Native Woodlands

– in Westminster Hall at 1:28 pm on 9th February 2010.

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Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood 1:28 pm, 9th February 2010

I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about what I think, and what the vast majority of people in this country think, is a vital topic. I recall that in my maiden speech back in May 1992 the first issue I addressed was the need to renew, regenerate and re-grow Sherwood forest. It is fitting that, in the twilight of my parliamentary years and in some of the last comments that I will make, I return to the subject of forestry.

It is important to recognise that during the 18 years between 1992 and now there have been major changes in thinking. At one time woodland cover was regarded as an additional extra, a luxury, the icing on the cake and something nice to have. But it has become clear in recent years that woodland policy is vital in delivering many of our mainstream policies. Let me give some examples, starting with the most pressing issue: climate change goals of mitigation and adaptation.

Woodland has a vital role to play, both here in the United Kingdom and internationally: it has real benefits for soil and water and can help with flood alleviation and is a source of and background for more wildlife. We underestimate the value of good quality woodland in providing an environment for economic development and, more particularly, tourism. I shall speak later about woodland providing timber, but there are also benefits for recreation and health-walking the woodlands brings physical and mental benefits. In their low carbon transition plan, the Government state the position well when they say that

"well-targeted woodland creation can also bring about other benefits, including a recreational resource, employment opportunities, flood alleviation, improvements in water quality, and helping to adapt our landscapes to climate change by linking habitats to support wildlife".

A number of reports that have been published recently recognise the value of woodland. A consensus is growing that woodland creation is a mainstream policy. The Read report, which was commissioned by the Forestry Commission and published just before Christmas-I understand that the Government will respond to it around Easter-states clearly that the Forestry Commission should try to produce 23,000 hectares of wood a year over 40 years. That would help to reduce carbon emissions in the UK by 10 per cent. The Government's low carbon transition plan, which was published in the summer, called for an additional 10,000 hectares a year for 15 years, and calculated that that would remove 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2050.

The UK's biodiversity action plan identifies a target of 83,555 hectares of new woodland by 2010, and a total of 164,000 hectares by 2030. That is important, because we start from a very low base. The UK is the fourth least wooded country in Europe. Only 8 per cent. of England is covered, with 5.8 per cent. of that being broadleaf. We have a notion of England being a green and pleasant land where people wander in the greenwood, but that is not the reality. The figures for tree creation and woodland planting have remained stable for a couple of decades. We are not making progress to achieve our aims.

I am particularly concerned about my area of the east midlands where only 5 per cent. of the region is covered by woodland. Closer to home in Nottinghamshire-the home of the internationally famous Sherwood forest-just 8 per cent. of the cover is woodland. The east midlands forestry framework states:

"The Region has a relatively poor level of tree cover compared to England as a whole. Creation of new woodlands, particularly with native species, can stimulate the economy through tourism, business diversification and forestry employment."

Similarly, the east midlands regional strategy refers to how green infrastructure, of which woods and trees are a key component,

"transforms open space from 'nice to have' to 'must have' as an integral part of new developments. Green infrastructure helps frame the most efficient and attractive location for development and growth in the context of sustainable development. It also helps address inequalities of health and quality of life issues particularly in more deprived communities."

Given the low base, we must take action. We need a framework for the future. I have always been a supporter of the Woodland Trust, and I was delighted when it recently launched its manifesto "Growing the future". It argues keenly for a doubling of our native woodland in the UK over the next 50 years. It believes that, despite our record, that is not pie in the sky, and that we could create 15,000 hectares of new native woodland a year over the next 50 years. That would require a strong partnership, but the trust is not just aspirational. It works hard on the ground, and makes real changes and provides real benefits.

I particularly like the trust's Heartwood project near St. Albans, where more than 150 acres of new native forest will be created with 600,000 trees planted by volunteers over the next five years. It is important that St. Albans is near big conurbations, and the project offers real opportunities for people. Another project on which the Woodland Trust is working in partnership is the notion of an NHS forest with the NHS using its estate to develop new woodland and to plant 1.3 million trees-that is the number of people who work in the NHS. It would provide a clear and tangible sign that health, woodland and green land are linked.

Another good example is the national forest, which, as the Minister knows, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is considering and on which it will produce a report soon. The significance of the national forest is the introduction of new ways and new mechanisms for creating woodland. I am particularly impressed by its tendering policy to which landowners have responded strongly. We should do more of that. The national forest is a good example of an organisation pulling partners together and persuading landowners that there is a long-term future, not just for the environment, but for their own economic benefit, in planting woodland. One lesson is that the national forest team has cut the bureaucracy involved in introducing grants.

I cannot talk about woodland cover without mentioning the internationally most famous forest-Sherwood forest. I praise the work of the Sherwood Forest Trust, which is a strong partnership arrangement that delivers tangible gains, including £8 million of benefits. Sherwood forest has more ancient oaks that anywhere else on the planet, and many are more than 1,000 years old. The oldest at 1,200 years, which is owned by the Sherwood Forest Trust, is the parliament oak, and it is fitting to remember that in 1290, Edward I held his first parliament there. It is a link between Parliament and the woodland.

The Sherwood Forest Trust has worked with 1,650 landowners and delivered 50 large and 1,600 other significant landscape improvements. It has planted more than 13,000 trees, improved about 1,500 hectares of woodland, and created 58 km of new hedging, 92 hectares of wetland, and 50 metres of river bank and associated wet woodland. I am particularly impressed by the work that the trust has done with young people. I was at a tree-planting ceremony recently when young people were given some acorns to grow in the trust's nursery as a tangible sign of developing the forest.

We can and should do more. In Nottinghamshire, there has been a long campaign to establish the Sherwood forest regional park. The county council has been a significant player and has brought forward partners, consultants and the concept of a new regional park based on Sherwood. All the parties have signed up to that, and as a concept it appears good. However, we need to go further and start delivering the project. The East Midlands Development Agency, the county council and the Government's agencies, Natural England and the Forestry Commission, have a role to play in bringing forward the Sherwood forest regional park. It is important to establish that now.

In May, the new Robin Hood film will appear with Russell Crowe as the hero, or anti-hero. It is directed by Ridley Scott and it has been estimated that the film could bring £46 million of investment into Nottinghamshire. We want people to come and look at Nottingham castle and admire it, and then go from the home of the villain to the home of the free men in Sherwood forest. I want them to perceive that that green wood is the place to live and work and perhaps, for unreconstructed socialists, to give from the rich to the poor-a manifesto commitment for the next election.

How do we do that? I have two suggestions. First, we must look at the notion of carbon funding and carbon trading. It is accepted that woodland absorbs carbon, but the arrangements for trading carbon for small, local landowners need to be changed. If something is enhanced by or benefits from the introduction of woodland, someone needs to get the carbon credit. Further work must be done by the Government to stop the notion of double counting, where farmers or landowners claim the benefit as well as the Government.

Secondly, we must target tree-planting. Work by the Woodland Trust shows that 85 per cent. of the population do not live within walking distance of a wood. However, 91 per cent. of people think that woodlands are good things for the environment and can help us to mitigate climate change. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, 79 per cent. of people want more trees planted around towns and cities. We must set targets in partnership with local authorities to ensure that we build towards that target of doubling our woodland cover over the years.

I have one final point to show the demand that is on the woodlands at the moment. There are a variety of new planning applications for energy generation from biomass. There is a strong debate about how much wood those plants will consume-one estimate is 40 million tonnes a year. We can produce only 11 million tonnes at the moment, so as night follows day, wood will have to be imported to feed those plants. That cannot be right in sustainability terms. We must also look at what will happen to the wood panel industry, which is dependent on wood from our forests, if all the product goes into biomass generation. That is an example of how more woodland creation and more thoughtful policies can sustain the environment and build our economy.

I talked about the Woodland Trust's manifesto. At the moment, all the political parties are producing manifestos, and one manifesto ought to be clear across the parties: woods are good for the environment and they are good for the economy; woods are good for health and woodland adds value to property. If a politician cannot sell woodland and woodland creation, they cannot sell anything. This is a win-win situation. We must move forward from talk of aspirations for the future to a set of targeted policies to bring that forward.

I am delighted with the work of the Woodland Trust and I have great admiration for the work of the Forestry Commission. However, let us be clear: if we are to combat climate change, lift the landscape and enhance the environment, an essential tool must be new, native woodland cover. The time for talking has ended; there is a consensus that we need to go forward. The Minister has always been extremely helpful to me, and I ask him to come and join that campaign, help us to create a new Sherwood forest and help the Woodland Trust and others to do what is good for the environment, good for sustainability and good for the future. Let us double woodland cover in the UK in 50 years' time.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming and the Environment) 1:45 pm, 9th February 2010

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr. Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping on securing this important debate and on drawing further attention to the need for increasing native woodland cover. I would like to express regret on behalf of my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies, who would be here in normal circumstances to participate in this debate as the Minister responsible for the environment, food and rural affairs. Sadly, he had already committed himself to other duties.

Before I respond to the various points raised, I would like to note the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, both in his role as chair of the all-party group on forestry and given his personal and continuing interest in environmental matters and his strong support for groups and trusts that campaign on forestry issues in his constituency and elsewhere. All that is well known here at Westminster.

Let us turn to the issue at hand, which is that of creating native woodland cover. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Read report, published last November, gave us a better understanding of UK forestry's potential to help tackle climate change. The report is an independent, expert assessment of current scientific knowledge about UK forests and how they can help us to mitigate the effects of climate change.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched the report, he was clear that we need to plant a large number of trees over the next 40 years to tackle climate change and help bring down our carbon emissions, as well as addressing the biodiversity issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood.

To achieve those positive aims, we will need to work with communities and businesses. Since the Read report was published, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Forestry Commission have been developing policies on how we can increase the number of trees that we plant. However, there is more work to do to ensure that we have a clear mechanism to pay for the step change in woodland planting that is needed.

My hon. Friend suggested that we should unlock potential funds by resolving the problems of double counting. Early tree planting schemes suffered from a lack of quality assurance that undermined consumer confidence. In recent years, developments in both the regulated and unregulated carbon offset market have attempted to improve confidence in offsetting mechanisms.

The Government are determined to create a step change in domestic woodland creation, and we are currently working with the Forestry Commission, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and other bodies to find out how else we can stimulate more private sector investment in woodlands. DEFRA and the Forestry Commission are clear about the range of policies that woodland delivers. Trees are not only part of our green infrastructure, but they also play an increasingly important role in our towns and cities. Work by Manchester university suggests that increasing green coverage, particularly the tree canopy, in high density urban areas by only 10 per cent. could mitigate temperature increases from global warming, possibly keeping temperatures at today's levels or below.

I would like to highlight an example of where the right tree has been planted in right place. The national forest, which stretches across three of England's central counties and with which my hon. Friend will be very familiar, has demonstrated that it is possible to make landscape scale improvements by creating increased woodland and other habitats. That increased woodland cover has provided leisure opportunities for local people, supported local economies and driven the economic regeneration of former mining landscapes.

I understand that in my hon. Friend's constituency, as he mentioned, the Sherwood Forest Trust has been set up to secure the long-term future of the forest by restoring its ancient landscape for the benefit of people and wildlife. That is another example of ensuring that woodlands are places that local people can use and enjoy.

Forests and woodlands provide crucial and resilient habitats for wildlife and are a key part of our biodiversity. They will become increasingly important to enhance the English landscape's resilience to climate change and to allow mobile species to migrate to new habitats. For all the reasons that I and my hon. Friend have mentioned, native trees are exceptionally important to us. The Government are determined to ensure that we put plans in place to increase native woodland cover and to ensure that those woodlands are well managed for future generations.

In conclusion, I again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and I assure him that DEFRA agrees about the importance of native woodland cover. I am sure that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will have heard his strong appeal to Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe to get over to Nottingham and Sherwood and to take their money with them as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.