The widespread, emotional and well argued reaction to government proposals to dispose of the Public Forest Estate demonstrated just how passionately the people of England care about their country’s woodlands.
That a love of trees is lodged deep in the national psyche comes as no surprise to the Woodland Trust which for forty years has been drawing on public support to preserve ancient woods and to plant new ones. In our fortieth year we set ourselves a target of planting 6 million trees to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee - we are halfway there. I say “we” because my passion for trees led me to become the Woodland Trust’s president, a position I have been delighted to occupy for the last few years. Trees grow on you.
After it halted the sell off plans the government set up the Independent Panel on Forestry. Chaired by the Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, it was given a broad remit to look at forestry policy across the country - not just the state owned forests. Its report, published in July, is unlike so many Government panel reports. It is an inspiring read setting out the potential of woods and trees to deliver on so many of the great policy challenges of our times ranging from climate change to public health. The alleviation of flooding to the provision of green spaces in new developments for recreation. This in addition to providing habitats for nature and shaping of more attractive places within which to live and work.
Amongst the more eye catching recommendations in its call for a 'new woodland culture for the 21st century' are a much needed increase in woodland cover from 10 to 15% by 2060. And, very topically, the need to properly harness the use of wood as a low carbon fuel and renewable raw material in the drive to a more sustainable, green economy.
The Government's response is due in January so the Woodland Trust's fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference 'Where next for England's Forests' is especially well timed, mid way through the process. Given the remarkable consensus that exists around the report across the forestry and environment sectors, the Government has an opportunity - if it accepts its recommendations in full - to re-connect with the public on this issue. It can also deliver considerable savings to the public purse by grasping the ability of woods and trees to deliver on so many issues simultaneously.
It is quite rare to begin an environmental discussion on such an optimistic note. Trees do face many challenges, threats and stresses but the support we give them now could produce growth and dividends for generations to come.
'Where next for England's Forests?' chaired by Clive Anderson takes place in the Concerto Room of the Hyatt Hotel at 5.30 on Sunday 7th October. Other speakers include: Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Defra (invited); Rory Stewart MP; Guy Opperman MP, Sue Holden, CEO of the Woodland Trust; Stuart Goodall, CEO of Confederation of Forest Industries.