prove its credentials as a ‘Growth Department’. With nearly 1 million tonnes available every year, forever, we could be heating the equivalent of 250,000 homes from a resource that is already there. Estimates for the new, green business that could be unblocked vary from £200 to £500m every year, and the £800m already allocated to the RHI could unlock an estimated £5 billion of new investment. These are big figures even before you take into account that new jobs would come in some of our most fragile rural economies and where the wood is neatly matches the places where there is no mains gas.
But of course, you can’t, we are told, have business without environmental destruction. Well you can, in fact you can have business and environmental gain and skilled, careful management of more of our woods must be the very best example: the biodiversity of England’s woods is suffering and the main cause is lack of management – unmanaged woods get darker and there aren’t the fresh young habitats coppicing has provided species like Heath Fritillary and Nightingales down the centuries that our Ancient Woods have thrived.
New management for woodfuel and timber has every prospect of reversing the disastrous downward trend our woodland birds, butterflies and flora face today and they will make more money for the Government than yet more cuts to forestry budgets!
It’s now 3 years since this Government came to power and in that time it has done nothing practical whatsoever to realise this incredible opportunity. Already I estimate their inaction has probably cost a minimum of £300m of new business and between 2 and 4,000 new jobs, far costlier than any savings the cuts have made. Even now Defra is wasting time debating its own organisation with the prospect of losing the focus for woodland management altogether if it merges the Forestry Commission and Natural England. Yes, the Government may have been wounded by the forest sales fiasco but in the interests of the country rather than party politics it is now time they started working for the nation and not their own interests. We now need real leadership, not politics.
So what needs to be done? Despite the prospects, we face today a clear case of market failure: England’s woods are small and scattered, with thousands of owners. 500,000 hectares, nearly half of all England’s woodlands, including a huge number of precious ancient woodlands, have not been managed for decades. Finding and engaging all those owners is beyond a private sector starting up lots of small, new businesses – that is the task of a new, revitalised and resourced Forestry Commission which, with support from DECC and Defra must be given the task of bringing at least 10,000 hectares of woodland back into management every year – and at the same time returning far more money to the nation than further cuts can ever hope to achieve.”
Roderick Leslie, Factor