The Woodland Trust responds to the government reaction to the Independent Panel report on Forestry.
There has long been a tendency to assume that love of green spaces and a sense of British identity are closely intertwined. The outcry over the sell off of England's Public Forest Estate served to underline this as has the concern which has accompanied the growth of tree diseases such as chalara fraxinea.
One of the key themes however of the Independent Panel on Forestry's excellent report (the Panel was set up in the wake of the sell off row) is the need to develop a new 'woodland culture.' In such a culture the potential of woods and trees to deliver on so many policy agendas from climate change to public health is realised and society better appreciates the benefits they provide.
The Government has accepted this in its response and indeed has noted the absence of a woodland culture as a distinguishing feature of this country from other North European nations. A key factor in explaining this surely has to be the low level of woodland cover in this country - something the Woodland Trust is keen to see addressed.
Much has happened since the Government response to the Panel's report at the end of January. Not least in the world of Defra itself with horsemeat to the fore. Wednesday evening's debate led by the Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, who chaired the Panel, is therefore especially welcome.
The Government response in the form of its Forestry Policy Statement provides a good platform for moving forward. It is crucial however that having dealt with the most politically difficult aspects of this debate - and confirmed that the Public Forest Estate will remain in public hands - forestry policy is not simply regarded as 'dealt with' because it is no longer 'difficult'. There were just under 15, 000 responses to the Woodland Trust's call for the Government to adopt the Panel's report in full and that illustrates the extent to which forestry has moved up the political agenda.
The sector has much to be positive about - there is good consensus around the Panel's report and a growing self confidence based on that ability to contribute to so many agendas simultaneously but there are plenty of challenges - not least around tree diseases and protection of ancient woodland more generally. Building resilience, harnessing the benefits of woods for people and stimulating the rural economy can flow from an imaginative approach to implementation.
Having taken the welcome step of making clear the future safety of the Public Forest Estate we believe that the Government should avoid the error of heaping new uncertainty on the forestry sector by dismantling Forest Services in the current Triennial review of Defra agencies and putting it into a new environmental super agency. An independent Forest Services agency needs to play a leadership role in the creation of the new woodland culture.
Similarly, only 49 000 ha of England's 220 000 ha of ancient woodland is on the Public Forest Estate so it would be a mistake to believe that all ancient woodland is now safe. Seriously addressing ancient woodland protection means also facing up to development pressures. Development which destroys key parts of the nation's heritage erodes what is good about this country in the first place rather than moves us forward. The chapter on 'protection' in the Government response deals with this largely in terms of tree diseases and climate change. Critical challenges though they are, we need to ensure our ancient woodland is properly protected from development (at present only a pitiful 15% is designated as SSSI). Protection and creation also go hand in hand through buffering and extending the existing resource through new planting. That should be a key principle as we move to implementation.
Moving forward on woodland creation offers great opportunities for society. The public and business appetite is demonstrated through the success of the Woodland Trust's Jubilee Woods project and take up rates for the enhanced Woodland Grant Scheme incentives over the last year illustrate very well the potential that exists. The report of the Ecosystem Markets Task Force due next week will be important in helping drive this forward since woodland is at the forefront of the opportunities that exist in this developing area. The scale of the potential is illustrated by the National Ecosystem Assessment valuing the social and environmental benefits of woodland at £1.2billion per annum.
The Government has made clear the importance it attaches to partnership working in delivering on the new policy but that in turn means a need for early clarity on stakeholder engagement mechanisms.
This is a unique moment for forestry. Its political profile has never been higher. There are very real opportunities to turn the highly problematic policy situation of two years ago into one that showcases the sector and offers a whole range of policy solutions but realising this potential will first and foremost require leadership from Government. A new woodland culture where the role of woods in relation to our identity, and in shaping the communities of the future where people will want to live, work and spend their leisure time, is harnessed, has the potential to be a key building block of 'one nation' politics regardless of who is in power.