Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to talk to the House about a new programme of afforestation. I trust that it will have widespread agreement across the House and there will be a little less conflict. Who knows? We will be up for it if there is some.
As Minister, I have asked for sustainability to be placed at the heart of everything that my Department does. That includes the sustainable management of the trees and woodlands of Northern Ireland, which are one of our key natural assets, with an estimated 100,000 kilometres of tree-lined hedgerows and 113,000 hectares of woodland within which approximately 2,000 kilometres of forest tracks and paths are available for public access and broader health benefits.
It is clear how much people value our forests, and I share that appreciation. There are around five million visits to the Department’s forest parks each year. However, the level of forest cover in Northern Ireland is currently 8% of land, compared with 13% in the UK, 11% in the Republic of Ireland and 43% in the European Union. They are ahead of us on that. There is a clear case for expanding forest cover here to support a thriving environment, strong economy and healthy, active communities. This will not be without its challenges. It will require partnership working across the Executive and wider public sector and, importantly, the support of rural landowners and communities. However, that does not mean that it should not be done. It will need to be achieved through a coherent policy framework within which agricultural, environmental and afforestation policies clearly complement one another. This will be a key focus of the Department over the coming months.
Planting more trees and increasing forest cover would bring a number of benefits to Northern Ireland society. There is clear evidence to show that tree planting contributes to a healthy, quality environment. It can help to mitigate climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere. On average, one hectare of woodland captures 1,200 tons of carbon dioxide in its lifetime. It would also improve the landscape and biodiversity, and it would enable more people to improve their health, well-being and life chances through their enjoyment of this quality, natural resource. Furthermore, it would make a significant contribution to Northern Ireland’s sustainable and inclusive economic growth. The gross value added by the forestry sector is around £60 million per annum from timber production activity, sustaining approximately 1,000 rural jobs. A further £60 million to £80 million is generated in the local economy from forest-based recreation and tourism.
To date, the forestry strategy has been delivered mainly through successive rural development programmes encouraging private landowners to convert agricultural land to forestry. This has resulted in the creation of small, predominately broad-leaved woodlands providing health benefits for the woodland owner, low levels of carbon sequestration potential and biodiversity benefits. The current rates of afforestation, if projected, represent only a modest rate of woodland creation — short of 1% by the middle of the century. The Committee on Climate Change called tree planting a "simple, low-cost option" to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Its 'Reducing Emissions in Northern Ireland' report noted that the current 200 hectares of tree planting falls "well short" of the Committee’s recommendation of 900 hectares of woodland a year.
The UK Government are committed to achieving net zero carbon by 2050. Climate change is a significant challenge, not only for the UK but globally. Northern Ireland can make a significant contribution to addressing these challenges at a local level through a number of innovative environmental policies, including increased afforestation that is managed sustainably and better integrated with other land uses. Increasing afforestation at the rate necessary to make a meaningful impact on carbon capture will require a strong partnership approach and the support of my Executive colleagues and Members of the House. Existing publicly owned land, including local government land, has the greatest potential for woodland creation in the short term. I have written to ministerial colleagues and to the chief executives of councils, seeking their support and commitment to make public land available for tree planting and to provide an initial assessment of the scale and extent of land that may be available.
The quality, accessibility and environmental sensitivity of the land will be key considerations in the sustainability of tree planting. I plan to establish an afforestation forum to work collectively across the public sector to coordinate the assessment of available public land and develop an action plan for increasing afforestation. I will oversee this work personally, and the forum will report to me regularly. As Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I am committed to leading by example. I take this opportunity to advise Members of an afforestation event on 9 March at which 1,000 trees will be planted by local children on my Department’s land at Loughry College, Cookstown. Similar legacy events will follow. I will continue to play a lead role in increasing afforestation and creating a sustainable environment. Importantly, this enhanced afforestation programme must encourage tree planting and create opportunities to incorporate trees and woodlands into farms and other businesses in a realistic and viable way, with the necessary reskilling programmes to enable landowners to refocus their land use.
With the leadership, commitment, skills and willingness available to us, we should seek to increase forest cover significantly over the next decade. Over the next 10 years, my Department will lead a programme of afforestation called Forests for our Future. By 2030, it will have planted 18 million trees to create 9,000 hectares of new woodland, which is equivalent to 10 trees per person in Northern Ireland. The programme will improve the resilience of Northern Ireland's forests and woodlands and increase their contribution to a sustainable, healthy environment; increase the contribution of forests and woodlands to Northern Ireland's sustainable and inclusive economic growth; and increase the use of Northern Ireland's forest resources to enable more people to improve their health, well-being and life chances.
The purpose of the statement is to set out my intentions to increase afforestation to support climate change and maximise individual, community and societal benefits for the citizens of today and for generations to come. I hope that it sets out the direction of travel and receives the support of Members, because, as I have previously said, we must seek to achieve those benefits together.
I thank the Minister for presenting his statement today. It is a welcome announcement, given the fact that the North has only 8% of tree cover, and particularly when compared with 43% tree cover across the European Union. Something did need to happen, and I welcome the announcement. I am sure that its ambition will be widely welcomed, particularly the ambition to plant 18 million trees by 2030.
The statement refers to the Committee on Climate Change and its report from February 2019 on reducing emissions in the North. The Minister will be well aware that tree planting is only one aspect of the complex equation of dealing with climate change. He will be aware that 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in the North come from the agriculture sector. Is his Department preparing an overarching response to the Committee on Climate Change report, and, if so, when will it be given?
The Member anticipates the next stage, and I hope to be in a position within two or three weeks to be able to come back to the House and develop further aspects of the green economy that we look forward to utilising to ensure that we reduce our carbon footprint.
Northern Ireland has never benefited from oil, gas or coal, so I have no issue whatsoever with moving away from fossil fuels to a much greener economy. I believe that the opportunity exists for Northern Ireland to be a seller of green energy. We should be looking to get to the point of making such a contribution. The Member is right that the trees will help. We cannot remove all carbon, but, if we want to meet this challenge head-on, reducing carbon is the biggest element, and we will identify and move forward with a course of action over the coming weeks and months. There is work to be done there. I have talked to my Executive colleagues about it and am getting great support from them. As an Executive, we will need to embrace a greener economy and move forward together.
The Member is right that there are vast areas. DFI and Minister Mallon have been very willing to cooperate with me. Northern Ireland Water and Transport NI have large swathes of land that we could use, and, all being well, that will be the case. Local authorities also have large swathes of land, as, indeed, do many of the arm's-length bodies.
The actual planting of trees is not expensive: it is the acquisition of the land that is expensive. If we in Northern Ireland were to acquire 700 hectares of land each year, at roughly £25,000 per hectare, that would be a huge cost to us, so the logical thing to do is to use the land that is already available to us. We want to work on that with other Departments. I trust that other Departments, and local authorities, will do that and I believe that they will. Aside from that, we need to work with and develop the relationships that we have with the rural community in order to encourage further tree planting on privately owned land.
I thank the Minister. I agree with what he has already said; that the management of forests and woodlands is an undervalued area of the economy and is also critical to managing our climate impact. Can the Minister outline the contribution that the farming community can make to forest management, carbon storage and floodplain management as a public-good contribution?
The Member raises important points. The Department is looking currently at how it can actually have a better land-mapping base in Northern Ireland and the opportunity to identify, through the LIDAR scheme, where significant run-offs take place. Those are areas of land on which we would particularly encourage farmers to plant trees. We have also been looking at the areas that are closest to waterways, because, currently, farmers are not allowed, for example, to spread slurry within five metres of a waterway. We need to work with them and encourage them to plant trees around those waterways. That will be beneficial to the farmers because it will reduce opportunities for pollution of those waterways. It will lift a pressure off them that they do not need. We need to support them to do it.
Having a good assessment of land quality, various pH levels of the soil, and so on, will allow farmers better opportunities to acquire fertiliser, slurry and all that, and apply it appropriately. Planting trees on key areas of land will also assist farmers to do things in a more environmentally friendly way. This is an area where we can develop win-wins with the farming community, whereby they get appropriate support and the public get a reduced carbon footprint, better and cleaner waters, and better air quality.
The figures come from my Department, which has done a course of work on the matter. There are just short of 5 million visits to forest parks each year. Those who use them include walkers, cyclists and the film industry. There are splendid waterways in forest parks. We have some real gems in Northern Ireland. I think of the forest parks at Castlewellan, Tollymore, Hillsborough and Gortin Glen. There are many more. I will probably offend people by not mentioning the beautiful forests that they have in their constituencies.
I thank the Minister for his statement. He has guessed already — of course, correctly — that some of us are more enthusiastic about this statement than the previous one. In that regard, he is right. It is commendable that the Minister's personal interest in and commitment to the Forests for our Future programme are clear from the text of the statement. We genuinely thank him for that. I add a very swift follow-up to a question that I asked as a supplementary. It may have been the Minister's first Question Time when he promised us an announcement soon on afforestation. We look forward to future timely delivery on environmental protection and other matters.
Action plans and working groups have been referred to, but how best can we ensure that the plans are future-proofed and wildlife-proof with regard to broadleaf species, for example, and local wildlife?
I certainly think that, particularly for the small plantings that local farmers do, you would give them support only in instances where it is broadleaf species as opposed to commercial species. We have a very successful commercial arm in our Department that grows trees that are harvested and replanted. That still has significant benefits, but nonetheless we want to increase the amount of broadleaf trees that are being planted. Much of the work that we will do with, for example, local authorities and private landowners will be very much based on broadleaf trees.
The Member mentioned sustainability. There are some soils that we will not want to plant on. The more peat-based soils already have a lot of carbon sequestration. Consequently, we do not want to plant trees on that, because it could have less sequestration in that instance. We need to plant trees in the appropriate soils to ensure the sustainability that the Member referred to.
The environmental farming scheme has been a good success thus far and has had good uptake. As we move forward, we will seek to make amendments and changes to it to deliver further success. One of the things that I really want to look at is what are termed riparian boundaries, which are the boundaries along the rivers. I indicated earlier that that will reduce run-off towards rivers from the land; where the land is rich in nutrients, more of those nutrients will be kept in the soil. It is important to keep those nutrients in the soil and away from the waterways. Appropriate tree-planting may be something that could assist us in doing that.
I, too, welcome the Minister's statement. I also thank him for the response to my question for written answer on the issue. I am pleased to see that plans for an afforestation strategy are being progressed as one of the measures to tackle carbon emissions, and also the commitments around broadleaf native trees to support our biodiversity.
Following on from a previous question, tackling the climate emergency requires a framework for climate action, which would be underpinned by legislation. Of course, the Assembly has voted to declare a climate emergency and to implement the measures on climate in New Decade, New Approach. Will the Minister advise of the time frame for bringing forward a climate change Bill, please?
That is a course of work that my officials are looking at, but we are not in a position at this stage to give an outline of that programme. I will bring forward other issues that will demonstrate our commitment to having a quality, enhanced environment in Northern Ireland, where we will have cleaner waterways, cleaner air and a reduced carbon footprint. All of that is achievable by taking necessary steps. Some of those will be small steps and some will be larger, but nonetheless we will take them. This is one of the important steps that we are taking. I trust that the BBC, for example, will recognise that this is an important step and not a waste of money; there was a programme that went out, I think, last week that slammed the Assembly for wanting to plant trees.
I think it put the cost of planting at something like £10 per tree; we can actually acquire whips for around 50p per tree. It is not a huge expense to the public purse; it is a benefit to the public purse. I trust that the BBC will reflect on the stupidity and the fallacy in a lot of the issues that it raised with the New Decade, New Approach deal and our commitment to planting more trees and making a better environment in Northern Ireland.
I welcome the Minister's statement and the announcements in it. It is vital that we enhance the natural habitat because of the benefits that that will bring to the environment and to people by getting them out of their workplaces, off their technological devices and embracing the natural habitat around them. The Minister's statement is very welcome.
I am surprised that the Minister did not mention Hillsborough forest park in his constituency when he named a number of others. I welcome the ongoing work at Hillsborough forest park. The community is looking forward to the improvements and the greater accessibility that they will provide. Will the Minister indicate whether he has any plans to widen community accessibility to Forest Service's assets so that, when it comes to the organisation of events, we maximise the number of people who can avail themselves of the facilities and reassure the community that Forest Service is not just about trees?
In recent years — predating me — the Forest Service has been engaging better with the community. For years, it was just about the trees and not about the people who were benefiting from it.
The Member mentioned Hillsborough, and the biggest problem in Hillsborough is that we are attracting twice as many people as was predicted. The number of people who want to come to those facilities is phenomenal. I was recently in south Tyrone — Brantry — and saw the wonderful new paths that have been created there, which are being well utilised by members of the public. One thing that really encourages me is the number of disabled people who previously could not use the paths but now can, as the paths have been made disabled-friendly so that people can travel around those forests. That has been a huge success.
Many people engage in mountain biking in forests, and, while it is a sport that I would not necessarily recommend, because people sustain a lot of injuries, people get real enjoyment from it, and Forest Service has been more facilitating in recent years on that front.
In the summertime, there are youth camps in some of our forest parks, and young people spend a number of days there. What better place could they be in than in that natural environment, enjoying the biodiversity and the beautiful rivers that run through our forest parks and seeing all the wildlife. I want to encourage that so that more young people get out into our forest parks. They need to be a resource for all of our community. We are building towards that, but there is more work to be done.
The last Member to speak referred to something that I was going to mention. I note and welcome the fact that we have some five million visitors to forest parks each year, who generate £60 million to £80 million through forest-based recreation and tourism. There are some good examples, and I am glad that the Minister mentioned the Gortin Glen forest park in my area, which is a fantastic example of partnership working between his Forest Service and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, which delivered an absolutely fantastic product.
Just last week, I facilitated a group of people from the Cappagh Village Regeneration Group to meet Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to look at realising the potential of the Altmore forest, which covers 597 hectares and straddles the Fermanagh and Omagh and Mid Ulster council districts. As part of the Minister's Forests for the Future strategy, will he give a commitment to build on the excellent work that he and his Department have been engaged in with councils and local communities? Will he commit to bringing back a report on his plans to build, develop and grow that partnership working?
I am happy to give the Member the assurance that we will seek to build on that. We could not do it without the assistance of local government, which has really stepped up to the plate in providing additional funding and resource to make better utilisation of the facilities. That is partnership working, and that is how things should work. We have a wonderful asset that is not being utilised quite as well as it could be, and local government is coming in and assisting us in opening up that utilisation. I want to continue to work on those types of programmes to ensure that the public can enjoy that rich asset that belongs to them.
Unfortunately, I did not get in quickly enough to ask the Minister a question on his previous statement, but, perhaps, for both of us, in the interests of agreement, it is a little better that I am asking him on this one because there is probably more consensus.
I welcome his statement and the sentiment behind it. What conversations has the Minister had or does he intend to have with Belfast City Council? One of his colleagues — I think it was my constituency colleague behind him — mentioned Belvoir forest. This is not just about rural areas. Last year, Belfast City Council passed, with, I think, cross-party support, an initiative to plant a million trees. It would be useful to have an indication from him about what conversations he has had with Belfast City Council about supporting that million-tree initiative and ensuring that urban forests are developed in a way that is beneficial for everyone.
Current practice is to engage with council delivery practitioners. It has proved very successful, and we have signed a series of memorandums of understanding. Some 85% of those recent memorandums have led to real beneficial change in our forest parks. We have engaged with Belfast City Council, and that engagement will continue to see how we can further enhance that. Belfast, I believe, wants to plant one million trees, and we are more than happy to work with, support, lend expertise and facilitate it in how we can do that. That takes us one eighteenth of the way there; we have another 17 eighteenths to go beyond what Belfast City Council wants to do. If every constituency was to plant a million trees, we would be there, so that would put four million in Belfast. We understand that there is less land availability there, and a million trees would certainly be a huge asset to the city of Belfast. We are happy to work with the council on that.
There are a number of schemes with the local farming community. The Forest Service has been constantly and steadily planting trees and seeking to acquire land to plant trees. Acquiring land is so expensive that it holds back the work that you can do on afforestation, so I am looking at a change of focus and at how we can identify pockets of unutilised land in a range of Departments other than DAERA to see how we can quickly get wins on afforestation. Some of those land portions could be substantial, particularly lands relating to Water Service. We need cooperation from all those organisations, and I trust that we will get it. We will continue to introduce schemes that will encourage and support the planting of forests.
I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome it. Will the Minister expand a bit on whether he intends to use councils to encourage local community groups and schoolchildren to roll out this programme? Obviously, this would give them a bit of ownership, and I think that it would be a better programme if he looked towards rolling it out in that way.
We want to encourage young people to become engaged in tree planting, so we are working with the Department of Education and, because of the colleges, the Department for the Economy. We ought to encourage young people to participate. Young people have a real interest in environmental issues and in having a cleaner, greener environment. Tree planting is one element of that in which young people can get involved. We will encourage that, and we will encourage communities to get involved. Local authorities are much better placed than we are and can assist us in doing that. I am surprised that the Member did not mention the Ring of Gullion forest park, which is another fantastic asset that is used by many, and it is good to see it opened up in that way.
I, too, pay tribute to the Minister for this positive statement. I can think of no better place than this beautiful, wood-inspired environment in which to announce positive action on afforestation. I draw particular attention to the Department's forest parks, which he mentioned, and I note that, in my constituency and the surrounding area, we have Peatlands Park and Loughgall Country Park. The Minister quoted visitor numbers of five million and the positive lifestyle and fitness regimes that those parks can provide. In many areas, the biggest obstacle is access, particularly in the winter months. Will the Minister commit to looking at potential ways of opening up parks to provide better access, thereby boosting the numbers who can benefit from those tree-inspired environments?
We have been able to deliver on that work through engagement with local authorities. I understand that, particularly after the month of weather that we have just had, some of our assets may be a little trickier to access than others. We want to create a facility that is available 365 days of the year. We will be happy to work with local authorities to create opportunities for them to maximise the usage of the wonderful assets in their community.
"A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit."
We have quite a long way to go before we can be considered great, and, of course, the Minister has a wee bit to go before he can be considered old. He spoke about working with local authorities and other Departments. In particular, what work can be done with the Department for Infrastructure (DFI) on planning policy and with councils as they form their local development plans on enshrining a requirement that some planning applications have to include planting?
I thank the Member for not accusing me of being old yet. It is all relative. To an 80-year-old, I am young; to a 20-year-old, I am old. Given that the Member is closer to my age, he probably does not see the old bit, but young people probably see us as not being young. That is all an aside.
On planning policy, trees are more challenging in built-up areas. I suspect that most Members have been lobbied about getting trees taken away and so forth because of roots growing through footpaths or leaves shedding on people's roofs and causing problems. Tree planting in urban areas and, especially, identifying it through planning need to be done with the appropriate trees, and it needs to be done in a way that causes good impacts as opposed to negative impacts on the people who live there. I do not want to insist on trees being planted, only for somebody to have to whack them all down with a chainsaw in 20 years' time. We need to get it right, and we are happy to work with the Department for Infrastructure on the planning side to ensure that local authorities' planning divisions look at the issues appropriately.
Of course, green areas are left in new-build areas nowadays. It is about how we can plant trees appropriately in those areas.
Nothing beats driving through a city with a broad avenue that has trees lining either side of it. It looks fantastic. We need to ensure that we can have appropriate planting of trees in our urban areas.
Everybody knows that trees have major benefits. Trees, as does grass, suck carbon out of the atmosphere and into our soil through photosynthesis. That is of real importance to us.
Getting people out into forested areas, where they can get activity and the air is cleaner, is a real health benefit. Belvoir Park forest in the Member's constituency is such a massive asset to have in any city. Most cities do not have the opportunity to have a forest park contained within them. Some would see that as being valuable development land. We see it as valuable environmental land that is being utilised appropriately in an urban setting.
The Minister will be delighted to know that, to end on a happy note, I will bring the subject back to Brexit. In his statement, he refers to the successful implementation of rural development programmes. Those programmes will not be successful without European funding. How will the Minister replace that funding?
I have to say that the statement is very welcome, and I welcome the fact that the Minister will take a lead role in the programme, but everything requires money.
We have argued for £340 million that was associated with the European Union to come directly from Westminster. We have argued that it should not go into the Barnett formula but should be separately apportioned. I understand that the Finance Minister will also make that argument, and I will be working closely with him to ensure that we maximise what we can get. I trust that we will be able to move forward together in the best interests of all the people whom we serve.
I thank the Minister for his statement. It is welcome to see him move so swiftly to take action on reforestation across Northern Ireland. As somebody who lives on the boundary of Belvoir Park forest and who spent the weekend in Cregagh Glen, I have to say that the work done by many agencies to look after our spaces is to be commended. It was great to hear that you could plant another million trees in Belfast, because everybody benefits from having such spaces.
I was going to ask the Minister about the land that has been identified for planting, but I think that he addressed that when he spoke about not planting on land that can release more carbon than the trees would capture. Can he therefore give us any updates on how his Department is working to establish an independent environmental protection agency, as was voted for in the House a few weeks back?
It is slightly off subject, but it is work that we are looking at. In particular, an Environment Bill will come forward that will, for example, identify the need for replacing the work that the European Commission does. An Office for Environmental Protection will be established as a result of that legislation, and it will be wholly independent of government. That is one of the areas that we are looking at when it comes to the hasty establishment of an independent environment agency.
While there may be much that is laudable about this proposal, I have heard little reference to costing. Is there a business case for this policy? Does it involve taking any land into public ownership? Is there any assessment of the husbandry costs involved? Those are the sorts of things we have not heard about. If it is, in part, about incentivising farmers to grow trees, what is the nature of that incentivisation and will it have any adverse impact on food production? Finally, is this statement and its proposal, linked to what has been grandly called the Great Ulster Forest, which was in 'New Deal, New Approach', supposedly something to do with the centenary? Is this what the Great Ulster Forest is, or is there are some other proposition and, if there is, what is the relationship between them?
Certainly, all afforestation will be contained in this, so that we can have a significant planting to mark 2021. I hope it will be there in 100 years' time, still in Northern Ireland, for people to enjoy and celebrate.
The Member asks what benefit there is to the farming community. There is already grant aid for woodland creation. That can be integrated into the whole farm management programme. It complements the agricultural value of the land. In many instances, farmers like sheltered places, for example, for young calves. That can be a real benefit. Providing buffer strips reduces the risk of accidental breaches of water pollution and biosecurity standards. We can reduce the ammonia loss to the atmosphere from point sources and, in some areas, it will convert steep slopes, which are hazardous for farming on, and areas that are unproductive and currently just growing bracken and gorse, into forest.
Those are all areas where we can work with the private landowners in developing. We can work with our own government bodies in developing some of those areas where land is not well utilised at present. I am sure that the Member would welcome us planting trees on such land and improving the opportunities for capturing carbon and providing environmental improvements as a result.
There is no real dispute that trees are a benefit to community. We can appropriately deliver a better-forested Northern Ireland, in line with our network of hedgerows, and create a really beneficial place, environmentally and aesthetically. By encouraging tourists to come to Northern Ireland, major benefits may be had from a programme like this.
The estimated cost is around £80 million over the 10 years.
The Minister stated correctly that removing carbon from the atmosphere is essential. Afforestation obviously provides an opportunity to do so. Does he agree that re-wetting drained bogs and bogland is also essential to tackling climate change, so that they will act as a huge carbon sink?
It is certainly something that will capture more carbon. It is a little controversial in that it may involve other people's lands and therefore it is something that we need to look at, and we need to work with other people in doing that and exercise due caution in that respect. There is a carbon benefit in further wetting our wetlands, but there are challenges in relation to that.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it still a rule of the House that, in respect of ministerial statements such as we have just had, when calling Members to speak, priority is given to those who have sat through the debate and that those who flit in and out of the debate go to the end of the queue? Is that still the rule of this House, and if it is, how was Mr O'Dowd called at the point at which he was called?
There is a record kept of Members coming and going. Members will be aware that, in order to ask any question about a statement, they need to be here for the statement itself. Thank you.