With the furore over the proposed sale of the public forest estate and the government's proposals for planning reform receiving a backlash from environmental groups, 2011 has been a busy year for the Woodland Trust.
2011 was the international year of forests, and what a year it has been for the nation's woods and trees. The government began the year by announcing proposals to sell off the public forest estate as part of a wider shake up of non-departmental public bodies under the Public Bodies Act. In response, the Woodland Trust launched a campaign calling for ancient woodland to be given full and meaningful protection, for damaged historic woods to be restored to their former glory, and for a much needed increase in the rate of tree planting – a goal shared by the public and many politicians.
In February, Defra's secretary of state, Caroline Spelman, dropped her plans amidst strong opposition from the public. To resolve the crisis, Defra established The Independent Panel on Forestry in order to look at the future of the public forest estate and wider forestry policy. The Panel is due to publish its final report in the spring of 2012 and the Trust is calling for the Panel's recommendations to deliver on the welcome ambitions outlined in June's Natural Environment White Paper. These included a major increase in woodland cover and delivering meaningful protection for ancient woods. Such recommendations were supported by the National Ecosystems Assessment which noted that 'woodlands provide the highest identified number of ecosystems services'.
The Panel's interim report, published in early December, recognised the value and importance of the public forest estate and the strong case for increasing woodland cover. It failed, however, to address the issue of ancient woodland protection - something the Trust will be pressing hard for it to recognise in the coming months. Given the background of a vigorous debate on planning policy this omission was surprising.
Speaking of which, it has also been a challenging year for the department of communities and local government (DCLG). In early 2011, DCLG announced proposals to reform the planning system by reducing guidance from more than 1,000 pages to just 52. When the draft National Planning Policy Framework was published in the summer, it provoked a backlash from environmental groups, culminating in a campaign led by the Daily Telegraph calling for the proposals to be scrapped.
While the Trust supports the principle of a simpler planning system, it is essential this is not at the expense of effective safeguards for the natural environment. The government should demonstrate environmental leadership by acting on recommendations by the communities and local government select committee to ensure sustainable development is not confused with economic growth. One of the best ways it could do this is by removing the dangerous loophole that puts ancient woodland at risk of destruction.
The Trust recently launched plans in the River Room at the House of Lords to create a 'Parliament Grove' within its flagship Diamond Wood in Leicestershire, part of a major project to plant new woodland to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Parliamentarians have been asked to sponsor trees within the Parliament Grove as a way of marking the Jubilee and providing a lasting environmental legacy for everyone.
The year ended on a high with the Trust publishing a report alongside twenty of the UK's leading forestry and wildlife bodies. The State of the UK's Forests, Woods and Trees marks the culmination of the International Year of Forests by showcasing our woodland resource, highlighting the many benefits it brings and drawing attention to the challenges and opportunities faced around the need for protection, expansion and financial sustainability. All points the Trust will be campaigning on throughout 2012.