It always seems to be Defra that gets hardest hit. A ten per cent cut means that it has suffered one of the worst cuts in Whitehall from Spending Review 2013, announced yesterday (June 26th). No-one doubts that these are tough times but increasingly it feels that the arguments so well put in the Natural Environment White Paper two years ago that ‘a healthy, properly functioning natural environment is the foundation of sustained economic growth, prospering communities and personal wellbeing’ are merely being paid lip service.
Of course the environment has long suffered from an inconvenient lack of fit with the electoral cycle. Trees, sadly, do not respect political timelines and whilst readers of this blog are familiar with the immense returns they offer, these tend not to fall within one Government’s term. It is essential however that a longer-term view is taken both for the well-being of the natural environment and for the economy.
As we say in our reaction to this news, it is now vital that within Defra’s settlement, the value for money offered by woods and trees with their ability to deliver on many agendas across Government is secured; not least in relation to flood alleviation – which, ironically, was highlighted in the Chancellor’s statement as a priority.
Plant health was identified as a priority in Defra’s latest business plan, also published yesterday. If Defra is serious about this then tackling the unprecedented threat to our woodland heritage from pests and diseases must be a top priority for public investment. Our own conference on tree health, held in Westminster today, will host 40 experts and aims to devise key next steps on how individuals and organisations can contribute to wider plans in the most effective way.
Next week will see Defra present at the National Forestry Forum on steps towards achieving the promises made as part of England’s new Forestry Policy since it was published in January. Getting moving on those priorities will go a long way towards delivering on Defra’s business plan priorities around growing the rural economy, improving the environment and securing plant health.
The news that Forest Services – that part of the Forestry Commission which offers, support, advice, grants and regulation – will not be merged with the Environment Agency or Natural England is welcome. However the outcome of the review of forestry functions will tell us more about how serious government is about establishing a new woodland culture.
Work done by the Forestry Commission shows that the forestry industries along with recreational visits to woods contribute £4.7billion to the economy. It has also been estimated that every household in Britain had access to quality green space it could save £2.1billion in health care costs whilst work also shows that tree canopies can reduce surface water run off by up to 80% compared with asphalt. We’ve written many times before about the ability of woods and trees to deliver across a wide range of agendas but if that isn’t efficiency its hard to know what is.
This talk of cuts however comes against a backdrop of the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announcing that the costs of HS2 have spiralled upwards by £8 billion while the rest of Whitehall has been hit by £11.5 billion of spending cuts. Some things it seems are exempt from the efficiency agenda.
Yesterday also saw further announcements of significant investment in infrastructure. All the evidence suggests that in its enthusiasm for ‘grey’ infrastructure, government has lost sight of the role of green infrastructure alongside it in creating healthy, functioning places where people will want to live work and spend leisure time. Woods and trees are central to the creation of such places and we will return to this theme over the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, you can hear more about the environmental cost of the HS2 project next Wednesday when Michael Fabricant MP leads a debate in Parliament on its impact on ancient woodland. It will be an important moment for all who care about our woodland heritage.
James Cooper, Head of Government Affairs