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Woodlands and Forestry Policy

Volume 557: debated on Thursday 31 January 2013

The Government have today published details of their forestry and woodland policy in response to the report from the Independent Panel on Forestry.

Last July, when the panel published its report, we confirmed that England’s public forest estate will remain secured in public ownership—for the people who enjoy it, the businesses that depend on it and the wildlife that flourishes in it. Today, we reaffirm that commitment.

The Government announced the independent panel in March 2011 to advise on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England and on the future role of the Forestry Commission in implementing that policy.

Under the leadership of the Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, the panel brought together senior experts from the land management, forestry, wildlife, charity and wood business sectors.

We thank the panel for its landmark report. We share its vision for the future of our forests. We agree with the panel that we need a new woodland culture based on a better understanding of the value and potential of our trees, woods and forests. We accept many of its recommendations in full and where we are not able to accept them in their entirety, we propose alternative means of achieving the panel’s ambitions.

Immediately following its publication in July 2012, we promised that we would provide a full response to the panel’s report in January 2013. The forestry policy statement we have published today fulfils that commitment and I have placed copies of it in the Libraries of both Houses.

We are providing sufficient funding in this spending review period to ensure that high levels of public benefit can continue to be delivered by the Forestry Commission across the full 250,000 hectares of the estate. This includes not only the £3.5 million that we have specifically included in the Forestry Commission’s budget in 2013-14 to make up for the lost sales income but also an additional £2 million to take forward the new commitments announced today. The previous policy of disposing of 15% of the estate is formally rescinded.

In the longer term, we will be establishing a new public body to hold the estate in trust for the nation. This body will have safeguards in place to operate for the long-term benefit of people, nature and the economy. It will have greater independence from Government and greater freedom to manage its resources and maximise its income through commercial activity.

Today, we set out a clear direction of travel for English forestry and woodland policy which is designed to place the forestry and woodland sector on a more secure long-term footing so that it is better equipped to identify and address its own needs. Government will play their part but will limit their role to what is really necessary and appropriate to facilitate the sector’s own progress.

This policy is based on the need to ensure resilience in our woodlands and the businesses that depend on them. It reflects a clear hierarchy of priorities, focused on protecting, improving and expanding our public and private woodland assets.

We are fully committed to protecting our woodland assets from the ever increasing range and scale of threats and we are giving greater priority than ever to tree and plant health.

We are committed to sustaining, managing and improving our forests and woodlands so that they can contribute to economic growth and benefit people and nature. This will include working with landowners and others to increase the amount of actively managed woodland in England; reducing unnecessary regulation and red tape affecting the forestry and woodland sector; and supporting the industry as it develops its new action plan to increase entrepreneurialism and improve its own economic contribution to the rural, and wider national, economy.

It will also involve promoting community involvement in the management of their local woodlands and encouraging more widespread understanding of the educational and health benefits of our trees and woodlands. We will be completing the delivery of the Big Tree Plant and working with the sector in seeking ways to improve access to woodlands, particularly in and around our towns and cities. In addition, we will be benefiting wildlife and the natural environment, through implementing the commitments contained in the Natural Environment White Paper and Biodiversity 2020 and renewing our commitment to improving and restoring our ancient woodlands and open habitats.

We agree with the panel that there is scope for expanding England’s woodland cover significantly to achieve greater economic, social and environmental benefits. To deliver this objective, we are working with partners from across the sector to find new ways of encouraging landowners to plant more trees where it best suits them and their local conditions; developing further the voluntary woodland carbon market and other sources of investment that reflect forestry’s low-carbon credentials; and piloting an initiative to reduce burdens on landowners who want to plant woodland by clarifying where a full environmental statement is unlikely to be required.

We are fully committed to valuing the many social and environmental benefits of woodlands and to developing new market opportunities to realise these. We will build on the good work of the National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA), the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) and the Ecosystem Markets Task Force (EMTF) to drive forward this potentially very important agenda.

Finally, we want strong and resilient delivery arrangements that achieve better quality outcomes for the economy, people and nature. This includes simplifying our current structures and stepping back from any unnecessary day-to-day involvement. In addition to establishing the new, operationally independent body to hold the public forest estate in trust for the nation and manage its resources effectively, we will be reviewing the Government’s wider forestry functions alongside the triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England. We can, however, confirm that, whatever the outcome of that review, we are committed to retaining a core of forestry expertise within Government.

Government cannot and should not do this alone. Today’s policy statement is the result of substantial joint work between DEFRA, the Forestry Commission and wider Government. It draws on numerous positive and productive meetings we have held with forestry experts, landowners, businesses, civil society bodies and community groups since July as well as the many helpful and constructive comments we have received from members of the public. This underlines the importance of maintaining the spirit of partnership forged by the panel and the statement concludes by inviting everyone from across the forestry and woodland sector to commit to working with us to achieve the panel’s aspirations.

Today’s statement is not the final word on everything. It is, however, the first step in a longer process of working in close partnership with others to create a healthier, more resilient and sustainable forestry and woodland sector delivering long-term social, environmental and economic benefits for all.