Governmment Forestry Policy Statement – What Does It Mean?

On Thursday 31st January 2013, the Government announced its long-awaited response to the Independent Forestry Panel (IFP) Report.  And with it came the good news that there would be no sell-off of the Public Forest Estate (PFE) in England, and that the Government accepted many of the recommendations of the (IFP).  But the devil is in the detail of this report, and after taking time to read it, a lot of questions remain, because it is not clear whether or not this response really is good news, nor is it clear what they are going to do, by when, and who is going to do it.
Reading the Executive Summary, it all looks very promising.  In particular, the Government agrees with the panel on
  • “The need to develop a new woodland culture and a resilient forestry and woodland sector
  • The importance of protecting our woodlands
  • The need to bring more woodland into active management and increase the extent of woodland cover in England
  • The need to help the sector to find its voice and improve its economic performance
  • The importance of preserving and maximising the social and environmental benefits provided by trees and woodlands, particularly in and around our towns a cities
  • The scope for developing new markets based around a better understanding of the value and potential of our trees, woods and forests
  • The value of retaining a skilled cadre of forestry experts within the public sector”.
But what are the Government actually saying, and what are they actually going to do?  I have drilled down into a few of the areas where I have concerns that this policy will deliver on the ground what the IFP proposed, and whether this policy document follows the spirit of the IFP report.
Ownership and Governance
The great news is that the PFE is going to remain in public ownership, overseen by a new body that will evolve from the commercial arm of the Forestry Commission, Forest Enterprise.  This will hold the public forests in trust for the nation and be charged with maximising the economic, societal and environmental benefits of the PFE.  It is also intended that the new body will not have to sell off land to balance the books, although it may buy and sell land as part of its role in maximising public forest benefit.  So far so good.  However there are some concerns over the way in which this will be implemented.
First, there is the language of the response.  Throughout the IFP report, the benefits of forests and woodlands have been listed in the following order – environment/biodiversity, societal/community, economic.  Throughout the response, the order has been reversed, giving economic benefits apparent priority, a feeling which is enhanced by the imperative for the new body to become more financially independent, and to develop new entrepreneurial ways of managing forests.  While this is not a bad thing, and in deed was mentioned in the report, it was not the first element of Recommendation 26, which included a provision for intervention in the event of market failure, something that the Government response has omitted in favour of a market-driven approach.
Recommendation 28 of the IFP report clearly stated that this new Public Forest Management body (PFM) would be independent from Government direction “except in matters where it delivers international obligations on behalf of the Government or in cases where Parliament feels the body is acting outside of, or failing to deliver its mandate.”  In the response, however, the Government intends to retain oversight of the new body and give it direction, making it more likely to be centrally directed than was the intention of the IFP.
The role of the PFM body was outlined in Recommendation 26, and this was a very strong recommendation which was very specific about the role.  However the response is that these recommendations are only a starting point for further discussion with stakeholders (without defining who those stakeholders are).  These are the nitty-gritty of the IFP report, and the Government response leaves us wondering which if any of these intended purposes the new PFM body will actually have.  The response tells us the PFM body couldhave these roles, but not that it willhave these roles.  Important roles, such as: Maximising public value in terms of wildlife, recreation, education and cultural heritage, exemplar of sustainable woodland management, exemplar of conservation of wildlife in woodlands and associated habitats, promoting quality access, managing market failure.  All these roles are up for negotiation.
There is also the issue of governance of this new body.  The intention was that this would be overseen by a panel of Guardians, and with stakeholder and community consultation at the heart.  The Guardians would be responsible for overseeing the new body, for ensuring that the public benefit and statutory duties are delivered via the Charter, and the Guardians (or Trustees) would be accountable to Parliament.  This isn’t what the Government says will happen.  The new body will have a Board that will report to the Secretary of State at DEFRA.  The Guardians are seen as an add-on, a sort of expert panel who will advise on and support the new PFM body remit.  Indeed, there is not a commitment to establishing Guardians in this review (if you read it carefully they are “exploring the scope for establishing a separate group of Guardians…”).  The role of Guardians seems to be substantially watered-down when compared with the intention of the IFP report.  And we don’t even know who they will be – what will be the balance between large and small, industry and community, environment and economics, and where will the involvement come for those at the grass roots who live and work in the woods themselves?
Then there is stakeholder consultation.  Recommendation 30 suggests that there should be stakeholder consultation on the annual corporate plan.  This should be at local level and in partnership with “friends’ groups, charities, businesses and others…”.  The response suggests that this consultation would not happen annually.  The Language is also interesting – although there is an expectation that the PFM body will engage with stakeholders and communities, the order is again reversed – “local businesses, charities and communities…this will involve working effectively with friends groups…”.  Again, the ordering of words puts businesses ahead of local friends’ groups and communities.  And they will only have a say in a rolling multi-year (not defined how many years) plan, rather than an annual say in the corporate plan, which gives the feel that this plan will become expert-led, rather than community-led, and consultation will lack teeth.
Protection and Conservation
Protection is very much seen in this response as being protection from threats to plant health.  This area of the response looks good.  Professor Boyd’s review of Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity, additional funding for research and a commitment to develop and maintain research in this field.  There is also mention of management of invasive plant species such as Rhododendronand management of species that harm regeneration including grey squirrel and wild deer, although the onus is placed on individual landowners and it is not clear how this will be co-ordinated.  There is also a commitment to research appropriate sustainable woodland creation in the light of climate change.
The IFP report stopped short of recommending that ancient woodland (ASNW) and plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS) gain greater statutory protection under planning legislation, but the intention was there to ensure they have a high level of protection, and in Recommendation 15, that the national forest inventory should inform SSSI designation with the implication that this designation be extended to at least some ASNW.  The IFP report felt planning policy should “…refuse planning permission for developments that would have an adverse impact upon them…”, (where “them” is ASNW, veteran trees and other priority habitats).  But the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) carries the rider “…unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.”  The difficulty is in defining what clear needs and benefits are.  This is likely to come from case law and appeals – something for which developers have much greater available funding to take to appeal than councils have to defend decisions, with the inevitable consequence that some developments will proceed unchallenged.  Despite the rhetoric of putting a high priority on protection of ASNW, new infrastructure developments of roads and rail (including HS2) will result in destruction or adverse effects upon over 80 sites of precious, vanishing ASNW.  IFP clearly stated an adverse effect should result in refusal of planning permission, but these projects are going ahead despite this.  This does not bode well for existing levels of protection under the NPPF.
Recommendation 13 deals with landscape-scale conservation as envisaged by the Lawton Report (2010) and the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP).  It is clear that the intention was to put a new advisory body at the heart of delivering this via designation of new SSSI, pro-active identification and management of woodlands, greater connectivity between habitats, and restoration of nationally-important forest habitats.  The Government response devolves this all to Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), with a danger that landscape-scale is reduced again to local scale, and the potential benefits of the NEWP are lost, and woodlands are lost within many competing priorities for funding.
Future of the Forestry Commission
All of this brings us nicely to the future of the Forestry Commission (FC).  With Forest Enterprise becoming the PFM body, this leaves us with Forest Research (which is going to continue, at least in some form, possibly with increased resources), and Forest Services (FS) which is the branch of the FC with which many small woodland owners are familiar, being the body from whom they get grants and to which they go for advice, and to submit management plans, and to obtain felling licences.
Recommendation 23 was quite positive about a new, more robust, and expanded role for FS, which would take on the duties of the FC and the Forestry Commissioners.  It should “… become a public body, charged with championing, protecting and increasing benefits from trees, woodlands and forests that are good for people, good for nature and good for the green economy.”   It would have a pivotal role in developing ecosystem services, pulling in resources, working with land owners and Government, look at ways to develop profit from woodlands, and to enhance biodiversity and improve ecosystem services.  This looked like a robust recommendation and an enhanced and expanded role for FS.  Alarm bells ring for me at the response.  “The Government needs to retain a core of forestry expertise with the capacity to deliver a range of functions, duties and powers including, for example…”  and goes on to list some of the potential roles including “Enabling the sector to protect, improve and expand England’s trees woods and forests through light touch regulation, grants, other incentives and advice.”.  All well and good, except that no commitment is given to how and where this might be delivered.  Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) are undergoing a triennial review which will be published in Spring 2013, and the general vibes are that these bodies will both merge and subsume the new FS organisation.
The IFP wanted advice to be proactive – for this body to go out, look for under-managed woodlands, and offer advice and help and incentives proactively to manage them (Recommendation 11).  Currently, advice is available, as are grants, from the existing FS arm of the FC.  It is free to landowners.  However the Government response to Recommendation 11 commits only to making sure landowners know where to go for advice and help, not that this advice or help will continue to be impartial or free.  For small woodland owners, the requirement to pay for advice would preclude its uptake for many.
Even more worrying is the prospect that this remnant of the FC will be split into two – some functions being subsumed by DEFRA and some going to the new remnant body, wherever this sits.  Its future does not look like the new, robust, proactive public body envisaged by the IFP.
Improvement of existing woodlands – delivering the benefits
This section of the response covers economic, societal and environmental benefits.  This section starts with some good words, including the potential for realising environmental benefits, including ecosystem services, and the realisation that minimal management can be a positive decision for some woodlands.  The aim is to increase the proportion of woodlands in active management to two thirds, eventually to 80%.  However this depends on the provision of appropriate, timely, independent and expert advice and help – the Government have commissioned research on the best way to deliver this, but it remains to be seen whether this will continue to be free, an essential feature of current FC advice.
There is also a commitment to a review by Peter Bonfield of the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to develop a …”clear roadmap to a new and successful future for England’s forest-based supply chains.”  Looking at the CONFOR web site, through which this is to be delivered, the vast majority of stakeholders participating in this review are large and corporate, with The Small Woods Association being the only voice of those small woodland owners who, individually, do not and cannot produce sufficient to market their products individually.  The action-plan for developing markets is very industry-led, and market-led, and there is little evidence of what can or will be done in the event that the market fails to deliver.
There is a great deal here about developing wood fuel markets, and of bringing woodland products to market from publicly-owned woodlands not in FC ownership, including those in Councils and National Parks.  There is also a commitment to expand use of wood for construction, although the response falls short of the “wood first” principle envisaged in Recommendation 21 – rather that “..local planning authorities, developers and their architects should consider how locally-sourced materials can make a strong contribution to local character and distinctiveness”.  This is not “wood first”, rather “think about wood”.
Recommendation 5 stated that “Education authorities and early learning centres should ensure that every child has an element of woodland-based learning that will, for example, encourage woodland owners to form a partnership with a local school”.  This is not accepted, instead placing the onus on the school to decide what is right for their pupils, and no funding is provided other than the Pupil Premium, for which there are many competing demands, including Forest Schools.  The response also appears to equate visits to woodlands with Forest Schools – clearly the two are very different.
Community involvement appears to be limited to the Localism Act, and the designation of Local Green Space “which could include woodlands”.  But these are limited in size, and to urban areas, towns and villages, not rural areas, and offer limited scope for protection of larger areas.  Recommendation 8 is robust, and envisages woodland strategies being integrated into Local Plans, as well as encouraging tourism and leisure based businesses.  The response is more along the lines that these plans could include woodlands, rather than should.  It is very watered-down.
Access is also a major strand of this response, as expected, given the strong recommendations surrounding access in the IFP Report (Recommendations 4, 5, 6 and 7, plus elements of others).  The Woodland Trust Access Standard, and the VisitWoods gateway is seen as the way in which people can find out which woodlands are open to public visits.  But many woodlands that are open to the public some of the time are not included on this database.  There is a great deal about planting trees close to people and incentivising access, but this is based around encouragement, rather than funding.  Opening to the public costs money in insurance premiums, staffing, maintenance, damage repair and tree-safety among other things, and there is nothing in the response about how anything other than encouragement will be used, despite these costs being prohibitive to small woodland owners.
Potential for nature is left until last, and will be delivered via Local Nature Partnerships and Nature Improvement Areas outlined in the NEWP.  A new, welcome, Open Habitats policy is to be introduced to protect lowland heath where woodland is encroaching.  A commitment to use of biodiversity offsetting is again given:  the idea that if a development damages habitat, this can be offset by investment in habitat elsewhere.  This opens the way for trading in habitats, including ancient woodland – offsetting loss of valuable habitat in one area by creation of more, lower quality habitat in another makes no ecological sense, since this is like selling the crown jewels for a skip-load of cheap jewellery.
What is good is the acknowledgement that the priorities of economics, community and wildlife can work together by sustainable woodland management that can produce both good wood and timber, and good habitat, and potentially also provide for public access.  However where the balance will lie is yet to be determined.
Woodland Expansion and Realising Value
There is a commitment to accelerate the creation of woodland that has been happening through the 20th Century.  The response makes much of partnerships, such as those developed in the National Forest.  The principle of the right tree in the right place is reiterated.  So far so good.
However, the key for privately-owned land, which is the majority of land, is to get landowners to plant trees where it suits them and their local conditions and priorities.  Such a laissez-faireapproach is unlikely to deliver the ecosystem and biodiversity benefits that can come from a planned landscape-scale approach.  And there is an imperative to make this woodland economically viable as possible.  There is virtually no mention of finance other than via private finance, the woodland carbon code, ecosystem services, biodiversity offsetting and philanthropic investment for the purposes of public relations and business image.
In order to get funding for projects that recognise the value that woodlands provide to the ecosystem, we need to be able to value these services properly.  This process is in its infancy, and best developed in carbon offsetting.  Carbon capture is most prominent in young, fast-growing woodlands such as new plantations, rapid-growth timber and coppice re-growth, and if not carefully managed, this could lead to inappropriate management plans centred around carbon capture that could disadvantage mature and ancient woodlands.  Coppicing is not appropriate everywhere.  Other services are being developed, such as flood management, but there is a risk that if investment in expansion is market-driven, it will be weighted towards services that can be easily valued, such as carbon offsetting, and thus towards rapidly-growing woodlands.
Markets are essential for woodland owners to offset the costs of running their woods, and to develop viable businesses.  What is worrying is that the whole approach is market-driven, and there are no checks and balances built in when and if the market fails to deliver balanced expansion of woodland that meets multiple priorities for people and nature, as well as business.  In addition, market development may favour larger producers at the expense of smaller ones, yet these are the ones in whose hands much of the privately-owned woodlands rest.  Woodlands do need to create produce, and markets are needed for this produce, but the markets need to serve all woodland owners, not just the larger estates.
The document is, as expected, not explicit on commitments to this except in small areas such as Forest Research.  It is hard to blame the Government here, as the amount of money available under the next Rural Development Plan for England (RDPE) will not be known until the outcome of negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is known.  What appears to be clear is there will be less money in 2014-2020 than before, and thus the availability of help, advice, grants and incentives that are free to landowners is likely to be reduced.  Indeed, the PFM body will see funding progressively reduced as their commercial activities ramp up.  Funding for the PFM body will be maintained in the current spending review period to avoid the need to sell off assets and maintain high levels of benefit.  But what about the rest?  The IFP Report was ambitious in that many other landowners and other sectors would be engaged in maximising public benefits from woodlands and forests, but for many this would be dependent on grants and free advice.  Partnerships can boost this funding, but will it boost it to the level required to maintain and build on what the FC currently deliver?  Particularly if it is cut under the CAP review.
The major triumph of the public outcry over the plans to sell off our woodlands and forests, and the IFP Report, is that the PFE will remain in public hands, held in trust for the nation.  There are also good elements in this response:  looking at ways to bring money in to woodlands, looking at ways to involve communities, looking at ways to improve access, looking at ways to protect trees against diseases and climate change.  The commitment to develop and open habitats strategy is also good.  It is perhaps understandable that the Government cannot commit to funding when the outcome of CAP reform is not known.  But there is a worrying dependence on a market-driven mechanism for delivering this policy. The roles of the Guardians of the PFE, and of stakeholder consultation have been watered-down.  A stated commitment to protection of ancient woodlands is not backed-up by the NPPF, and nothing here is changing that.  The role of the new PFM body is very much up for discussion.  From the point of view of a small woodland owner, how can an owner with few resources of his or her own get access to free advice, to grants, to support for tapping in to local markets and local partnership funding?  And how are public voices to continue to be heard?  Stakeholder input to the PFM body is watered-down, and there is limited scope for communities to influence local plans, particularly where they involve woodlands and forests not currently in public ownership.  It all looks like a top-down, rather than grass-roots solution.  Perhaps most worrying is the failure to commit to woodland-based education for all children.  Without a next generation of children who understand woodlands, their value, their management, and their contribution to the ecosystem, the future of our forests and woodlands remains uncertain.