Following on from last week’s lively discussion at the Labour conference the Woodland Trust hosted a very successful fringe on Sunday in Birmingham at the Conservative conference.
The Trust is seeking to build political momentum behind our call for a new Charter for trees, woods and people. A key way of doing so is by exploring at the main party conferences what woods and trees mean within each of the main political traditions. We have a similar fringe event next week, where we will discuss the same with the Lib Dem party in Glasgow.
As a conservation charity, the Woodland Trust has no intention to try and influence how voters act next May but we are determined – like others holding fringe events – to ensure that all political parties get to hear about the things we and our supporters care about as they prepare their manifestos ahead of the next election.
We were delighted by the full house for Sunday’s event and a strong panel made for a lively debate.
It was superbly chaired once again by Clive Anderson, President of the Woodland Trust. Other speakers were: Austin Brady, the Trust’s Director of Conservation and External Affairs; Katherine Drayson of the think tank, Policy Exchange; Stanley Johnson; Cllr Neil Clarke, leader of Rushcliffe Council and George Eustice Defra Under- Secretary of State.
Clive began by referring to trees as ‘both everyday and magical’. Austin Brady set out the case for a Charter and the Trust’s manifesto asks. Austin went onto to speak of how as a society we have lost our sense of stewardship and that given the place of that theme in Conservative philosophy they ought to be acting on this in relation to woods and trees.
Katherine Drayson spoke of the importance of addressing inequality of access to woodland, the need for long term management and the availability of good, accessible data on green spaces.
Stanley Johnson thoroughly lived up to our hopes of him as a speaker – being both outspoken and entertaining. He referred to the impact on ancient woodland of HS2 as ‘a scandal’. Stanley went on to call for the bringing forward of a Bill on the public forest estate and the securing of international action on forest loss.
George Eustice spoke of his agreement with the well-being benefits of woods as set out in ‘Life’s better with trees’. These included, he added, protection from gale damage in his Cornish constituency!
On the Public Forest Estate he said that the Government was committed to taking forward a Bill but was keen to take time and get it right. Not a few people would take the view that this is long overdue, including plenty in the room.
Cllr Neil Clarke spoke of the role of woods and trees in delivering on local governments growing range of responsibilities. In particular he stressed the importance of good planning policy in helping to protect ancient woodland. He also printed out that the Planning Inspectorate can be part of the problem when it comes to securing protection – overturning decisions where the local authority has tried to do the right thing.
We were very pleased that Jo Johnson, Head of the Downing Street Policy unit and Conservative manifesto co-ordinator was able to attend for a while and hope that he and his counterparts in the other parties will find plenty of material in the second part of Life’s better with trees.
A lively Q and A followed covering a range of themes. Austin Brady highlighted the need for a public debate on the Government’s ‘ten guiding principles’ for the public forest estate. There was also a strong consensus in the room that there is too great a contrast between protection for historic buildings and that which exists for ancient woods and trees. Neil Clarke spoke of how we need to return to the concept of ‘noble trees’. But the final word should perhaps go to Stanley Johnson who had been so quotable throughout the discussion. He said that in his many years as an environmental campaigner he had learned that you win the occasional environmental battle but it’s incredibly hard to win the war – “you have to raise the temperature“, he said.
We hope that our call for a Charter will do exactly that when it comes to putting woods and trees higher up the agenda where they belong.
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