Long grass, leadership and ‘Big Society’ Forestry

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.

long-grass-singlestreamingIt’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

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
This entry was posted in Climate Change, Forests Report, Government Affairs, Protection and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Long grass, leadership and ‘Big Society’ Forestry

  1. JIM KIERAN says:

    I just wanted to say thank you to The Woodland Trust for keeping the pressure on the government. There are reasons to be hopeful, especialy when you consider the growth in activity and awareness at ground level. That, I think, is ultimately going to result in more attention at the top. An unexpected consequence of the recession is that local authorities and government bodies, managing woodlands, have cut frontline staff in vast numbers.
    As a result they have had to look more closely at community resources and, in particular, fostering local ‘friends of…’ groups and individuals who want to support their local woodlands and are ready to give time and energy on a regular basis to do so.
    I live in North Leeds and there are a multitude of such opportunities within 5 miles of where I live, 4 of which are within half a mile of my house! Some groups need more support then others, with knowledge and tools but others are almost autonomous and capable of generating big grants for projects.
    Although reading the blog is fascinating and inspiring, there’s nothing better than immersing yourself in a woodland for the day, or even a few hours, with good company and seeing what a difference you can make, be it planting, pruning, path restoration, clearing invasive species, pond reclamation – or even a humble litter pick!
    Thanks for everything you’re doing.
    Jim Kieran

  2. Rwth Hunt says:

    Offsetting is a red herring. If they have land to offset woodland into, that is where the development should be. Ancient and permanent woodland does far more to stabilise the landscape and the local ecology than new woodland can ever do in less than a couple of human generations. However if there is more land available to include fresh woodland in, we also need to insist, not demand that woodland is included in development.

    Developments are the architects’ blank canvases and they only add play space, woodland, pubs, schools etc as afterthoughts when they should be including all these things in every one. Planning consent that does include them is frequently resubmitted and subsequently granted without them.

    Woodland on hills and in low lying areas mitigate floods and potential landslides much more than bare land or land that has been built on, so the sooner these short term thinkers get some reality stamped into their brains the better.

  3. Clive Coles says:

    I agree James with the need to press on and sort out this Public Forest Estate business within this Parliament. From our contacts with both DEFRA and the Forestry Commission I believe the drafting of the Bill is more advanced than may have appeared to be the case at the Forum meeting. Whether or not we get a Bill announced in the next Queen’s Speech is more a question of Politics. All Ministers will be manouvering to get something on the statute book ~ that’s how they justify their tenure in office ! The successful sponsors in Cabinet will be those Departments who propose Bills which will match and address public concerns. The future and sustainability of our forests must surely fit that requirement

    The Forestry Panel’s report gave the lead and, whilst I didn’t agree with everything they said, the need for a change was overwhelmingly apparent ~ I don’t believe the current situation is either desirable or sustainable.

    I agree it is frustrating that the detail of the Bill will not become known until we enter the pre-legislative scrutiny phase. But this sadly is the norm for any legislation. I do believe however that the new PFEMO governance model and the shape of the proposed legislation as outlined by the 10 core principles is a positive step forward. Providing assurances received translate into proper safeguards, the Public Forest Estate will in my view be in better shape as a Public Body than now where the Secretary of State effectively has ultimate control.

    So I think the time has come for all stakeholders to face up to the challenge. Do they want to maintain the status quo, and suffer the consequences, or do they lobby hard for new legslation in this Parliament. If we sit back and reserve our position I don’t believe Forestry legislation to create a new PFEMO will be included in the Queen’s speech.

    If we miss this legislative opportunity what a waste of effort this whole costly exercise has been.

  4. Roderick Leslie says:

    I’m in the final throes of writing about the Forestry Commission: ‘Forest Vision – Transforming the Forestry Commission’ about my time in FC between 1976 and 2008, but also going up to the present. I’ve been waiting to see what happens before deciding on the conclusion. Whatever, the fine words, without firm action the only conclusion its seems possible to reach is:

    ‘ Our National Forests: NOT SAFE IN THEIR HANDS’

  5. Peter Kyte says:

    The problem is that politicians are ill informed on many environmental issues, with other matters higher on their agenda. Many of the lay public are much better informed which is why there is so much support for organisations like the Woodland Trust.

    • \derek \\\west says:

      Not only are politicians ill informed on environmental issues,they give it low priority,its up to the voters to keep it high on the agender.If this is the greenest goverment,we must be starting from a very low baseline.

      • Clive Coles says:

        Yes Peter ~ the Government has other matters higher on their agenda. Cameron has already indicated that the Economy will feature high on his agenda: Patterson has introduced Bio-diversity offsetting as a potential mechanism to facilitate building and infrastructurs developments. It’s these issues, i fear, which stand a better chance of being addressed in the final session of the Parliament. That I think was why Dan Rogerson was rather non-committal when James asked if the Forestry legislation would be presented in this Parliament. He didn’t promise ~ he was being realistic.

        Governments tend to use final sessions of any Parliament to introduce non-controversial Bills that command public support. This helps build their chances of re-election ! If therefore we want the Forestry Bill to be taken out of the “long grass” we have to be more vocal to show our support and lobby hard for it to be included in the Queen’s speech. It’s anyones guess as to what type of Government we will get next time or what their priorities might be.

        The Woodland Trust has been very effective in generating support for Ancient Forests. Will they be as supportive for the move to take the management of our Public Forest Estate out of direct Government control ?

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