Independent Forestry Panel: The Government Response

The Independent Panel was set up in 2012, following a public outcry at plans to sell off large areas of Forestry Commission land.  The panel was chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, and had members drawn from the forestry industry and conservation charities.  The panel reported in July, and last week the Government finally published its own response.  While triggered by plans to sell the publicly owned woodlands, the Independent Panel had a brief to review the whole forestry and woodlands sector, so it really was an important report.

The response has, however, hardly made the headlines, perhaps because the headline would be a about a U-turn, and the commitment to stop future sales.  A change in both Secretary of State and the Forestry Minister may have helped, for the Government response is about as good as anyone has the right to expect.  As well as committing not to sell off the public forest estate, the Government accepts nearly all the Panel recommendations.  It includes fine words about the value for forests for wildlife, public use and timber production.  There is also a commitment to expand woodland cover, but at something like a realistic rate. (The original recommendations were for a five-fold increase in the rate of woodland creation; the Government is reducing the targeted increase from 10 to 15% of land cover in England, to 12% land cover).  There is even a target to reduce the proportion of unmanaged or under-managed woods from 47% now to 33% within five years.

But there are also big problems with the response: plenty of “we must do more”, despite having just cut budgets.  Forest Enterprise has just shed 23% of staff, yet they are being asked to do more with local communities.  They are also being asked to undertake more for conservation, including converting productive conifers back to native broadleaves, at the same time as “including a requirement that it should improve the financial sustainability of the Estate”.  Add in the odd gesture (“Forestry Skills Initiative… will train up to 45 new entrants to the forestry workforce”) and you begin to see a picture of saying the right things, but having no money to effect major change.

Then to round it all off another plan to rearrange the deckchairs: a new body with virtually the same remit as Forest Enterprise.  Many in the Forestry Commission would welcome independence from government, but in other eyes that could read as unaccountable.  But separating the forest estate (Forest Enterprise) could then lead the way for a merger of Natural England and Forest Services (who provide grants, advice and regulation for the private forestry sector).  Gosh, and I started so positively…. and remember what happened to the Countryside Commission – swallowed without trace by the regulators at Natural England.

For small woodland owners the emphasis on encouraging more active management of existing woods is perhaps a key commitment, though we think that that will be hard to achieve, with little detail on any mechanisms to get there.  In this context there are four possibilities come straight to mind:

  1.  When the Common Agricultural Policy is revised in 2014, there has been talk about bringing forestry into the Environmental Stewardship Scheme, or its successor.  That could mean grants for managing woods for public benefit, in the same way agricultural can already qualify. Let’s face it, the FC have failed to address the problem of neglected woods adequately since their inception.
  2. Although an ever-changing situation, grants to reduce greenhouse emissions have been available under the Renewable Heat Incentive.  Subsidies for solar and wind power have been controversial, but funding can also be available for biomass boilers, running on woodchip.
  3. Carbon trading has existed on a voluntary basis for some years, enabling companies to offset their emissions by buying credits from schemes including new tree planting.  The Forestry Commission have been investigating a formal and permanent carbon code, which could increase funding for new woodland planting.
  4. It would be really good to get away from everything being driven by grants and paperwork!  In this context increasing fuel prices also drive up the price of firewood, making active woodland management more attractive.  A load of logs I once sold for £13 now fetches £50, which means that there is a greater incentive for the landowner.  And a profitable wood is one that’s more likely be actively managed and loved.

We will have a look in more detail in a future article on how these trends could affect small woodland owners in practice.  In the meantime, the government response is so much better than where Jim Paice and Caroline Spelman left us.  So a small pat on the back for a deft U-turn by Owen Paterson!