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Tree Planting

Volume 805: debated on Thursday 3 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to increase the rate of tree planting.

My Lords, we committed to increasing planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025 in line with the Committee on Climate Change recommendations. We are consulting on a new England tree strategy to drive this change in England and to shape the deployment of the £640 million Nature for Climate Fund. We recently made a £2 million joint investment in domestic tree nurseries with the Scottish and Welsh Governments and announced a Green Recovery Challenge Fund to support immediate environmental work.

I thank the Minister for his encouraging reply. There is considerable enthusiasm across the country for this tree-planting initiative, but also some concern that the targets set are overambitious. Can he confirm that his department will do everything it can to reduce red tape and form-filling, within current schemes and the new ELMS, to encourage individual, corporate and local authority uptake? Can he also confirm that funds will be made available for the maintenance of trees and woods that are planted, so that those plantings can reach their full commercial and environmental potential?

My Lords, we have seen an increase in planting rates in England over the last year. They are up from 1,400 hectares in 2019 to 2,200 in this planting season but, as the noble Lord will acknowledge, that is a long way off from the target we have set ourselves by the end of this Parliament. We absolutely acknowledge that we need to ramp up rates, and rapidly. However, we have backed up that commitment with funding. The £640 million Nature for Climate Fund is part of that funding package. We are funding the new Northern and Great Northumberland forests; we have introduced a £50 million carbon guarantee. As he pointed out, the shift from the common agriculture policy to the ELM system will also provide support. We absolutely want to make that support as accessible and unbureaucratic as possible.

My Lords, it is encouraging to hear about the progress being made, but we are fighting a losing battle if we continue to import saplings rife with diseases that then kill significant numbers of trees. Will the Minister update your Lordships’ House on the tree health resilience strategy and what other steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to increase biosecurity?

Biosecurity is enormously important, not least because we are an island nation. We announced a £2 million partnership investment, which I mentioned earlier, alongside the Scottish and Welsh Governments. The Government support the Grown in Britain agenda and the Woodland Trust’s UK sourced and grown assurance scheme. Any initiatives which increase domestic production and grow more trees and plants in this country are welcome and will merit government support. In addition, for exactly the same reason, we are taking steps to increase demand for domestically grown timber. Demand massively exceeds supply in this country: we import 81% of the timber and wood products that we need, while only about 23% of homes in England are currently built with timber frames, compared to 83% in Scotland. We want to reverse that ratio as much as we possibly can to stimulate demand and the sector, while encouraging more tree-planting.

My Lords, while I appreciate my noble friend’s personal commitment, does he share my concern at the disappearance of ancient woodlands which will be consequent upon the building of HS2? Does he also guarantee that the new, threatened changes to planning law will ensure that development is concentrated on brownfield sites and not on places where trees could be planted, and that trees will be planted around new developments anyhow?

The Government are committed to protecting our ancient woodlands. Two years ago, in 2018, we strengthened the protection of ancient woodlands, ancient trees and veteran trees through the then National Planning Policy Framework. That framework also recognises the importance of community forests. Last year, we set aside and announced £210,000 to support the Woodland Trust and Natural England’s work to update the ancient woodland inventory, which we will need to protect that habitat. So far, £7 million has been committed to the HS2 woodland fund, supporting projects to restore, enhance and extend ancient woodland on private land or in partnership with multiple landowners. We have ramped up protection; that is also reflected in the Environment Bill, which will come to this House in a few months’ time.

It is encouraging to hear of the Government’s tree-planting programme but the belief that new trees absorb more carbon than ancient ones is now proved wrong. With that in mind, what is the Minister’s assessment of the current rate of international deforestation and what will he and his department do to stop that? Also, will he ensure that in our future trade arrangements we take into account not just carbon sequestration and emissions reductions by the country we are trading with but what a country itself is doing about deforestation, because what one person does affects us all on this planet?

The noble Baroness makes a hugely important point. The picture for international deforestation is depressing; around the world, we think that we are losing around 30 football pitches-worth of forest every single minute. However, the Prime Minister announced at the end of last year that we are to double our climate finance to £11.6 billion over the five-year period and, even more importantly, that a major part of the uplift will be spent on nature-based solutions such as protecting forests and restoring degraded land. We are developing ambitious programmes around the world. Finally, relating to the last part of the noble Baroness’s question, we announced just a few days ago that we are consulting on a due-diligence mechanism, requiring those large companies which import commodities to do so in a way that does not also mean that we inadvertently import deforestation from countries that grow those commodities. It is a world first and if we get it right, as I have no doubt we will, other countries will follow. That could have a meaningful impact globally on deforestation rates.

My Lords, the Minister admits that England is well below where it needs to be to meet its share of the UK’s 35,000-hectare target but Scotland is not. Scotland is living up to its commitment; it is the only part of the UK doing so. My simple question is: what is Scotland doing differently and why has the rest of the UK fallen so far behind?

There are many reasons. First, the noble Lord is right: Scotland is doing its bit. It is planting at a much higher level than we are seeing elsewhere. Scotland retains that ambition and it is a very good thing. The England tree strategy that was launched, the consultation part of which comes to an end in a week’s time, is clearly about England and not the whole United Kingdom. But we know that to deliver that manifesto commitment, which is a UK-wide commitment, we will need to work closely with the devolved areas and will certainly do so. Whatever lessons can be learned from Scotland, we will learn them.

My Lords, the Woodland Trust estimates that there are at least 20 non-native pests and diseases affecting native UK trees, six of which it says have reached epidemic levels, and a further 11 diseases that have not yet reached the UK. Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government have a robust strategy for ensuring that these diseases do not reach our shores and decimate our native trees?

This is a priority area for Defra, a department that I belong to. Yes, we are seeing increasing numbers of threats to our native trees. The whole country is aware of ash dieback and we expect a very large number of our ash trees to be infected and die. The good news is that they will not all die; we expect up to 5% of those trees to have a natural tolerance, so the UK Government are funding research into future breeding programmes for tolerant trees. We are also conducting the world’s largest screening trials and will plant the first of the tolerant trees this year. That is just part of our biosecurity focus in Defra and our plans to stave off the threat of tree diseases from this country.

My Lords, with the UK having one of the lowest levels of woodland cover of any European country, and as the England tree strategy consultation closes next week, will there be extra support for widening the eligibility criteria for the woodland creation grants as a bonus to the Government’s commitment to increase planting to 30,000 hectares a year by 2025?

We will use the outcome of the consultation—it is a genuine consultation; we know we need to hear from stakeholders across the country—to guide the manner in which we deploy the Nature for Climate Fund and ensure that it runs, in an effective manner, alongside existing sources of funding for new woodland. But given that we will be using public money, we want to achieve the biggest possible return. That means using those funds and the wider programme to deliver for biodiversity, people and climate change. Our strong default will be for mixed native woodlands and, in some cases, facilitating natural regeneration of land. It is incumbent on us, using public money, to get the biggest bang for our buck.