Wednesday 29th January was one of the bleakest weather days in London you could imagine. One where it scarcely got light and the rain poured down all day.
The intended mood of the National Forestry Stakeholder Forum however, was in stark contrast. A good deal of the agenda was taken up with stakeholders being given the platform to describe what they had achieved over the past year or to offer case studies. And heartening stuff it was. The Woodland Trust was pleased to be able to reflect on some of its own highlights of last year, such as our progress around securing the purchase of Fingle Woods with the National Trust, hosting an expert seminar in June on development of resilience in the context of tree disease, engaging the Prime Minister with the culmination of our Jubilee Woods project and successfully campaigning to retain the woodland creation grants during the transition from the old RDP. The term ‘Big Society’ may not be used that much these days but it was certainly a celebration of the forestry element of that.
But what about the Government, I hear you ask? For the Government it was a chance for the new Forestry Minister Dan Rogerson to introduce himself to stakeholders and to present a review of progress one year on from the publication of the Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement.
The Woodland Trust was pleased to see that the Forestry Functions Review concluded that the Government’s key Forestry Functions should continue to be delivered by the Forestry Commission – retaining this crucial resource of knowledge and expertise was something that we pressed for in our earlier responses. That is welcome. And the Trust has not been afraid to praise some key areas of action on tree disease and on the recently announced continuation of woodland creation grants.
But I just couldn’t help reflecting on those other key areas where only Government itself could really make a difference. The progress here was deeply unimpressive. Nowhere was this more apparent than in relation to the future of the Public Forest Estate. There was a hope that a draft Bill might be unveiled to the gathering yesterday but no, what we saw instead was the setting out of ten principles ‘to inform the development of our legislative plans which include undertaking legislative scrutiny’. The ten principles do not look at all bad but the clock is seriously ticking if legislation is to be on the statute book by the time of the next election. Dan Rogerson responded to my question along these lines by indicating that the Government had never made an undertaking to have legislation in place by then. But the fact is it’s almost exactly 3 years now since the famous U-turn on selling off the PFE, and more than 18 months since the Independent Panel on Forestry reported.
No one wants to see rushed legislation but you do start to wonder how many other pieces of arguably more complex legislation have been turned around in far less time. As Nick Robinson was saying in yesterday’s Today programme, there isn’t exactly a lot of legislation going through at the moment!
One of the reasons we are so keen to see action is the fact that 22% of ancient woodland in England is part of the PFE. Our ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign seeks to stop the continued losses and turn around the disregard that ancient woodland too often faces. Frankly, where better to start than with the woods that are publically owned?
The other trigger for the campaign was of course The Times edition of 4th January with the interview with Owen Paterson on ancient woodland and offsetting and an ill-informed editorial that seemed to think ancient woodland was well protected. The question of offsetting came up yesterday too, and it was good to hear Dan Rogerson start to talk about the improbability of trying to offset ancient woodland but once again the Government stopped short of a definite ruling out of its inclusion in a future offsetting programme.
It’s high time that this issue was put to bed, and that we also see more urgency in relation to the Public Forest Estate. When you look at other areas where Government has realised it’s got things badly wrong, the turnaround has been remarkable. Not here though, it seems. Getting in place legislation on the Public Forest Estate is one of the most tangible ways Government can start to try mending its tattered, self styled ‘greenest Government ever’ mantle. The lesson we draw from reviewing progress on the new forestry policy one year on, is that Government needs to catch up with society and take the Public Forest Estate out of the long grass into which it has seemingly been kicked once again.
James Cooper, Head of Government Affairs