Reflections on the 2013 party conference season.
Well, that’s conference season of the main parties over for another year. That annual round of gatherings of the party faithful which in reality, as you’ll have seen from the media, are increasingly dominated by influencers and media. Whilst what takes place on the floor – certainly at Labour and the Tories – is carefully stage-managed, the fringe meetings (the opportunities to roll up to meetings and bump into key players on the political scene) ensure that they retain an enduring appeal for lobbyists.
Whilst we at the Woodland Trust didn’t host a fringe meeting ourselves this year (after full houses for our fringes on forests the last couple of years), we did find this year’s conferences useful as ever for catching up with some of the key decision makers and opinion formers.
It won’t surprise you to hear that trees didn’t figure too prominently across the conferences (nor did the environment generally, sadly) but there were one or two moments of note.
The Lib Dems have identified ‘environment’ as an area of differentiation from the Tories and it was good to hear them affirm that around climate change – both generally and in the context of the national curriculum they identify it as an area where they have been active – also, according to Nick Clegg’s speech, in defence of Natural England. On trees specifically, David Heath spoke about HS2, stating: ‘There is one thing that I will admit more than slightly concerns me, and that is where it touches on areas of ancient woodland, because you can mitigate lots of things but you can’t grow old trees.’
Labour are generally regarded as having had a good conference but its equally fair to say that natural environment and forestry is an area where there isn’t much to show in terms of policy development. Three years on, as most tree enthusiasts would agree, there needs to be more than simply relentless reminders of the botched Coalition sell-off plans and something more to show in the way of actual policy. We are working hard to influence this thinking and one of the high points of the season overall was a well-attended workshop with the Fabian Society on land, identity and developing a new, less technocratic environment policy. We made the point that local passion for protecting woods and planting trees which we experience on a daily basis is a way in to re-creating that sense of place and environmental re-connection.
If one were playing ‘tree mentions bingo’ then the Conservative conference yielded more than anticipated. Most notably and unexpectedly right at the end of conference season towards the conclusion of his speech, the Prime Minister stated:
‘There’s an old story that’s told about a great hall in Oxford, near my constituency. For hundreds of years it’s stood there – held up with vast oak beams. In the 19th century, those beams needed replacing. And you know what they found? 500 years before, someone had thought ‘those beams will need replacing one day’ so they planted some oak trees. Just think about that. Centuries had passed. Columbus had reached America. Gravity had been discovered. And when those oaks were needed, they were ready. Margaret Thatcher once said: “We are in the business of planting trees for our children and grandchildren or we have no business being in politics at all.” That is what we are doing today. Not just making do and mending, but making something better.’
Owen Paterson, in his keynote speech, talked about ‘getting on the front foot’ in the war on tree diseases, the need for a more level playing field between animal and plant health and wanting to improve not just protect the natural environment.
We were pleasantly surprised that during the warm up to Boris Johnson’s speech (one occasion when the hall is guaranteed to be packed) Jane Ellison MP mentioned his tree planting programme. So at least trees were getting highlighted as a positive policy tool at a time when the conference was very much listening.
We listened with interest too, to Eric Pickles describing Labour’s proposed ‘right to grow’ (housing not trees, in case you were wondering) for local authorities as a threat to the Green Belt. Readers of this blog will relate to the irony of this given Mr Pickles’ appalling recent decision regarding Oaken Wood.
Other observations are that there was a heavy emphasis at all three conferences on the need for far more house building. The Trust is constantly seeking to get across the message that a) whatever building may be needed, we need to recognise that ancient woodland should be out of bounds, and b) trees and woods are central to shaping places where people will want to live, work and spend leisure time and are central to good design. Encouragingly, a growing number of local authority leaders seem to recognise this and our report Healthy Trees, Healthy Places is being well received.
HS2 has also of course been a high profile issue, with plenty of commentators looking to read into Ed Balls’ remarks a split between himself and Ed Miliband on the issue. Certainly at the Conservative conference one was left in no doubt that this is something the leadership want to press ahead with – its inclusion in David Cameron and George Osborne’s speeches sending out a clear signal here. The Trust’s message is that if HS2 is going to be done it needs to be done right with greater respect for ancient woodland and planting that promotes landscape resilience. This is generally well received by backbenchers and advisers but the worry is that in the bearing down on costs the protection of the environment comes to be seen as a luxury.
Conference season is a useful point at which to take stock of where the parties stand and what we’d like to see improve. So to conclude: The Lib Dems take pride in how much of their manifesto they believe is being delivered. But it’s worth remembering that ‘doubling woodland cover’ was a part of that manifesto. The current planting rates and the spectre of no new entrants to the Woodland Grant Scheme in England for two years as a consequence of Rural Development Plan transition arrangements mean this is an area where they can do far more.
For Labour, Ed Miliband took the opportunity to make abundantly clear his commitment to action on climate change as a responsibility to future generations. We hope to see more over the coming year to show Labour recognises that the natural environment including woods and trees is central to demonstrating green credentials too and is central to that responsibility to future generations.
For the Conservatives, it’s fair to say that we certainly sat up and took notice when the PM started talking about planting trees and will be busy encouraging him to pursue this further. The Trust has given credit where it is due for a robust response to tree diseases and willingness to implement our advice, but anaemic planting rates and ongoing threats to ancient woodland mean there is plenty more for the Conservatives to do in order to show that trees are more than a metaphor.
James Cooper, Head of Government Affairs