*Update! Our petition is now live! Please join more than 25,000 others and back our call*
In all of the talk about Common Agricultural Policy reform over the last few months including all those technical policy concepts such as greening, modulation and budgets, a simple fact has slipped unnoticed under the radar. During 2014 and 2015 there will be no funds to allow any new entrants into woodland creation or woodland management schemes in England. This affects landowners, conservation groups, communities, local authorities – anyone wanting to plant trees.
True, if you had rushed to get your forms in by August 2013 and your application is signed off by the end of December, you can carry on planting in 2014 and 2015. And if you are already in an existing five year contract with the Forestry Commission for woodland management or creation management, you will continue to get paid until your scheme is finished. But then you’re on your own until 2016 when the new CAP funded programmes should finally be up and running.
How has this alarming state of affairs come about? After all, only ten months ago the Government published its Forestry Policy Statement which aspired to create a new woodland culture and to create 5,000 hectares of new woodland a year, and with funds drying up so dramatically it seems the left hand and right hands of DEFRA are definitely not in tune with each other.
I’ve been on a bit of a personal crusade to try and unpick why this situation has occured and, more importantly, to ask what DEFRA is going to do about this. The glacial machinations of CAP reform and the transition from one seven year programme of rural grants to another have been partly to blame (though I won’t bore you with all the details) but our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seem to have come up with a solution to this ‘transition’ period which means it can be managed without a two year gap. Who in DEFRA was speaking up for woods and forests when these arrangements were being agreed? Who was making the links between agriculture and forestry?
And to add further complications DEFRA has also ambitiously decided to change its whole environmental land management IS system at the same time to create a brand new single grant programme covering agri-environment schemes and woodland grants all in one. Well, good luck with that DEFRA.
In the past few years FC in England has funded around 2,500 hectares of new woodland in England annually, a long way off the Government’s aspiration. But my prediction, which I hope is proved wrong, is that in 2014/5 planting could halve and in 2015/6 it could be down to a third of the current level. Low planting rates combined with the impact of tree disease such as Phythophthora on larch, and development pressures means that England could be sleepwalking into a period of deforestation.
I should of course report that FC has promised £0.5 million for essential forestry capital works… but this is hardly going to make up for this ‘discontinuity’ as one FC employee has disingenuously described it to me. And of course there are no new woodland management grants either for two years to support forest restoration activity.
Here at the Trust we are pushing for a better short-term solution to this ( *Update!* Our petition is now live!), drawing attention to the problem publically and asking the awkward questions whenever we can of increasingly senior DEFRA and FC staff at every opportunity. But we are getting few answers to the question – never mind how we got here, what will you do to ensure publically funded planting is possible in the next two years?
This morning the Government launched a public consultation on the priorities for using the next seven year’s worth of money from the CAP, which include direct farm support as well as wider countryside and rural development, including forestry grants. Once that consultation closes (it runs for just 4 weeks!), the two new DEFRA ministers have a chance to show their credentials and submit proposals to the EU for using our EU expenditure in support of England’s woods and forests.
If they don’t, any flicker of momentum in the Government’s forest policy on woodland expansion that might have been starting to build will be snuffed out. Unless woods are brought close to people through woodland expansion, woodland culture will remain a pipe dream.
Hilary Allison, Policy Director