I beg to move,
That this House
has considered tree planting in the UK.
I have a declaration of interest to make: the forest and wood-processing sectors are well represented in my constituency, which contains no fewer than three sawmills, including one at Newbridge-on-Wye, close to the ground of the famous Royal Welsh show at Builth Wells. It will come as no surprise that forestry has always been a strong interest of mine, and I was delighted to be selected by Members to chair the all-party parliamentary group on forestry soon after I was elected as a Member of Parliament. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Unanimous support, as you can tell, Mr Bone.
I will ignore that. The timing of this debate is fortuitous, coming as it does just after National Tree Week, which ended on Sunday. National Tree Week is the UK’s largest annual tree celebration, launching the start of the winter tree-planting season. It first took place in 1975.
The debate also coincides with the inquiry into forestry in England by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which took evidence from a number of organisations interested in trees and woodlands yesterday. It is heartening to see that Parliament is taking the issue of tree planting seriously. This debate is part of the important process of looking at the issue carefully throughout all the nations that make up the United Kingdom, so we can see what lessons can be learned and shared.
The first question to ask is, why does tree planting matter to the people of the UK? Secondly, if it does matter, are we planting enough trees? Thirdly, if we are not planting enough trees, how can we change that and plant more? I will discuss the three questions in the order I set them out.
First, why does planting trees matter? There are many reasons. Most people are surprised when they are told that the UK is the third largest net importer of wood products in the world. China, with its population of 1.35 billion, tops the league table, and Japan, with a population double that of the UK, is in second place.
The reason for our reliance on imports is simple. Woodland cover in England is only 10%, and about 40% of that is not actively managed. Our good friends in Scotland, however, are taking the lead among the home nations with woodland cover at 18%, but that is still only half the European average of 37%. The days of comparing ourselves against the great European averages as a benchmark may be drawing to a close, but it is worth reflecting that more than 30% of the land of all our large European neighbours—Germany, France, Italy and Spain—is covered by trees.
The World Wide Fund for Nature has calculated that global demand for timber, paper and energy from forests is set to triple by 2050. If we do not plant more trees now, and if we continue to rely on imports, then the UK will be competing against other growing economies for a natural resource that we can, and perhaps should, grow more of at home.
What do the British public think? Helpfully, the Forestry Commission has conducted twice-yearly surveys of public attitudes to forestry and related issues since 1995. The findings are consistent over time and are worth putting on the record. Three quarters of people agree or strongly agree that
“Trees are good because they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in wood”.
Rowlinson Timber in my constituency uses forestry products and imports many of them. Making products that go into the supply chain locks up the carbon for additional time and allows the wood to be recycled at the end of the product’s life, making a vital contribution to ecosystem services. Furthermore, planting new trees also assists with anti-flooding measures.
My hon. Friend makes two good points, which I will elaborate on as we make progress. Indeed, in the survey, two thirds of the public agree or strongly agree that:
“Planting more trees can help us cope with climate change by providing shade and reducing the effects of flooding”,
as my hon. Friend said. Four fifths agree or strongly agree that
“A lot more trees should be planted”.
I repeat that for the benefit of the Minister: four fifths of the public agree or strongly agree that a lot more trees should be planted.
Does tree planting matter to the people of the UK? The evidence I have just given strongly demonstrates that it does, and evidence does not come only from more than 20 years of opinion polling. The British public are right behind great charities that support tree planting, such as the Woodland Trust, Trees for Life and the John Muir Trust. Last week, an editorial in The Guardian—not my paper of choice, as has been pointed out to me—summed up our attitude to trees well:
“The British like to romanticise trees”,
it said, having earlier stated:
“We need greenery to feed the forests of our imaginations.”
I find it hard to disagree with those views.
Even in The Guardian.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has recognised the role of trees in mitigating flooding as part of natural flood management, and the EFRA Secretary of State recently announced a £19 million fund to plant trees, because of their contribution to locking up carbon. There are therefore many reasons why we should plant trees. Most importantly, perhaps, our constituents are overwhelmingly in favour of more trees being planted.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is about trees in not only in rural areas, but urban areas? Many people enjoy the presence of trees in towns, and they also act as green lungs—things that are physically beautiful, but also contribute to a better environment for all.
I represent a rural seat, so I am looking from the perspective of the rural economy—and, indeed, of how trees enhance rurality—but I fully agree with my hon. Friend. I chose my little shoebox of a flat in London because it is close to an open square, so that I look out over a little patch of green grass and trees, which reminds me of home. My hon. Friend makes an important point: that certainly puts a spring in my step as I come into this great place every morning.
There are many reasons to plant trees, not least the wishes of our constituents, so I now come to the second question that I asked. Are we planting enough trees in the UK? The answer, as people will not be surprised to learn, sadly, is no. Planting rates in England are at a modern low and have been described as woeful.
The forestry industry in the UK supports at least 79,000 low-carbon jobs and is worth nearly £2 billion annually to our economy. Industry body Confor, the Confederation of Forest Industries, believes that such figures could be significant underestimates. Most available statistics from our countries are out of date, although a recent study in Scotland pointed the way, showing that the sector there had grown by 50% between 2008 and 2014, during challenging economic times in the UK. Well done to Scotland!
In the UK as a whole, we are benefiting from relatively high levels of tree planting in the decades after the end of the second world war. Trees planted in the 1970s and ’80s are now available for harvesting, which is contributing directly to a boom in the forestry and wood-processing industries. Unfortunately, new planting rates in the UK fell dramatically at the end of the 1980s. There has been an increase in Scotland in recent years, but other countries of the UK have largely followed a downward trend.
Organisations such as Confor and the Woodland Trust have been warning about this downturn in planting and the effect that it will have over a number of years. The language used has, perhaps understandably, become more and more extreme. Confor highlights the threat to future supplies of wood to support businesses in the UK, while the Woodland Trust has wondered whether England has experienced annual deforestation in recent years. The situation is simply not acceptable.
I come to my final point, which is a simple question: how can the UK change our approach to tree planting and ensure that we plant more trees? There is some good news—and it is back to Scotland. My colleagues from Scotland will no doubt talk about it in more detail; several of them have put in to speak. It looks as though the Scottish Government, not Wales, Northern Ireland or Westminster, are leading the way. They have the most ambitious targets among the home nations and are taking steps to speed up their processes for approving larger planting schemes.
The application process that farmers and landowners are required to go through to access funding for planting is complex and costly. It can and does put people off. When public money is involved, it is right and proper that comprehensive safeguards are in place to ensure value for money and that high standards are followed, particularly for forestry. However, the relevant bodies across the UK should be able to approve larger schemes that fully meet UK forestry standard requirements within six months in most cases and a year in all cases, not the current two years-plus. That would provide reassurance to farmers and landowners that their applications will not get bogged down with continually rising costs.
We all know that the UK will have to look again at support for the countryside after the country leaves the European Union. We do not yet know what the level of support will be or what it will look like. That will be determined by not just the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but the devolved Administrations in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We surely must grasp the opportunity in front of us to ensure that forestry has parity of esteem with farming and fisheries as post-Brexit countryside policy develops.
For too long, forestry has been the forgotten F-word in rural policy and a poor relation in land use policy discussions. If we grow and process more of the wood we need in the UK, jobs will stay in this country, rather than being exported overseas. Using wood grown in Britain is clearly a priority for this Government, and I firmly support that. Leaving the EU means that we can look again at public procurement rules. States in countries such as Canada and Australia have timber-first public procurement policies. Using more sustainable UK-grown timber will stimulate business growth and ensure that more of our woodlands are well managed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I apologise for missing the very start. He was good enough earlier to touch on the fact that Scotland leads the way on forestry planting. On the use of wood in the UK, does he agree that the UK Government should look at more timber-frame house construction? Again, Scotland leads the way on that. Three out of four houses being built in Scotland use timber-frame construction, whereas in the rest of England and Wales it is something like 15%.
The hon. Gentleman takes advantage of my praise for Scotland, but I certainly agree with him on that matter, which I am sure the Minister will elaborate on.
The Chancellor’s autumn statement made clear the need for new homes across the UK. Using timber means that houses can be built to a high standard, more quickly and with less energy in construction, and it saves money over the lifetime of the property. The UK sawmilling sector, which is a large employer in my constituency, and the wood panelling sector process nearly all the 11 million tonnes of UK-grown timber that is harvested annually.
The sawmilling sector has invested £100 million in UK plants every year since the recession. UK timber has a wide variety of domestic and construction uses—it is used in building our homes, for decking, fencing and pallets for industry, and much more. Mills such as BSW in my constituency and around the country are among the most modern and efficient in Europe. We have much to be proud of. I look forward to hearing the views of other Members from around the country, because we all have an interest in forestry and planting trees.
My view might be best summarised by an adaptation of the famous 18th-century Dunning’s motion, which was passed by the House of Commons: tree planting in the UK has decreased, is decreasing and ought to be increasing. I urge Members to support that approach. I hope that all political parties and devolved Governments across the UK will work together to address the long-term decline in tree planting.
I understand that this debate is not particularly about Wales and NRW, and the Minister will probably keep off that subject, but I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. As a Welsh MP and someone who was involved in Forestry Commission Wales, I have been a great supporter of it in years gone by. Forestry has virtually disappeared into NRW. In my opinion—in hers too, I am sure—that is a tremendous mistake. Forestry Commission Wales was a beacon to look up to; now, as she says, forestry is the missing F-word. That is a great shame indeed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in this debate we need to look at quality as well as quantity? We ought to look to preserve the diversity and richness of domestic deciduous species, not just rush to plant any old evergreen species.
I agree that this country needs more trees. We have to be sensible and look at the end product. We encourage farmers and landowners to plant trees, and they have to look at the return. The Government have to ensure that there is the right return and help for planting, processing and managing. We have to look at the evergreens—the softwoods—that can produce a reasonable return in 40 to 50 years; hardwood trees produce a return in 80 to 100 years.
There must be a place for both kinds of trees, but the sawmills in my constituency, which I have mentioned many times, require softwood. They employ 150 people—that will go up to 180 in the next 12 months—and they process softwood. We require a great deal of softwood in this country. As I have already stated, all the wood that we produce, the majority of which is softwood, is consumed in this country, and we import even more. We have to look at not just what makes the countryside pretty and what looks after its ecology but what our subsidiary industries require. So I agree in part.
I hope that all the devolved Governments and the Westminster Government will work closely to plant more trees, which would make such a difference to our economy, our environment and our communities. Significant new tree planting would provide solutions to a whole range of 21st-century problems. It would deliver jobs and investment to our rural areas, help to reduce the impact of climate change and flooding, create habitats for wildlife and wonderful places for people to enjoy, and provide the raw material to build the new homes that this country needs.
It is nice to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Chris Davies on securing this important debate and on his excellent opening speech. Unusually, most of us probably agree with most of what he said—especially his congratulations to the Scottish National party Government in Scotland for their record on tree planting.
Much of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was about the economics of forestry, and I will talk a little about that, but I also note the importance of tree planting for all of us—it is not just about economics. Woods and forests are magical places that give joy to millions and have deep roots in our culture and folklore, yet the UK’s woodland resources have declined since the middle ages, and by the early years of the last century had reached an all-time low of just 5% of land area. There was a real crisis during the first world war, when so much timber was needed for the war effort that trees were chopped down almost indiscriminately, with potentially disastrous effects.
Members who have read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic “Sunset Song” may recall the reaction of the small farmer Chae to his wife when he returned from the trenches and found that the woods around Kinraddie had been cut down.
“Hadn’t she got eyes in her head, the fool, not telling him before that wood was cut? It would lay the whole Knapp open to the North East now and the fair end of a living here.”
That is the important thing about trees, as others have said: they are good not only for the soil but for shelter belts for farming. Anyone who has been on the north-east coast of Scotland on a windy day will appreciate the need for trees around that area.
Trees have played a vital part in small farming for generations, and now they also play an important part in flood prevention along many of our rivers. The creation of the Forestry Commission in 1999 was a reaction to falling wooded areas and a real attempt to reverse that.
As the hon. Gentleman noted, Scotland has the highest percentage of woodland cover in the UK at 18% of our land area. That is predominantly—74%—softwood, which as he rightly said is productive, with the remainder being principally native woods. There have been attempts, notably by the Cairngorms national park, to plant trees to regenerate and extend the remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest that at one point covered the whole of Scotland. Those trees provide a haven for much of our native wildlife. Those who drive around my constituency can see red squirrels—our trees are one of the last redoubts of that magnificent creature. In other areas, forests provide habitat for the endangered native Scottish wildcat. Tree planting helps the environment and the conservation of species, and that should not be overlooked.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that while one must always look at economic issues, our environmental and cultural heritage and what we can do to preserve the diversity of our wildlife must also be core priorities in the debate?
That is exactly the point I was making. Trees are important for many reasons. They provide a huge commercial opportunity, which I accept, and that exists in Scotland at the moment, but we must also preserve our ancient woodlands. People like to walk in woods, and they like them for leisure activities. Frankly, there is a huge market for leisure activities in woods that are not being chopped down.
There is a lot we can do and, as Antoinette Sandbach pointed out, there is a huge benefit to be had in fighting climate change, because growing wood takes up more carbon. However, much of the forest planted since the first world war has been planted for economic reasons, and that is not always understood. By its very nature, forestry is a long-term investment as trees take many years to grow to full maturity, and there can be a lack of understanding when woods that have stood for many years are cut down. That happened in my constituency: when wood came to its maturity, the trees were chopped down and there was a bit of a public outcry because well loved woods were going. However, trees are a crop, much as any other, which will be harvested. They will be replaced or replanted, but it will take many years for the new trees to come to maturity. Perhaps a bit of public education is needed in some areas as to the nature of forestry, with people understanding that it is a crop.
Today, forestry is estimated to contribute almost £1 billion a year to the Scottish economy, and it supports more than 25,000 full time equivalent jobs. Much of the activity in forestry comes from the Scottish rural development programme, which is funded via the EU, providing real support for rural communities. As we do in many debates, I ask the Minister, in this apparently new era of the Government telling us exactly what they intend to do before article 50 is triggered, what they will do to ensure that such funds will still be available should we exit the European Union. Forestry is a long-term business that requires stability and confidence for investment decisions to be made both in planting and in timber processing. At present, the forestry industry enjoys zero or low tariffs on trade within the European Union, so it is vital that a level playing field remains with other parts of the Union should the UK end up exiting. Support industries such as forest industries are sensitive to sudden dips in demand. Even a short-term fall in planting due to uncertainty could put many Scottish businesses such as tree nurseries at risk, so long-term certainty is important for the industry.
The Scottish Government recognise the extreme importance of the industry and are taking the steps they can to reassure investors that Scotland is open for business in both planting and investment in the processing sector. They have recently held two summits with the forestry sector to listen to its concerns and ambitions on the future of forestry. The Rural Economy Minister, Fergus Ewing, has met leading representatives of forest management investment companies to try to reassure them as much as possible. The Scottish Government currently have a consultation on the future of the forestry industry. They are making a real attempt to grow the industry of, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire put it, the missing “F” in the debate, to provide jobs in many rural areas such as mine and those of my hon. Friends who are here today.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on what he said about forestry. It is an important industry, but I would like the Minister to address where we are going on funding for future forestry enterprises if we are leaving the EU.
We have heard from my fellow office bearer of the all-party group on forestry, my hon. Friend Chris Davies. I support and reinforce all the points he made.
As someone with a direct family connection to the forestry and timber industry, I declare an interest in the subject. My husband plants tens of thousands of trees every year in Northumberland, as did his father before him, and his grandfather planted more than half a million trees after the second world war, when most of the timber had been cut for the war effort and shipbuilders on the Tyne. If my husband could, he would probably reforest the whole of Northumberland in native, ancient hardwoods, but perhaps that is a step too far for the Government. I declare my bemusement at why current tree planting rates are so low—despite my husband’s best efforts—when, as my hon. Friend eloquently pointed out, it can provide solutions to a wide range of problems that face us in the 21st century.
I would like to cover in more detail some of the issues my hon. Friend mentioned. The first is flooding, which has been a big issue for us northern MPs over the past few years. We do not yet hear strongly enough from the Government that they understand how we can genuinely alter the ecosystem to reduce that long-term risk. I am on record as saying that there is clear evidence that tree planting can have a positive impact in reducing future flood risk.
The management plans based on river basins that are coming through are much more robust, and there is a serious tree planting part to that picture, which is encouraging. However, we really need to drive that forward to ensure that it is not lost. Rather than the unambitious target of 11 million trees being planted under this Government, I suggested in the House back in December last year that we should look at a number closer to 200 million. That sounds like a big number, but it is not that much acreage. The Minister may not recall my suggestion, which was that rather than planting one tree for every five citizens we should plant five trees per citizen. There is a big difference in those numbers, but, with political will and an understanding of the benefits, we can aspire to go much further.
Planting trees in the uplands as part of a wider natural flood management plan can reduce downstream flood risks. It is instinctively the right thing to do. Particularly in Cumbria, where for many years upland behaviour has been driven by the level of EU funding for sheep on uplands, there has been a lack of planting, so now we have long-term water retention issues, to which trees would make a significant difference. A number of publications by Forest Research and the forestry trade body Confor have highlighted the opportunities. Projects such as slowing the flow at Pickering in North Yorkshire show the practical benefits clearly.
Critics say that trees take too long to grow to play a major part in flood risk. I would answer that in two ways, not only because I am married to a man who thinks long-term—that has been drilled into me after 20 years of marriage—but because the tree is a vital component of the work. Research has shown that tree planting can have an impact on water flows within a year as tree roots take hold and the ground is disturbed. More importantly, it is time that we looked at long-term solutions to long-term systemic problems rather than being satisfied with quick fixes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire listed a number of 21st-century challenges to which forestry can provide solutions, which should all be addressed for the long term in a sustainable way: delivering lasting employment in rural areas; building warm, attractive homes that people want to live in; creating beautiful woodland habitats for recreation and wildlife; and tackling future risks from climate change and flooding. Those issues do not require quick fixes, they need a considered long-term approach. That is not something that Governments are naturally inclined to. I appreciate that it is difficult, but that is where forestry comes in. It can deliver for the economy, for our communities and for the environment.
So why are we hesitating? The Government have set a modest target, and we will struggle to meet that unless something miraculous happens. I find it difficult to listen to climate change alarmists and hear about Government policies that drive less economically efficient use of taxpayers’ money for energy and climate change planning, when we could plant the most efficient, cheapest carbon capture technology, which nature has already given us: the tree. Perhaps the Minister will inform us of whether any work is being done with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to consider how we can join up our thinking about that.
What can be done? First of all, let us support good planting schemes by getting them through the application process quickly and efficiently and not miring applicants in paperwork and delay. An exciting application in my constituency highlights what can be achieved. As the Minister will know, we have a plan to plant 600,000 trees on land at Doddington North, near Wooler, one of the more northern towns in my constituency. That is almost half the number of trees so far planted in 18 months in the whole of England. Doddington will be a great example of modern, mixed forestry—a range of tree species planted with open spaces and designed to fit into the existing landscape and deliver a huge range of benefits. The Doddington plan was launched this summer near Wooler at our local countryside show, the Glendale show. There was wide support from the community and even wider support for the fact that the consultation had started such an early stage. Andy Howard, the man behind the scheme, was able to tell the local community a positive story:
“Our design for the Doddington North wood can provide a very diverse ecology with a wide range of species of tree, plant, bird and animal life supported.”
Let me now return to 21st century problems and the practical ways in which forestry, such as what is being done at Doddington, can provide solutions. We are all passionate about protecting wildlife, especially totemic species such as the red squirrel. Northumberland is one of the few areas where there is still the chance to maintain the red squirrel’s habitat and fight off the grey squirrels that try to invade the space. Doddington is in a red squirrel buffer zone, and a specific focus of the scheme is to increase the amount of habitat that supports red squirrels. The scheme will also provide significant flood mitigation measures, as two tributaries for the Till floodplain below the site in Glendale start on Doddington moor.
As for jobs, the largest local sawmill, A & J Scott Ltd, an independent business employing more than 100 people in my constituency, is keen for the Doddington scheme to go ahead. It needs a guaranteed supply of wood, and there is worry at forecasts showing that the supply of timber from the UK will tail off unless we increase planting rates now. Robert Scott, the managing director, said:
“An afforestation plan of this scale could be very beneficial to our business in the future. We have in recent years, expressed our concerns regarding the future supply of the raw material for our sawmill.
It is clear that the volumes of saw log material will decline within the next 10 years and we are concerned that our ability to maintain a steady supply will be compromised, thus threatening the future of our business.”
That is a clear and worrying statement, and it is well borne out by the facts.
I want to mention two recent reports. In 2014 the Forestry Commission’s 50-year timber availability forecast showed a damaging fall-off in future timber supply. Confor analysis suggested that 1,000 rural jobs in constituencies such as mine could be lost unless that is plugged. In June, a report on wood fibre availability and demand showed clearly that demand for wood, for new homes and the wood products we all take for granted, will outstrip supply within little more than a decade. It also says:
“In Northern and Central England, demand already exceeds potential availability.”
Do we really want to import more wood at higher cost, threaten rural jobs, rely on short-term fixes for flooding, and reduce the supply of a beautiful, flexible and sustainable material with which to build new homes? I do not believe we do, and that is why I am bemused.
People love trees. Confor and the Woodland Trust both support a policy of the right tree in the right place. At the moment, we seem to be pursuing a policy of almost no trees, in no places. Why are we making it so difficult? Let us support great schemes such as the one at Doddington, and our forestry and timber industry; let us begin working out how to remove the barriers to planting and get more trees in the ground; and let us start soon, or future generations across rural Britain will pay the price.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Chris Davies on securing such an important debate and delivering such a fine speech, full of detail about the works of the Scottish Government and how well we are doing. It is very much appreciated. He mentioned his constituency interest in the forestry and timber industries, and I have a similar interest. Forestry and timber have deep roots in my constituency. Indeed, the tree family is part of our family tree there. [Interruption.] It gets worse—but I do want to change tack and be serious, because the industry is an important part of the economy; and the family aspect is important, because there is great potential for our young people when they are building careers.
When we grow trees in my constituency, we grow careers for people who want a rewarding job. I am keen for girls and young women in particular to take up the opportunities. We take forestry seriously—not least because I share my constituency area with the Forestry Minister in the Scottish Government, Fergus Ewing. However, forestry is also seen as a major developing industry in the highlands. That growth and development can happen only if we have a responsible commitment to sustainability. The Scottish Government see great potential in forestry, and consider it an excellent area in which to get young people involved; but it must be supported and developed, and I know that they are committed to taking their good work to greater heights.
The headquarters of Forest Enterprise Scotland is in my constituency, in Inverness. It is responsible for managing Scotland’s national forest estate and contributes to what I would call the local five-a-day of our economy—health, wellbeing, education, community development and protecting our natural and cultural heritage. Its work has the potential to benefit not only my constituents but all the people in Scotland, and beyond.
The Scottish School of Forestry, Inverness College, University of the Highlands and Islands, is the principal institution for forestry training and education in Scotland. We have a good reputation locally for providing successful forest managers in both the public and private sectors of the industry. The school acquired its sites from the Forestry Commission in 1972 and sits in its own 10-hectare woodland. It is the only forestry training provider to deliver higher and further education in its own practical training environment.
Among the area’s timber industries is Gordon Timber, in Nairn, which was founded in 1862. Since the late 1880s it has been managed by four generations of the same family, and is now recognised as one of the top sawmilling companies in the UK. The BSW Timber sawmill in Boat of Garten is a major employer in the area, and our plant contributes significantly to the local economy. BSW Timber was founded in 1848 and is the UK’s biggest sawmiller. It employs more than 1,000 people across seven locations, four of which are in Scotland.
Norbord, in Inverness, was the first manufacturer of oriented strand board in Europe. It was also the first OSB plant in Europe to receive Forest Stewardship Council accreditation, demonstrating commitment to the environment. Production at Inverness and Genk combines to make Norbord one of the largest OSB producers in Europe. Earlier this year, the Canadian company Norbord announced that it plans to invest up to £95 million in its wood panel factory near Inverness.
The final business I want to mention is MAKAR at Loch Ness, which has established a progressive timber-based design and build system that is rooted in the resources of Scotland. It has honed its knowledge of modern construction methods to get the optimum performance from home-grown timber. Not only does that reduce the carbon footprint of MAKAR’s buildings; it stimulates a regional industry that feeds investment into the economy. It is important that we support tree planting in Scotland, and note the wise words of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire about investing in the future.
Forestry is a devolved matter within the UK, and Scottish Ministers already direct domestic Scottish forest policy. However, domestic forestry is heavily influenced by EU policies and regulations, and co-financed funding is received for Scotland’s rural development programme. The Scottish National party in government has created the most ambitious planting target in the UK. England and Wales have annual targets of 5,000 hectares and 1,000 hectares respectively. Our target is 10,000 hectares. Scotland created 83% of all new woodland in the UK in 2015-16, so there is considerable development in tree planting in Scotland.
A recent report for the Forestry Commission assessed the potential role of UK forestry in combating climate change. Forestry Commission Scotland recently published its climate change action plan, setting out the action it intends to take to increase the contribution of Scottish forestry to the response to the challenges of climate change. The plan focuses on five key areas: protecting and managing existing forests; woodland creation, including energy crops; adapting to climate change, with a major focus on countering fragmentation through forest habitat networks; sustainably produced wood for energy and construction; and reducing the forestry sector’s carbon footprint, for example through improved timber transport infrastructure. Planning authorities should therefore consider the contribution that trees, woodland and forestry can make to local strategies in their efforts to adapt to climate change.
My hon. Friend has talked about climate change and sustainability, which is what tree planting is all about. Is it not crazy that the Government currently provide renewable subsidies for biomass energy, which is completely contradictory to sustainability and tackling climate change?
My hon. Friend makes the point clearly. I certainly agree that there is a nonsensical approach to renewable energy policy in the UK at the moment, which should be reviewed.
I want to go on to the issues facing the forestry sector. Given that the Scottish forestry sector receives vital support from the EU, the Scottish Government are focused on continuing investment in the sector to ensure economic growth, so that the reckless gamble of Brexit does not impact on that vital Scottish industry. The Scottish rural development programme, which is funded via the EU, provides vital support for the Scottish forestry sector and rural communities.
One of the main threats of Brexit is to confidence in the sector and to levels of woodland creation, and the long-term impact that will have on timber supplies to the domestic processing sector. New planting by the private sector is particularly sensitive to confidence about the availability of SRDP grant support in one to two years’ time and wider uncertainty in investment and land markets. I would like to hear reassurance from the Minister that the UK Government are taking steps regarding the future availability of forestry grants and that mitigation will be provided on that issue.
It is of extreme importance to reassure investors that Scotland is open for business, in both planting and investment in the processing sector. Timber processing has expanded significantly in the past 10 years. The Scottish Government have held two summits with the forestry sector to listen to its concerns and ambitions for the future of forestry in Scotland. EU referendum issues were discussed indirectly, with regard to securing future funding for woodland creation grants; even there, the EU is important.
Our Rural Economy Minister, Fergus Ewing, has met with leading representatives of forestry management and investment companies to provide reassurance that the Scottish Government are committed to seeing the forestry sector thrive. Currently, the forestry sector enjoys zero or low tariffs on trade within the EU, so it is vital that there is a level playing field with other parts of the European Union. Support industries, such as forest nurseries, are very sensitive to sudden dips in demand, and even a short-term fall in planting could put some Scottish nurseries at risk.
As I said, the SNP has created the most ambitious planting target in the UK, at 10,000 hectares a year, and Scotland created 83% of all new woodland in the UK in 2015-16. Since the forestry grant scheme opened in April 2015, more than 1,000 applications, worth £45 million, have been submitted, including for more than 8,500 hectares of woodland creation. Of that, 4,300 hectares of woodland creation, with a value of around £23 million, has been approved.
This issue is very important. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire for securing the debate and allowing it to be discussed. We are approaching Christmas, and it is important to end on the right tone. Christmas trees are an important seasonal part of Scotland’s rural economy. Scotland’s forests provide homes for wildlife, as my hon. Friend Mike Weir mentioned, as well as places for recreation, and they help to reduce the impact of climate change and flooding.
To underline the importance of the industry, the First Minister has encouraged people to support Scotland’s rural economy this Christmas by buying home-grown Christmas trees. Two Norway spruce trees, grown by Highfield Forestry in Beauly—right on the edge of my constituency, in an area I used to cover as a local councillor—were delivered to the First Minister’s official residence, Bute House. Let us hope that tree planting and the timber industry in Scotland and the UK have a very happy new year. We wait to hear the answers on how that will be delivered.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Davies on securing this debate. He does an excellent job chairing the all-party group on forestry.
Here we are, having this debate in Westminster Hall, and we can look around and see the timber not only in this room but in Westminster Hall itself and the oaks that were used to build that huge roof. Oaks were cut down over the years to build our fleet, when we went across the world and did various things. I will not go into the details of everything we did, but much was successful, although others may not say so. Over that period, we naturally cut down a great deal of oak forest. World wars then had their effect, and we set up the Forestry Commission after the first world war to plant a great number of trees.
Yesterday, we took evidence in the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as part of our forestry inquiry. The one great plea made on grants was to bring back the one-stop shop. People are finding that when they apply for grants, they have to go through Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency and deal with DEFRA. It seems to be taking up to a couple of years to get a grant through, which is just not acceptable. Now, as we look to reform after leaving the European Union, there is much we can do with that grant scheme to make it simpler and more encouraging for landowners to plant trees.
Our Scottish friends who are here are to be congratulated, but I want to prick their bubble just a tiny bit. Some land in the UK is much more suitable than other parts for planting trees, and other land may produce 4 tonnes of wheat per acre. Some of their land in Scotland may not produce 4 tonnes of wheat per acre, so the competition for that land between crops and trees is not quite so great as elsewhere. In the north of England and Wales, there is much land that will be very good for forests, where we can create a crop—we must remember that it is a crop.
I declare an interest: I am a farmer. I do not have a big farm. If I choose to plant trees on my farm, I lock them in for one, two, three or perhaps four generations. If someone has only a small farm, they may not want to do that. I am sure the Minister is aware of that. There is a way we can manage forests: we can have large forests, perhaps on some of the marginal land. We can have deciduous trees and conifers, perhaps with strips of deciduous trees around the edges. We can make it much more accessible to the public and aesthetically beautiful and still have a crop—we must remember that timber is also a crop.
Half the time, what puts a lot of landowners off planting trees is that when they do so, a lot of the population then say, “Over our dead bodies will you cut down any of those trees.” However, trees are a living crop. They grow and mature, and then we use them for building our houses. That is all great, and it is all part of forestry, which we sometimes forget.
The hon. Gentleman makes a telling point about the choices that face people when they are planting. Does that not underline the importance of EU grants in decisions on planting?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but the issue is not just EU grants; it is how we deal with grants after we leave the EU. If we have the right mindset, we could produce a better grant scheme. If a percentage of better quality land further south in England where good crops can be grown is taken for trees, we will have to have a system to reward landowners for doing that. Otherwise, they will naturally decide to continue to grow other crops. Trees may be grown for aesthetic, conservation, and recreation reasons. Major forests may provide recreation, but that may also be done around our cities and highly populated areas. The great challenge for a grant system and support is to get people to plant in those areas, which is what I am keen to see.
Points have been made about climate change and the need to plant more trees to absorb carbon, as well as to stop flooding. That applies not just on marginal and steep land. In areas of run-off where intensive crops are grown, planting strips of woodland stops flooding and soil erosion. We can do an awful lot and we do not have to follow the common agricultural policy. I do not want future Governments to say, “We can’t do this.” We can do it if we look at it sensibly.
I thank Chris Davies for bringing forward this debate, which is very topical. Balcas is a big timber firm in my constituency and I should declare an interest because I have a small amount of forested land on my farm. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one way of developing our own policy in the United Kingdom is to have zoned areas of forestry? He referred to difficult land—at least, I think he hinted at difficult land in Scotland—but he did not mention difficult land in Northern Ireland. Does he accept that zoned areas of forestry might be an opportunity?
Yes. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but we would have to be careful to have the right zoned areas. I am fearful of civil servants and others drawing lines on a map. They are not always entirely in the right place. We can have zoned areas, but we must put the right system in place to encourage people in those areas to grow trees. People will be more likely to do that if the right grant system is in place, because there will not be competition for what to grow on the land, so it could happen. We need to move forward and to make sure we have a balance between broadleaved trees and conifers. There is an anti-conifer world out there and some people say we cannot have conifers. We can, and in larger forests we can make sure the mixture is right from the recreation and management point of view.
Trees can be planted to stop flooding. I went up to Yorkshire recently with the floods inquiry where, traditionally, the Forestry Commission had turned the soil up by digging trenches and planted trees on top. When there is a flood, the water runs off down the furrow and straight into streams much quicker. As we plant, we must be more careful about possible flooding. Many things can be learned and achieved. With more trees we will create a better landscape and environment, and lock in carbon. We can reduce flooding and we can manage our land better. Highly productive farms have corners in fields and other places that are difficult to cultivate and they can be planted with trees. The area I represent includes the Blackdown hills, which are full of copses and small areas of woodland that are essential in our landscape. We should see more of that.
My final point is the fact that much of our woodland is not managed environmentally or for wood production. It is important that more woodland is managed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have some serious problems because of lack of ability to make best use of woodland? In many parts of southern England, where forestry has been managed for many decades, we have a lot of ancient woodland and a concerted effort is needed to support land managers to improve that forestry.
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. We could have a carrot and stick approach with small grants for such land. Some people buy woodland for tax advantages, so perhaps we could tweak that to require management of the land. If people buy land, should they leave it when it could be managed for environmental purposes as well as to provide a resource? We need a lot of woodchip and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made much of the fact that we import so much wood. We can grow more timber and we can burn it in wood-burning stoves in our homes because there is nothing like wood to provide a homely feeling. That cannot be beaten.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend for bringing forward this debate. We can grow more timber and create more forests with a better environment, but we must use our land carefully as we do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. We have had an excellent debate. We have all talked positively about the benefits of trees, but we need hard action. I congratulate Chris Davies on his excellent opening remarks; I say that not just because he praised the Scottish Government in a way that made me fear he may be taken out the back and given a good thrashing afterwards. His wit and charm are critical to his chairmanship of the all-party group on forestry. He does an excellent job.
The hon. Gentleman started by asking arguably the most important question: why does tree planting matter so much? He then went on to describe the many ways in which it matters economically and environmentally, and the huge public support out there. The environmental impact is significant and we should be conscious of that as we make policy decisions. Four fifths of people agree that more trees should be planted; that gives the Minister a resounding mandate, well beyond the 37% of votes the Conservatives won in the general election. I suggest that 80% support should be embraced.
The hon. Gentleman was poetic. I do not know whether he was in the debate on ancient woodland, but talking about trees seems to bring out the inner poet in Members, which should be encouraged. We will all take with us the phrase, “the forgotten F-word”, which reinforces the point about forestry.
My hon. Friend Mike Weir and Chief Whip made an excellent contribution and set out the historical context, which is particularly important when we talk about forestry. As we heard, that is a long-term investment, so learning from past mistakes is critical. He also brought up one of the most significant issues that we need to focus on in the debate: the importance of EU funding and SRDP funding in Scotland. He joined the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire in supporting the moves made by the Scottish Government.
The MP for just across the border, as I call her—Mrs Trevelyan—spoke about her husband. We all have challenges doing this job and have to score brownie points whenever we can with our spouses. The hon. Lady has earned many a token today. I commend her for not jumping to her feet when she heard the question “Should we leave the EU?”, although I did see some hairs rise on the back of her neck at that point. She made an important point about flooding and also said that we should set more ambitious targets.
My hon. Friend Drew Hendry made an excellent and puntastic contribution. He used this excellent line: “When we grow trees, we grow careers.” That is a lovely way of putting it. Trees are long-term investments and their progress is slow to witness—a bit like many Government policies—so we sometimes do not notice that progress. What my hon. Friend said was a lovely way of reinforcing the point. Like a couple of hon. Members, he also mentioned BSW Timber, which is headquartered in Earlston in my constituency. It is always a delight to hear that excellent company mentioned. Clearly, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, as in mine, forestry is hugely important.
Neil Parish made excellent points. He was obviously fresh from evidence sessions lined up because of this upcoming debate—that is the advantage of chairing a Select Committee. The point about a one-stop shop for grants is important. If we want to move on this issue, it is important that it should not take two years to get a grant through; otherwise, people will simply be put off by the process.
The hon. Gentleman also flushed out the interesting and important point about the competitive aspect of land use choices. Trees are a crop. The challenge, of course, is public attachment to them. We need to maintain the premise that they are a crop. Yes, they have wider benefits, but they remain a crop. That needs to be considered in relation to planning and harvesting. We need to ensure that people are not put off because of what I have described. The hon. Gentleman also made excellent points about the need for balance. This is not just about large-scale forestry; forestry, in many aspects, has a use in terms of both local land use and the wider benefits.
As I mentioned, forestry is very important in my constituency. BSW Timber is headquartered there, but there are many other forestry businesses. They may be involved in production. An example is Cheviot Trees, a state-of-the-art nursery in the Scottish borders and across in Northumberland. There are also many businesses that rely on forestry, such as the small business that I visited recently on the Buccleuch estate that makes timber homes. It is two guys working away on the estate and producing the most magnificent dwellings, which are now in huge demand.
The forestry industry contributes almost £1 billion a year to the Scottish economy and supports more than 25,000 jobs. It is clearly critical to Scotland’s economic success today and in the future. As we heard, forestry is a devolved matter, but it is heavily influenced by EU policies and regulation and, more importantly, by funding. In Scotland, that is through the Scottish rural development programme.
As we heard, forestry is a long-term business. Stability and confidence are required to enable investment decisions to be taken. Our domestic market is highly vulnerable to changes in currency and trade policy. The sector needs clarity on the regulatory frameworks, but also, critically, on funding models. Although the Government stepped in initially to honour funding models until 2020, we need to get on the front foot in terms of what will flow on afterwards.
Economically, forestry is a very sound and worthwhile investment, but the other aspect, which means that the debate should have been attended by everybody, not just a few of us with an interest in forestry, is that the environmental impact is also huge. Forestry is playing a key role in helping Scotland to meet its ambitious climate change targets. I will give some notes to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire—he was very good on Scotland; there was just a slight gap there. [Laughter.]
A free transfer!
Forestry will deliver on the annual carbon saving target. That was set at 0.6 million tonnes of carbon by 2010, which is rising to 1 million tonnes by 2020. Forestry is a huge part of the strategy in that area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said, the Forestry Commission recently published a climate change action plan, looking at how we can build on the current success. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made the fair point at the start that although Scotland may be leading the way in the UK, there is still room for improvement. There is acceptance of the Select Committee Chair’s point about the most effective use of land. There are areas that we can and will develop further.
We heard about the annual planting targets of 10,000 hectares, but as important are the moves to speed up and streamline the approval processes for sustainable plantations. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire outlined, that needs to happen in England; the Scottish Government are already on the front foot in that respect.
I mentioned Cheviot Trees. When this debate was announced, its managing director, Harry Frew, got in touch with me and asked me to attend this important debate if I could because, in his words:
“We don’t feel the urgency of tree planting is seriously understood nor is activity being implemented in a meaningful way in England.”
Mr Frew is clear that the Government get it—they have the nice words and some of the rhetoric—but what is missing is action. I hope that in this debate he will get reassurance from the Minister that there is action to match those words.
I have a genuine concern as we head down the Brexit path about the ability and resources in DEFRA to deliver in a post-Brexit world. My own experience of getting responses out of DEFRA, as the DEFRA spokesperson, has been poor. Responses are slow. I got a response today to a question submitted on
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it is the rule of the House that he should have only 10 minutes. He has now gone on for longer than that, and if he does not bring his remarks to a conclusion, that will cut down on other hon. Members’ time.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I apologise for running over; I am concluding. Will the Minister assure Harry Frew that there will be action to match the ambition? Will she tell us what she will do to ensure that forestry is a success story in the future as well as today?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Chris Davies. This has been a very interesting debate, and his opening remarks set the scene perfectly as to why tree planting is important and why we need to plant more trees. He mentioned the amount of wood that we import, how important it is that we become sustainable as a country, and the importance of planting trees for climate change, which several hon. Members mentioned. He also mentioned the construction industry and why it is important that we grow our own timber to make our homes more beautiful. I congratulate Hackney Council in this regard. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of this, but it is the first council in England to promote timber in its planning policy for building.
Neil Parish made some excellent points. He requested more support for farmers and landowners when applying for the grants, which is really needed, and I hope the Minister will give us some positive thoughts on that. He also mentioned that we must not forget we have to plant in urban areas as well. Before I became a Member of this House, I worked with a charity called Trees for Cities, which does great work; again, it would be good to see its work also supported. The hon. Members from Scotland who are here today talked powerfully about the importance of forestry to Scotland’s economy and their cultural heritage.
I want to focus on the issue raised specifically by Mrs Trevelyan about the importance of tree planting in managing flooding. I was also pleased to hear her talk about red squirrels; we have red squirrels in our garden, and it is great that we are supporting those through tree planting as well. Obviously, flood prevention is particularly important in my constituency. Hon. Members know about the terrible floods that we had in Cumbria just a year ago. This is something that—I will mention my husband as well—my husband and I have taken a very personal interest in. The River Marron flows through our land for half a mile, and the Marron goes into the Derwent, which caused a lot of the damage in Cockermouth and further downstream. We have been talking and working with the Rivers Trust and the Woodland Trust, and we are having 500 trees planted on our land—400 on the land and 100 along the banks of the river—to try to help with the kind of work that hon. Members have talked about.
Since I became a Member of Parliament, and more recently the shadow floods Minister, people have contacted me to talk about the particular role that tree planting has in slowing down the flow of water to help to combat levels of flooding. Somebody gave me a really interesting study from North America that was published in 2012. It found that deforestation in snowy regions at least doubled, and potentially quadrupled, the number of large floods occurring along rivers. There is a lot of really good scientific evidence out there that we can look at.
The Forestry Commission has also set out four ways in which trees can reduce flood risk. The first is by evaporating more water than other, shorter vegetation— coniferous trees are better at doing that, so we have to look at those as well as at deciduous. Woodland soils retain water better than soil under grass, which slows floodwater down before it gets to the rivers themselves. Trees alongside the rivers create more drag—we have had some trees placed to create drag in our river, to slow down the flow of water—and also help with the problems of soil erosion and the movement of sediment.
The deadwood along the rivers can play a vital role: it is obviously good for wildlife, but it can also slow down the flow of the waters. People often talk about concerns about deadwood because it can come loose, get clogged under bridges, dam and cause problems; but surveys of the River Kent in Cumbria found that the benefits outweigh the risks as long as the rivers are managed properly. That is really important; we do not always manage our rivers properly and we need to look at that very carefully. Obviously, the location of tree planting is important. We have to make sure that everything is done in the right place.
Will the Minister say what plans the Department has to roll out more of the natural flood prevention measures? Those are very low in cost when compared to paying afterwards for the cost of damage that floods have caused. As has been said, the Government have missed their tree planting target and Confor recently calculated that they are seven years behind schedule. The Woodland Trust also says that tree planting is now at an all-time low. Members have talked about how many more trees the Government have pledged to plant, and I understand that the Conservatives’ last manifesto included a pledge about tree planting. I urge the Minister to turn this very disappointing situation around and to do whatever she can to encourage more tree planting to push forward that manifesto promise. We really need to get back on track. If, in her response, the Minister could give us some idea about how we are going to get on track and meet those targets, I am sure that all hon. Members who have spoken today would be pleased to hear that we are going to make some progress, because we really need to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Davies on securing this debate. As has been said, there have been a number of contributions and interventions showing how important a role trees play in the heart of our nation, holistically as well as economically and environmentally.
My hon. Friend will recognise that forestry policy is a devolved matter, but I undertake to give an overall picture of tree planting in the UK while focusing on measures for which this Government are responsible. The debate offers me a chance to highlight our commitment to plant 11 million trees this Parliament, the role of forestry in the economy and the potential for woodland expansion to help us meet our carbon goals and our reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. We are actively working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on our national emissions reduction plan.
Hon. Members have highlighted many benefits of tree planting, such as flood alleviation and the potential for building homes. The phrase “The right tree in the right place” has been used, and certainly the right tree can be the solution to many of the challenges we face. Considerations include whether it is the right use of land, where to plant and whether trees are broadleaf or softwood. Those are challenging policy objectives to balance, but when the Government bring forward our 25-year environment plan next year, I hope hon. Members will have a good idea of what we intend to do in the long term.
Total tree planting in England, both new planting and restocking, was 4,000 hectares in the year to March 2016. In Scotland it was 12,500 hectares, and it was 1,900 hectares in Wales and 800 hectares in Northern Ireland. Traditionally, planting is measured in hectares rather than individual saplings, with different planting densities for different kinds of trees. In the case of new creation, Scotland’s ambitions have already been highlighted—10,000 hectares a year are planned. In the last year, it achieved 4,600 hectares. I understand that in Wales there is an ambition to plant 2,000 hectares a year, and 100 hectares was achieved. One hundred hectares was achieved in Northern Ireland as well, and as has been pointed out, in England it was about 700 hectares.
I do not blame the Minister for one moment for the problems with the grants system at the moment, but I hope she will cover the idea of trying to bring back a one-stop shop to speed up grant applications. I think that would be really good, and I would like her to consider it.
I hope to cover that very soon, and I hope that my answer will satisfy my hon. Friend. One reason why there has been a dip compared with prior years is that a new scheme has come in, focused on European rules. It is usual that in the first year of such a scheme, take-up tends to be lower. I know that, certainly in England, we are already seeing some significant increases. Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century and our aspiration is to grow it even further to about 12% coverage by 2060—as has been pointed out, it is currently at 10%.
I would appreciate being able to make a bit more progress, because I hope to answer some of the questions that my hon. Friend raised. If I have time, I will of course give way at the end.
We intend to grow woodland cover through the countryside stewardship woodland creation capital grant, the woodland creation planning grant and the woodland carbon fund, which has already been referred to. We recognise that there have been specific challenges to the take-up of countryside stewardship under the rural development programme. In England, the latest figures show that planting in 2015-16, and planting to September this year, will have achieved close to 1.4 million trees.
There were many reasons for the disappointing take-up. As I have already indicated, the new programme cycle is part of the challenge, but I understand that the Forestry Commission, the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England have worked together to resolve some of the technical challenges faced by the new scheme. To respond to my hon. Friend Neil Parish—I know I will be coming to his Committee to give evidence—I commit to looking into the issue in more detail to understand some of the issues and how further improvements could be made for the future. We know that recent improvements have had a beneficial impact and that the number of applications is certainly up, whether or not they are all approved. We will shortly put guidance on to gov.uk and advise the sector about a new round of countryside stewardship woodland creation grants and woodland planning and woodland improvement tree health grants in 2017. We encourage farmers and land managers to apply for the grants to expand and manage their woodlands.
The £1 million woodland creation planning grant scheme was launched last year. The first round was widely welcomed and generated plans for more than 1,000 hectares of planting. It supports the effective and sustainable design and planning of schemes, including the site at Doddington moor, to which my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan referred. As she said, that has the potential to be the largest private sector woodland created in England for more than 20 years, with plans to plant 600,000 new trees. The project is still subject to regulatory approval from the Forestry Commission, and one challenge is that an environmental impact assessment will be required. The second round opened in September. The woodland creation planning grant has so far attracted applications that could cover a further 2,000 hectares and lead to 4 million trees being planted.
To further support tree planting, on
On leaving the European Union, without prejudging any future discussions, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that there will be support on a value-for-money basis, following the setting of policies that are bespoke to the needs of this nation. As for actual schemes, I suggest that the schemes that were approved up to the autumn statement will be honoured in full. People often seek certainty on the maintenance part of schemes, and I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire that future schemes will be developed as part of our work on the environment plan.
On the barriers to getting grants and the timeline of how long it takes, I understand that the countryside stewardship schemes, which do not require an environmental impact assessment, are being handled rather quickly, and that the challenges relate to larger schemes. We remain keen to minimise and streamline regulatory burdens where appropriate. We are considering consulting on the EIA regulations, including those relating to forestry, to see what we can do to improve the process while preserving good environmental outcomes.
On commercial forestry, to achieve the 12% woodland cover ambition, we need more forestry investment by the private sector. We are committed to working with the industry and rural businesses to support landowners to plant more trees. The public forest estate is the biggest single producer of timber in England, supplying around 49% of softwood last year. Historically, all woodlands in England were managed to produce fuel and fibre. The PFE will continue to supply a very large proportion of wood in the future while we work with landowners and timber processors to further increase volumes of softwood and hardwood coming to market in the medium and long term. That will be achieved by establishing new productive woodlands and by bringing more existing woodlands into productive management.
I know that the production sectors that use timber would like to expand the supply. The UK currently imports 80% of the timber it uses, so we recognise the opportunities that exist for rural economies if we can expand the domestic supply. That is why I am pleased that, through such things as the woodland creation planning grant, we are starting to see signs that investors and forestry businesses are developing larger-scale, more commercially viable schemes.
As has been said in many contributions today, the benefits of trees are multiple. As we consider our future approach to the environment through the 25-year environment plan, we know that woodland and forestry have much to offer. As well as supplying timber, trees deliver many benefits, including for recreation opportunities and for wildlife and biodiversity, but the benefits go far further than that. The roots of trees can provide greater land stability on slopes and help to reduce flooding by allowing water to penetrate more rapidly into the soil rather than running off into rivers, and they can help to improve water quality by reducing soil erosion.
As for the flooding we have seen in recent years—I recognise that Sue Hayman had that horrendous experience a year ago—it is not possible to protect all communities completely from every instance of flooding, but with the frequency and size of floods predicted to increase, we need to adopt a whole-catchment approach to flood risk management. That approach can enhance the performance of traditional flood defences. Trees planted as catchment approaches can help with heavy rain, as I have indicated. I assure the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission will continue to work together to integrate tree planting into work to reduce flood risk, as part of catchment-based approaches. My hon. Friend will be aware of the Cumbria flood action plan and the £15 million that was announced in the autumn statement to work towards that.
Trees have other benefits, too. They are important to us in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, providing a valuable and relatively inexpensive carbon sink, which can contribute towards meeting our ambitious carbon targets and tackling climate change. We recognise the potential benefits for air quality, and in helping to regulate a flow of rain into the sewers or provide a canopy of shade from the sun. However, that all comes back to having the right tree in the right place.
Active woodland management is important to not only to help monitor and protect against disease, but to increase the biodiversity of our woods by allowing light into them to enable other plants, insects and woodland species to thrive. A lesson that was learned in Cumbria, and which I heard about there in the summer, is that active management is needed especially on riverbanks, because several trees effectively became missiles as they hurtled down rivers, crashing into bridges alongside boulders and causing considerable damage.
We recognise the pivotal role played by urban trees, and I commend the work done on community forests. I visited the St Vincent de Paul primary school in Liverpool and did some tree planting with some youngsters. I also visited the National Forest Company in the midlands last week; it is a successful example of the large-scale transformation and regeneration of landscape.
Peter Ackroyd’s book “Albion” starts with a chapter called “The Tree”, recognising that trees are central to the heart of what makes our country so special—all four nations comprising the United Kingdom. This may surprise you, Mr Bone, but my favourite tree is the horse chestnut. I recognise that it is a non-native species, but it is at the heart of being a child—playing conkers, seeing the candles form, and the great cover that it provides—and it is so sad to see the terrible diseases that now afflict those trees across many parts of our nation.
Would my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire like to intervene briefly, before he has his two minutes to wind up?
I would. We hear a great deal from the Minister’s civil servants about how woodland cover is at its highest since the 14th century. I want to work out, first, why we are using that particular factoid and secondly, who can prove that we are in that position.
Well, I use the statement because it is accurate and true. At times people challenge us, understandably, and accuse us of various things to do with forests, and I want to point out how successive Governments—but this Government in particular—have accelerated tree planting in recent years, recognising the importance of trees to our natural landscape.
I look forward to working with hon. Members and stakeholders in woodlands and forestry to promote more private investment in the sector, not only to secure greater economic benefit but to capture more carbon and maintain the public benefits that we all value so much from our existing woodlands and forests and the wildlife and biodiversity that they support.
May I say what a pleasure it has been to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bone? Thank you for allowing us to do so. I have just a couple of minutes; I would like to pick up on everybody’s comments, but time is against us, so I just say that “the right tree in the right place”, which my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan mentioned, is the phrase of the day, and we need to take note of that.
Calum Kerr mentioned careers. Forestry is no longer about somebody just going out into a wood with an axe; these are highly skilled, highly technical and recognised positions. I would recommend that anybody out there look for a career in forestry, because—my goodness me—what a career they would have. I praise considerably my great friends, the Members from Scotland who are here today—I am delighted to be able to finish by praising them, because being part of the UK allows me to do so. We are better together, and I thank them.
There is much more I would like to say, but if we look out of the window opposite me in the Chamber we can see the wonderful Christmas tree in New Palace Yard. It is the festive season, and we are delighted about and looking forward to everything that Christmas brings. But I ask the Minister and everybody else, when they look at a Christmas tree outside or in their living room, to please think about extra planting from 2017 onwards.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered tree planting in the UK.