I’m leaving the Trust this week for pastures new (though still green) after 25 wonderful years, the last 17 of them as Policy Director. Not surprisingly this has put me in a particularly reflective mood, musing on the ups and downs of life in the charity lane of woodland conservation and lobbying. Has it all been worth it?
The simple answer is Yes. The world of conservation has changed for the better over the timespan of a quarter of a century in many ways, from a more static nature reserve-driven view to one which recognises more explicitly the dynamic nature of the natural environment and the mutual interdependence between people and nature.
For woodland conservation in particular, in 1989 the Broadleaves Review was only five years old and its repercussions were only just starting to flow through to the rediscovery of the value and importance of broadleaves and native woodland in forest policy, and while planting rates were three times what they are now, over 85% of planting was of conifers.
Certification was still ten years in the future; the Ancient Woodland Inventory was still in preparation and ancient woods were far more exposed to the pressures of development; the forestry sector and the environmental movement were at loggerheads over upland afforestation especially in the Flow Country; and the Forestry Commission had only just been given a duty of balancing timber production with environmental objectives in the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1985 and was an organisation which the Trust, along with many others, regarded with some degree of suspicion.
Today the Commission is one of our most valued partners, an organisation whose future we are championing in great times of uncertainty for them; the concept of ancient woodland is much more widely known and understood both by planners, policy makers and the public, which has been translated into modest enhancement in their protection through national and local planning policy; certification has to be the norm for major woodland owners; and policy across local and national government pays due deference to the positive role of trees, woods and forests in local plans, green infrastructure and health strategies, planning policy, climate change policy and the latest concepts of natural capital and payment for ecosystem services. There is more open and healthy dialogue between the forestry sector and the environmental movement even if there is still disagreement about policy direction on expansion and management of forests, and public support for woods and trees is riding high.
Yet I also remain frustrated: by the glacial pace of change, by the woefully low lack of profile and wider societal respect for, and investment in, one of our greatest natural resources, by the fragmentation and lack of unity within our sector, and by political short termism. Memories in government are often very short and mistakes can be repeated with alarming ease. I remember talking to a member of the DEFRA forestry policy team in October 2010, just as the idea of disposing of the public forest estate in England was starting to cause a big wave, who was completely unaware of the same idea being proposed by Nicholas Ridley in 1993 which caused a similar massive public outcry.
And while I’m on this subject, there’s still a live issue which I would love to have seen resolved before I move on.
How come we are still waiting for the promised legislation on a new forest body in England? It’s clear that the Government has backed itself into a hole – it is worried by the electoral impact of a public debate which may re-ignite around the publication of a Draft Bill recalling one of the Government’s most high profile U-turns in abandoning the sale of public forests and yet if it does not follow through the promise to legislate it will stand guilty of failing to honour its promises.
The future bigger picture looks troubled too: the rise of the environment as a key concern for government has faltered and stalled from the highs of the 1990’s and the first few years of the 21st century. With recession and now the imperative of economic growth drowning out the conclusions of the Stern report, no matter what the fine words of policy might suggest to us by way of action there will always be wriggle room to subordinate the importance of our environment to growth in GDP, in jobs and in building our way out of recession.
This is why ancient woods remain constantly under threat from national and local infrastructure, and why investing in natural capital in the form of increasing our stock of assets through woodland expansion remains pitifully low, despite the hidden costs of not doing so to help us adapt to climate change. Woodland expansion rates have plummeted from the tax relief-fuelled highs of the 1980’s to a trickle of just a few thousand hectares across the whole of the UK. And such lack of investment also extends to protection and restoration of the little resource we still possess. That’s why the Trust continues to press for better protection for ancient woods in particular – once they are gone they are lost for ever.
Ironically it has been the apocalyptic threat of tree disease leaving us with a country bereft of woods and trees despite all our good intentions which may save us yet. Owen Paterson still needs some persuasion about the threats from development to ancient woods, but he has shown true leadership and commitment to tackling the tree disease issue. I hope he will make the connection between a strong Forestry Commission, a healthy resilient and expanding woodland resource which meets multiple needs, and a better quality of life. If he doesn’t then the Trust’s supporters and all of those who care about trees, woods and forests at the local level right up to the national will surely make their voices heard again.
The Trust itself has been an integral part of all of this change: its growth in profile and influence has been a key part of the positive changes I’ve described above. I have been privileged to have been part of making those changes happen and work with you all, our supporters, friends and partners out there. Thank you for your support, your comments, your passion and your work for trees and woods.
And that’s not just an idyllic picture, but a true necessity for the health and well-being of us and of the natural world on which we all depend.
Hilary Allison, Policy Director