The Woodland Trust reflect on a particularly eventful 2012; a year which has also seen the Trust celebrate its 40 anniversary.
As well as being a significant year for the Woodland Trust, where we marked our 40th Anniversary - 2012 has been a year where trees have once again been high up the political agenda. Throughout 2012, we have continued to champion woods and trees in the face of both massive opportunities and unprecedented challenges to achieve our central goal of a UK rich in native woods and trees, enjoyed and valued by everyone.
The first significant challenge to our ancient woods, which account for only 2.4% of UK land use, came in the drawing up of the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), published in March. Despite a strong lobby for a document that favoured economic rather than sustainable development, an extensive political campaign led by the Woodland Trust and our partners ensured that existing protections remained in place. Sadly, Government failed however to close a significant legislative loophole, where protection is only provided ‘unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss'. Although Government claims that necessary safeguards are in place, our analysis has shown that 384 UK woods remain under threat from development. One of these cases is Oaken Wood in Kent, where we hope to prevent through our involvement in the Public Inquiry, the needless destruction of 32ha of ancient woodland. This is an important test case for the NPPF, which could crucially set a precedent for the way planning applications which impact on Ancient Woods are decided upon in future, and one which reaffirms our commitment to “No further loss of ancient woodlands”. A decision will be made on Oaken Woods in spring 2013.
July saw the publication of the Independent Panel on Forestry’s Report. Led by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Reverend James Jones, the Panel was established in the wake of the public outcry following the Government’s plans to sell off parts of the Public Forest Estate. In its initial response, the Government confirmed its support for the Panel’s central proposal that the Forests should remain in public ownership and pledged to provide a detailed response to in January 2013. This is an important opportunity for Government to re-connect with the electorate whilst taking a cost effective approach to delivering on some of the great policy challenges of the age – including public health, carbon sequestration, flood alleviation and delivering green growth. As that deadline looms closer, our advice to the Secretary of State is to adopt the report in full, as it is underpinned by a strong consensus across the forestry and environmental sectors and, most crucially, by a public who truly cherish trees . Our supporters have not hesitated to deliver this important message, and over 12,000 people have taken action through our ‘Tell Owen’ campaign to urge the Environment Secretary to adopt the Panel’s findings as whole. DEFRA has described the response from supporters as ‘phenomenal’ and so do we! The Secretary of State himself paid tribute to the 'passion and commitment'of our supporters as demonstrated by the campaign.
Alongside the Olympic Games, the Diamond Jubilee provided a truly unique summer of celebration. Our contribution was the Jubilee Woods project, which will see six million new trees planted in celebration of The Queen’s 60 years of dedicated service. This project has demonstrated that an ambitious approach to woodland creation can be delivered on the ground and the enormous potential of woodland to bring together a diverse range of interests to achieve common goals. In October, we were granted the opportunity of a historic planting in Parliament where the Speaker of the House, John Bercow MP planted a Red Windsor on Speakers Green, beneath the Queen Elizabeth Tower. In a short speech he paid tribute to the project, noting, “The Woodland Trust's Jubilee Woods project is a fine example of the enormous success of the Jubilee festivities in bringing people together to celebrate Her Majesty's 60 years of dedication to public service" and that it "symbolised the role of trees in the life of the nation".
A lot has happened since that special summer, not least the sad spectre of ash dieback, a crisis for our trees of the magnitude of Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s. This has rightly dominated the environmental headlines over the past two months and has been subject to four Parliamentary debates, two meetings of the Government’s high profile COBRA Committee and a high profile Tree Disease Summit led by the Secretary of State. The Trust has been central in shaping the Government's response and challenging where we felt it was insufficiently robust. Assisting, for example, in the recent national tree survey which informed COBRA discussions. We have also provided ongoing advice and intelligence including on the 'Interim Chalara Control Plan', published on 6 December. Although we felt that plan could have gone further, it is positive to see that it commits Government to supporting our ObservaTREE Project, ask number one of the Woodland Trust’s 3 Point Plan on Tree Disease .
Reflecting again on our fortieth year, we received a warm letter from the Prime Minister at our parliamentary reception in late November where he noted, “The Woodland Trust has grown to be one of the most important conservation charities in the country. Through its excellent and dedicated efforts, it has made a telling and vital contribution to the preservation and improvement of the United Kingdoms Woods and Forests. I have no doubt that, with its committed and enthusiastic members, it will continue to inspire communities across the country to enjoy and value our woodlands. I would take this opportunity to offer the Trust and its members my best wishes and every success for the next 40 years.”
You can be assured that we will never rest on our laurels. As we await the outcome of the Public Inquiry on Oaken Woods, against the backdrop of the ash dieback crisis, we are reminded that trees and woods face an unprecedented range of challenges. The Trust will continue to fight in the years to come to achieve a resilient and expanded woodland resource which benefits everyone.