The curtain came down on the Woodland Trust’s programme of party conference fringes with a lively event at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow.
Despite plenty of other fringes taking place at the same time and fewer delegates to go round than the other conferences we were fortunate enough to obtain a strong panel and a good audience attendance.
Chaired by the Woodland Trust’s Scottish public affairs manager, Charles Dundas, the event was something of a celebration of the ability of trees to deliver across a range of agendas – economic and social, as well as environmental.
We were very pleased to be joined by the Scottish Secretary, the Rt Hon Alistair Carmichael MP and the Rt Hon John Thurso MP, chair of the Commons Finance and Services committee and member of the Treasury select committee.
The Forestry Minister, Dan Rogerson, followed some humorous references to Gladstone and Robin Hood by talking about the potential of trees and woods to deliver benefits for all and referred to the importance of new planting. Encouragingly, he talked about possible commitments in the next Lib Dem manifesto.
Roger Williams MP, chair of the Lib Dem’s backbench environment committee and member of the EFRA select committee built on his remarks at the launch of our call for a Charter in June. He spoke of the importance of woodland management skills to the rural economy and how, on his journey up to Glasgow from Wales he could see out of the window plenty of locations where well-targeted woodland creation could deliver benefits. He spoke warmly about the work of the Woodland Trust and said he hoped to see our main points reflected in the manifesto.
Lord Purvis of Tweed, one of the designers of ‘devo-max’ spoke eloquently about woodland culture in the Borders, quoting at one point from Walter Scott on Ettrick Forest. Lord Purvis went onto talk about the role of trees as a policy tool and their importance to the woodland economy.
The economic importance of woods and trees was well addressed by Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of ConFor. Stuart spoke about the close working relationship between ConFor and the Woodland Trust, founded on a shared belief in the multi-purpose benefits of woods. He went on to talk about the great potential of wood to contribute to the house-building agenda; such a strong feature of the fringes this party conference season.
Cllr Heather Kidd, deputy chair of the Local Government Association’s People and Places board, gave an excellent local perspective. After highlighting the considerable contribution of local government to making the Trust’s Jubilee Woods project a success, she paid tribute to the tireless work of the ‘Treehunter’, Rob McBride, who is from her home county of Shropshire. Heather went onto make some thought-provoking points about fines for developers often being insufficient to deter illegal felling, and suggested that the devolving of more powers to Local Authorities to increase fines should be looked at.
Other questions covered HS2, excessive paperwork for woodland managers and those seeking to create new woods and the role of trees in social housing.
The event was a strong one to close our conference season programme and it was good to have a focus on the economic and social as well as environmental importance of woods and trees. The Trust’s work on highlighting the role of trees in flood alleviation was also highlighted in the main hall debate on climate change adaptation on Monday morning – making for an encouraging morning after follow up and demonstrating that the voices of the Trust and its supporters is being heard.
The Trust’s call for a Charter and our manifesto asks seek to engage and challenge all the parties. As a charity, we don’t engage in party politics and have no intention of influencing people how to vote. This has been a stimulating – if tiring – few weeks exploring the place for woods and trees in the main political traditions, and we have been extremely heartened by the response we have received across the board. Translating the warm words into policy commitments is the next step – my blogs will return to that theme over the coming weeks.
Dr James Cooper, head of Government Affairs