Thursday 11th January 2018

(4 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the fifth report of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Forestry in England: Seeing the wood for the trees, Session 2016-17, HC 619, and the Government response, HC455.

It is always pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is good to see my friend from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs here. I have forgotten her constituency. Sheffield, is it?

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish
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Penistone and Stocksbridge, that is right. It is also good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), who sat on the Select Committee in the last Session and had a lot to do with this report, and who also chairs the all-party parliamentary group on forestry, and other hon. Members. It is also good to see the Minister is still in her place—congratulations.

Forestry and woodland provide multiple environmental, social and economic benefits. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that woodland provides at least £1.8 billion in social, environmental and economic benefits each year. Trees are beneficial for carbon capture, reducing flooding and improving air quality, as well as providing timber for commercial production and creating green spaces for people to relax in and enjoy. But it was particularly disappointing to hear the Government say that there is no need for forestry representation when discussing the UK’s exit from the EU. Given the nature of research and development and that forestry research is already underfunded, I ask the Minister to reconsider keeping this funding in place, in particular for disease control. I found the Government’s response to our report, if I may say, disappointing. I hope she will be able to address some of the concerns we all share about forestry.

I very much support the ambitions of the northern forest and I look forward to the Government bringing forward the practical application of creating a great woodland across the north of England. I ask of the Minister that at some stage we will be able to discuss exactly how this will be achieved. We have the national forest, which we will be able to expand, but I am keen to see whether we can find ways of bringing land into tree planting and take the farming community with us as we do it. There will be land very suitable for tree planting. The land north of Hull is some of the best arable and vegetable growing land in the country. We need to ensure we have this balance.

I am sure the Minister will also consider the type of forest we require. We require tree planting for the environmental, social and community benefits, but what really matters is how we deliver a large forest in the north of England in the future. I want to see a mixture. For instance, take the Blackdown Hills in my constituency: there is a lot of forest, farmland in between, copses and areas where people can stay, walk and enjoy themselves. Woodland is great and woodland is right, but we also need a mixture of landscapes for it to be enjoyed. I always remember driving through the Redwood forest in the United States of America. We drove through the forest for some three days. One of the Americans said to me, “Gee, have you been to the Redwood forest?” and I said, “Yes, I have, but I’ve almost seen enough of it.” I saw a tremendous amount of trees and they are fantastic, but I think we need a mixture of landscapes to really make it enjoyable for the public.

In our report we asked for a one-stop shop for farmers and landowners to get grants and advice on which trees to plant. So far, the Government have resisted this idea, but I think it will be more and more important to do that, because we have environmental schemes, which we can change as we move to a British agricultural policy that is much more linked to forestry, but we also have to ensure that support can be accessed reasonably easily and that it is encouraging farmers and landowners to plant trees. I have said many times in this House that when I was a young farmer, if I borrowed a lot of money to buy land and said to my bank manager, “Well, now I am going to plant trees,” he would say, “Mr Parish, you should plant something that may bring an income in a little sooner, rather than 50 or 60 years hence.”

I am not asking for a licence to print money for farmers, I am just saying that if we want to encourage farmers to plant trees—I believe that on marginal land and certain types of land they will be quite keen—they need the right support. Why should a farmer—perhaps a seventh generation, or even first generation, sheep farmer, beef farmer or arable farmer—be told, “Right, you must now plant trees.”? I do not think any Government will do that, but we can encourage farmers to plant more trees. This northern woodland will be a real challenge, but it could also be very successful. However— I say again—it has to be done in the right way.

I spoke before about the countryside stewardship scheme. We have found in the past few years that there have been fewer schemes in place and fewer trees planted. There is a real opportunity now, because the schemes under the EU common agricultural policy do not allow for enough tree planting, and where they do, we have to work out whether the tree is a tree or a sapling and all sorts of complications. I am sure that is something we can make much better.

I also acknowledge that the EU is part of the problem and that post-Brexit the policy can change. Farmers, I believe, will be interested in planting more trees. We can also plant trees in banks to help with flooding. We can have more forestation, more woodland, greater wildlife and retain soils in the fields and stop communities from being flooded. There are many advantages to changing this. Today, I listened to the Prime Minister set out our 25-year environment plan, for which I have much enthusiasm, but now I want to see the practical application of how we will meet these goals. If we want to change a financial regulation in banking, we change it and that hopefully fixes the problem, but if we want to plant millions of trees, we have to physically plant those trees, we have to find the land and the policies to do it. I am not saying that we cannot do it, but what matters is how we deliver that in the future.

Timber from the woodlands has many economic benefits. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has done much work on timber, timber use and natural timbers being used in this country. We also need to look at that. Going back to the New Forest—do we want woodlands just for recreation? Do we want them for the carbon capture? Or do we also want them for the wood they will provide in the future? We sometimes think that trees live forever. They do not, and we need to cut them down and then replant, so let us look at the type of trees that we are growing.

Marcus Fysh Portrait Mr Marcus Fysh (Yeovil) (Con)
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Would it help to improve access to, and the quality of, smaller woodlands if crafts using wood grown within the same woodland were always regarded as ancillary to forestry within the planning guidance?

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish
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Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. It will also be about linking the woodland and the craft to a given area. We could do the same with types of wood and the crafts that come from them as we do with food, farming and types of cheeses. It is an interesting point. Linking it to planning is not necessarily the responsibility of the Minister today, but is something that I am sure the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government could look at.

Coming back to timber, we now have an opportunity to grow a number of types of trees. We also have an opportunity to advise farmers, landowners and those who want to plant trees on the varieties and species to plant. It is very difficult, and nobody can be blamed for this, but who would have known that we would be facing Chalara and ash dieback? We were not facing it a few years ago. In the south-west and in parts of Scotland, the larch has virtually all had to be cut down because of disease. As we move forward, it is going to be so important that we have the right types of trees so that it is right for recreation, the right scale, organisation and landscape of planting, and that we plant the trees that, hopefully, will be there for generations. That, in itself, will be a big challenge.

Antoinette Sandbach Portrait Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) (Con)
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I invite my hon. Friend to come up to my constituency where Delamere forest nurseries, which are part of the Forestry Commission, grow many different types of trees and look in particular at future climate change impacts and what species will be best to plant.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish
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If I can get the Whips to allow us to get as far as Vauxhall bridge before calling us back for a vote, I will definitely try to get up to my hon. Friend’s constituency. She is absolutely right. Naturally, we are looking for ash trees that will have a resistance to the dieback. Where I farm in Somerset we had elm trees completely destroyed by Dutch elm disease in the ’70s and ’80s, and we are yet to find an elm tree that is resistant to the beetle and to Dutch elm disease. Those sorts of things are so important so that we have our native trees as well as new trees that can be brought in.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that as we seek to select the correct species mix in certain areas it is important to take account of local knowledge? In my constituency, the Friends of Leckhampton Hill and Charlton Kings Common has a huge number of volunteers who help to maintain local woodland and up on the Cotswold escarpment. Their views should be taken into account; does he agree?

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish
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I very much agree with my hon. Friend about local knowledge, because sometimes a local tree, or the strain of a tree in a given area, is the one that we need to plant. That is so important. I always say that it is good to have 25 letters after your name, but sometimes those who have real local knowledge, know exactly what they are doing over the years and have had experience also need to be listened to. I would endorse that entirely.

With the renewable heat incentive, biomass boilers are a means by which we can grow some woodland—some hardwoods and others. We can also thin woodlands out to manage them in a better way. I have to admit that I spent 10 years in a terrible place called the European Parliament—I know that there will be a lot of hissing and booing at that point—but I did actually see a much better management of woodland in parts of southern Germany, in Austria and in other countries. They were actually using their woodland and the wood resource much better. We see woodlands for sale in many parts of this country, and people buy it as an investment and enjoy having a bit of it, but they never really do much to it. Woodland can be a greater resource for not only biodiversity and wildlife but timber, and that is where we can do more.

On ancient woodland, I better not mention the Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who likes to chain herself to every ancient tree that she finds, and quite rightly so, because she is very concerned about ancient woodland being cut down. We do need to consider that. Again, we have heard from the Prime Minister that trees need to be protected, and we are keen to see that happen.

Finally, when the Minister sums up, will she tell us exactly how she sees the way forward towards having DEFRA, Natural England and the Environment Agency completely joined up in delivering more trees, more woodland planting and a better grant system that is more accessible, easier and more attractive to those who want to plant trees in the future, so that we fulfil our aspirations to plant more trees? Can we also encourage organisations such as the Woodland Trust and others, which are doing so much good work, with even more help? I am a great believer that planting more trees is good for recreation, good for the environment, good for carbon capture and good for wood production.

Angela Smith Portrait Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in a very skilled, constructive and inclusive manner.

I start by declaring an interest. I am a member of the Woodland Trust and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, which the Chair of our Committee will be pleased to know. I chaired our sessions on the report because the Chair was indisposed, if I can put it that way, and was very pleased to do so. The report made 15 recommendations, and since it was published the Government have made good progress in some areas—for example, trees and woodland have become better embedded in cross-departmental Government policy, such as in the clean growth strategy—but in other areas the Government’s response has been rather weak, and some extra clarity is needed on their position.

Before I go through that, I want to refer briefly to the environment plan. It is very difficult to have this debate without referring to today’s publication of the 25-year plan, which is strong on rhetoric. This morning the Prime Minister delivered a bucolic vision of the countryside where everything smells nice and looks good, but the realities of the countryside are rather different. One of the challenges of this plan will be the need to establish how rigorous it is in terms of its ability to deliver. It has already been noted that there is no legislation planned to underpin the priorities of the plan and the delivery of its objectives. I note the commitment to a national tree champion, and it would be good to hear from the Minister —I, too, am pleased that she is still in her place—the detail of what exactly this national tree champion will deliver.

To return to the report, I will speak in turn about three important areas of policy. I hope the Minister will take my comments in the spirit intended and consider them carefully in her response. First, on funding, it became clear during our inquiry that the current system of grants and subsidies is not working, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said earlier—I nearly called him my hon. Friend. The countryside stewardship scheme was singled out for its tortuous system of administration. As he pointed out, our witnesses almost universally favoured a return to a one-stop shop system for grants. That would not only deliver a seamless and accessible approach to securing grants, but give more of a balance between forestry and agriculture, knitting the two together in terms of how landowners and farmers can deliver our objectives as a country.

The Secretary of State has told us that such a system cannot be implemented until we leave the European Union. However, we recommended that the Government take steps now so that they can reinstate such a system post-Brexit on day one, whenever that is. We have yet to see any evidence that any steps have been taken, although in his letter dated 24 November to the Chair of the Select Committee, the Secretary of State said that he is

“keen to interrogate”

the concept of a one-stop shop further, and to

“consider how such an approach could operate in future.”

I ask the Minister directly: can we expect the details of the review of countryside stewardship and the fruits of the Secretary of State’s thoughts on a one-stop shop to be published any time soon? Can we expect clarity, or perhaps even a Green Paper, on how all of it might work if the Secretary of State accepts that the concept represents the right way forward?

Ancient woodland is our most wildlife-rich land habitat. It is key to fighting climate change and tree pests and diseases. More than that, it is a priceless commodity that we should all cherish. It frustrates me enormously that the idea that we can destroy ancient woodland and replace it by planting elsewhere is still current in many circles, particularly in the planning system and the attitudes of some developers—not necessarily housing developers, but developers across the piece. I refer, of course, to the application in my constituency to build a motorway services station that would involve significant destruction of Smithy wood, which is ancient woodland. Local people feel strongly about it and do not accept that the destruction of ancient woodland is a price worth paying for the jobs that the service station would deliver.

One crucial recommendation of the report was that the Government maintain an up-to-date public register of ancient and veteran woodland. Such a register would provide a focus for scientific research and aid sustainable development and planning. It could form the cornerstone of woodland conservation policy—that is how important ancient woodland is to our tree heritage. The Government’s lacklustre response to that recommendation was to assess the feasibility of the idea. Since the report, the Woodland Trust has generously offered to support the register through funding, data management, staff resources and expertise. Have the Government finally managed to assess the feasibility of the recommendation, giving particular thought to the kind and constructive proposals made by the Woodland Trust?

Finally, on woodland cover, it was heartening to see the Government pledge £5.7 million at the weekend to help start the creation of the northern forest. I pay tribute to the Woodland Trust for its imaginative thinking, and I support wholeheartedly its efforts to raise the rest of the moneys required to deliver the project. Although I cannot commit personally to finding the rest of the £25 million, I will do all that I can to support the trust in that respect. It is important that the trees are planted in the right places and that we think through the project properly. I am sure the trust will do so.

There is a danger that the northern forest concept will overshadow and obscure the fact that the Government are currently failing badly on their targets for planting more trees generally, which are themselves limited in ambition. In our inquiry, the Select Committee recommended that the Government commit to reaching 12% woodland cover by 2060, and to plant 11 million trees by 2020. Whether or not the Government meet those targets will be the marker for whether their forestry policy as a whole has worked. The northern forest is good, but Parliament should not be fooled for a minute into thinking that it is the next stage in the Government’s forestry ambitions. As it stands, the target of 11 million trees by 2020 will not be met.

The Minister has said previously that the target will be met easily. I hope so, but I am not confident. The two years since the pledge was made have been two of the worst planting years on record. The rate has been roughly half what is required if the Government are to have any chance of fulfilling their commitment. That does not bode well for the long-term target, on which serious doubt has unsurprisingly been cast by the forestry sector. To reach it, planting rates would have to sit consistently at 5,000 hectares a year for the next 42 years, roughly double the rate of recent years. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point.

We need to reach the short-term target of 11 million trees by 2020, and we need to reach the more ambitious target of 12% of woodland cover by 2060. The Secretary of State himself admitted that that is limited in ambition at the recent Woodland Trust reception—I think he referred to it as “pathetic”. If it is pathetic and limited in ambition, a target of 11 million trees by 2020 should be achievable. What will the Government do to achieve it, as well as helping the Woodland Trust deliver its northern forest?

Finally, I refer briefly to the comments made by the Chair of the Select Committee about the need for mixed planting and the role of forestry in our economy and agricultural system, in terms of recognising its economic value more clearly. That was at the heart of the report. I completely acknowledge his points and agree with his comments. They were important points about the industrial role that timber can play in our economy and the need for the Government to properly support our foresters and the role of forestry in the economy. The grant system is at the heart of all that, and it must work properly if we are to improve forestry’s role in our economy and make it more robust. I look forward to the Minister’s points, particularly on that.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Philip Davies Portrait Philip Davies (in the Chair)
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Order. Before I call the next speaker, there are four people seeking to catch my eye, and I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers at 2.30 pm. I will not impose a time limit, but if people can be mindful and keep to about eight minutes each, it will give everybody a fair crack of the whip.

Antoinette Sandbach Portrait Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Before I begin, I point Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this debate and for his work and that of the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on the Committee during the writing of the report. I know that my hon. Friend has taken a long-term interest in such matters across his career, both in the House and beforehand. That kind of long-termism is what I would like to talk about.

One thing that comes across time and again in the Select Committee report is that the sector needs long-term decisions taken very far in advance, purely and simply because it takes 40 years or more to grow a tree. When one considers that length of time, one sees the disincentives for landowners to plant, because they do not get a return on what they plant for 40 years. That is the main issue that the Minister faces in encouraging landowners to plant. I am pleased to see the Minister back in her place, because continuity helps long-term thinking, as is evident in the 25-year environment plan that was launched today.

I have briefly spoken about Delamere Forest already, which is in my constituency. It has 750,000 visitors a year and is described as the “green lungs” of the north—that is, until the new northern woodland, an initiative that I am delighted about, gets built. The forest contains several sites of special scientific interest. Its nursery grows a wide variety of trees that help research into the resilience of forests, particularly to the threat of climate change, and provides for all the Forestry Commission planting across England. It is a huge asset to my constituency and to the country. I invite the Minister to come to visit the forest and see the fantastic work that takes place there.

When it comes to enhancing the forests, I welcome the Government’s ambitious targets for the medium and long term. Planting 11 million trees by the end of this Parliament will be a step forward in the stewardship of our natural heritage. Likewise, the longer term aspiration of increasing woodland cover from 10% to 12% by 2060 is rightly ambitious, but I ask the Minister to commit to that as a target, not as an aspiration—perhaps she will deal with that in her response. Like the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, I am concerned that we will not meet that goal.

The Government need to encourage the private sector to step up and plant more, which means giving long-term assistance to landowners. In the 25-year environment plan, I am pleased to see ideas of measuring the extent to which carbon can be locked up in our trees and of encouraging the building industry to use UK-grown timber. Hopefully, they would mean that wood would not be burnt for biomass, carbon would be locked up and recycled wood would be used to renovate buildings. It would be a future win if the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government were to look at using better, British timber in building, which would create a good market for UK-grown produce.

In the 25-year environment plan, I am also pleased to see that the Government are looking at a forest carbon guarantee scheme. I am keen to hear more about that from the Minister. If the kind of woodland management that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton described is to happen, we will need an annual payment to cover its costs. The reality is that thinning out trees or dealing with trees that are blown over by massive storms hitting the UK is expensive—there is often a net cost to the landowner—and does not provide a return.

If we are serious about forestry planting in this country at the required scale, I encourage the Minister to look at an easy-to-access grant scheme. The Government are asking landowners to plant in situations where they could, for example, rent out that land to other farmers for arable farming or stock grazing. Farmers will need some sort of incentive to encourage them to plant trees there.

I want a diverse landscape in the UK. I want our native species to be planted, but I also want commercial species such as Sitka spruce and Douglas fir to be planted as resources that can be used for highly efficient buildings. There are very good building designs in Scandinavia and elsewhere that use wood, are highly energy efficient and are quick to build because they can be pre-fabricated. That is failing in the UK at the moment because the banks are failing to recognise the long-term durability of houses built using wood. If the Minister works with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to get some sort of certification scheme going, we can have a virtuous circle in the UK that works to the benefit of our constituents and the environment.

We import 80% of our timber—a shocking statistic. I encourage the Minister to take forward some of the ideas that have been published today in the 25-year environment plan and to work across Departments to see how we can encourage that virtuous circle of planting that will bring all the benefits that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton spoke of. In the meantime, I extend my invitation to visit the wonderful forest of Delamere to all hon. Members present.

Sandy Martin Portrait Sandy Martin (Ipswich) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach).

One of the few areas of the economy where we can be fairly sure that Brexit will lead to an increase in activity is tourism. The fall in the pound relative to other currencies has already led to a boost in our tourism from domestic and foreign visitors. The nature of our countryside is crucial for the future economic health of our country.

Woodland makes a vital contribution to the feel of that countryside. It is not easy to quantify, but if I were to ask anyone who knew anything about England to paint a picture of the English countryside, I would take a fairly safe bet that it would have at least some trees in it.

I do not underestimate the importance of trees as commercial timber. I would support any measures that would increase our ability to meet our timber needs from trees grown in this country, but we need to bear in mind that the tourism value of woodlands—especially ancient woodlands—is usually much greater than their timber value.

We need a woodlands policy that maximises the tourism value of our woodlands while also meeting our timber needs. Some of the classrooms that I was taught in as a small boy were built in wood back in the 13th century, so it is certainly a very durable material.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish
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You weren’t there then!

Sandy Martin Portrait Sandy Martin
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I was not there when they were built, no.

To maximise that tourism value, we need woodlands that are large and established enough to boost biodiversity. Small copses and individual trees have great value, but we need some larger forests in this country, although I do not wish to replicate the American redwood forests of the nightmares of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish).

We need to protect our biodiversity-rich ancient woodlands wherever they are. We need more trees of all sorts and trees to fit with our other economic and land-use needs, but I take this opportunity to press for the protection of ancient woodlands, for more serious forests in the UK in the future, and for policies that ensure that those things are achieved.

Chris Davies Portrait Chris Davies (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this debate and for chairing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee so eloquently and constructively. It was a pleasure to serve under his chairmanship for the first two years of my parliamentary career in Westminster. I also welcome the Minister back to her place. It is a pleasure to see her and I look forward to working with her open-door policy over the next few years before she goes on to even greater things.

I have a declaration to make. The forestry and wood-processing sector is well represented in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire: we have three sawmills, including the largest single-site sawmill in Wales—BSW’s at Newbridge-on-Wye—which employs 148 staff. Over the past decade, BSW has invested more than £6 million in the site, which produces more than 150,000 cubic metres of saw and timber each year for the construction industry and for the fencing and landscaping markets.

Given that I represent a large rural constituency in which forestry and timber support so many jobs and families, hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I have served as chair of the all-party group on forestry since 2015, when I was elected. Not many of its members are present today, but it is always well supported and it represents all sectors of this country. Unusually, Scotland is exceptionally well represented. Sadly, not many Scottish Members are in the Chamber—I am sure they have all rushed off to their trees in Scotland because they miss them when they are down in London—but the Scottish Government are leading on tree-planting and forestry. England, Wales and Northern Ireland could do with learning from Scotland. This is probably the one and only time I will ever say that, but I do give Scotland credit.

I am proud to have served for the past two years on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and to have contributed, along with three other hon. Members present—my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and our Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton—to its important and constructive report. I am sure you have read it from cover to cover, Mr Davies, so I will not dwell on it for too long.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish
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We will test him later.

Chris Davies Portrait Chris Davies
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Absolutely. Despite its title, our Committee’s inquiry looked beyond England, and a number of our recommendations are relevant to the forestry and timber-processing industries throughout the UK, which employ nearly 80,000 workers and contribute £2 billion to our economy each year. Forestry businesses operate across geographical boundaries—Forest Sawmills in my constituency has operations in Worcestershire and in south-west Scotland. This diversity is reflected in the make-up of our all-party group, in which the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) sits alongside the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) and my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan). Forestry crosses not only constituency and country borders, but party lines. Long may that continue.

This is the second Westminster Hall debate on forestry since I was elected in 2015. In December 2016, while the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was considering forestry in England, I secured a debate on tree planting in the UK. Much has happened since, but sadly not all of it has been positive. Our report noted in March 2017 that the UK was the third-largest importer of timber in the world, behind only Japan and China. Since then, unfortunately, the UK has overtaken Japan to become the second largest importer of timber—at a time when the World Wide Fund for Nature warns that global demand for wood will triple by 2050. That, perhaps more than anything, demonstrates clearly why it is so important for Parliament to make its voice heard and send a strong signal to the Government that the UK must plant more trees now to ensure a secure and growing supply of domestically sourced timber in the future.

I have referred to the considerable investment in timber processing in my constituency. I am pleased to say that rising demand for timber products, which is good not only for our environment but for our economy, means that similar investments have taken place up and down the country. However, investment in processing capacity by companies such as Norbord, Egger, and James Jones and Sons is entirely linked to the availability of the raw material they require—timber. The industry body Confor—the Confederation of Forest Industries—predicts that, unless tree-planting rates are greatly increased, the UK faces a timber gap in the next 20 years. We can plug that gap by taking action now, but there really is no time to lose.

Our report referred to:

“Getting the most out of forests and woodland”

and highlighted the need for a “long-term strategy for forestry”. It is self-evident to those of us with even a passing knowledge of forestry and timber processing that, as hon. Members have said, any strategy for the sector needs to be long term. It takes at least 30 years for a sustainably grown spruce tree to be ready for harvest. To put that in perspective, the trees being harvested now were planted when Ronald Reagan was President of the USA, the USSR was still in existence and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, the now untouchable Manchester City were in the second division of the Football League. Changed days indeed, Mr Davies.

Our report recommended that

“the dual benefits of agriculture and forestry should be recognised by having a single grant scheme to support both sectors.”

It also urged

“those in the forestry sector to approach the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Life Opportunities as early as possible with any concerns, opportunities and thoughts they have on the forestry sector when the UK leaves the European Union.”

I am pleased to say that the forestry sector, under the umbrella of Confor, has done just that—it has had very positive talks with the Minister. I began my speech by welcoming her back to her place. One thing I can say is that her door is always open, both to Members of Parliament and to the industry. She is always prepared to have discussions, and I thank her for that.

The industry has published an excellent discussion paper with proposals for how a common countryside policy can support forestry and woodlands in the UK when this country leaves the EU, which it will. It has also made great efforts to engage with environmental non-governmental organisations, farmers and landowners to find common ground on how best to support the Government’s aspirations for a green Brexit and how to replace the common agricultural policy. In October, Confor published a joint statement with the Woodland Trust and the Country Land and Business Association, setting out guiding principles for the Government to follow to support our forests and woodlands in the years ahead. I urge the Minister to consider those principles.

Many people with an interest in forestry have an understandable fear that it is the forgotten F-word, constantly competing for attention with food, farming and fisheries. It does not get the attention that such a successful industry, which provides good-quality jobs in rural areas such as Brecon and Radnorshire, fully deserves. Next time hon. Members speak about our countryside and its great rural businesses, I urge them not just to praise farming and fisheries—although they do need praising, believe me—but to make a point of saying “farming, fisheries and forestry” instead. It is not often that using the F-word improves a sentence, but that was a good example. I am pleased to commend our report and thank our Chair for introducing it.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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I welcome the opportunity to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies). It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I congratulate the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), on introducing this debate on the Committee’s welcome and thoughtful report on a significant issue. It gives us an opportunity to highlight the significant importance of forests and woodlands not only to our environment, but to our quality of life, as hon. Members have pointed out. I was pleased to see that sentiment reflected in the report, in the Government’s response and in the evidence given to the Committee by witnesses.

My suburban constituency of Chipping Barnet illustrates that the debate is not just of interest or relevance to rural areas. There are a number of woodland areas in Barnet: we have woodland around Monken Hadley common that dates back hundreds of years—it may have been continuously wooded since the end of the last ice age. Coppetts wood, at the other end of the constituency, used to be part of Finchley common, the haunt of highwaymen in the 17th and 18th centuries. It underwent a spell as a sewage works, but was subsequently revived and renewed and is now a welcome public space. Whitings wood between Arkley and Underhill brings us right up to date, because it was planted in 1996 and is now ably managed under the stewardship of the Woodland Trust.

A key goal for me as a Member of Parliament is the conservation of our natural environment. I warmly welcome the work that the Committee has put into the report, the strong commitment on the environment that the Prime Minister made today and the 25-year plan that has been published.

Like others in this debate, I want to focus on ancient woodlands. I welcome chapter 6 of the report, which covers that area. I also strongly support the Conservative manifesto commitment to strengthen protection for ancient woodlands in the planning system. I recently had the pleasure of joining the all-party parliamentary group on ancient woodland and veteran trees, and I was alarmed to learn at the first meeting I attended that as many as 500 ancient woodlands across the country may be under threat. I appreciate that in certain circumstances some loss of this valued habitat is unavoidable—for example, in relation to crucial major infrastructure projects of national significance—but I am alarmed that according to research by the Woodland Trust, current threats to ancient woodland include projects for caravan sites, leisure activities, waste disposal and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), a motorway service station. It is hard to see how that kind of land use can possibly justify the destruction of irreplaceable ancient woodland.

Our planning system should provide that building over ancient woodland should be permitted only in wholly exceptional circumstances. I support the Committee’s call for more extensive and systematic measurement and recording of ancient woodlands so that we have a better understanding of what we have and how much of it is under threat. I hope the Minister will respond to those important recommendations.

A key goal for all of us who recognise the benefits of woods and forests is not just protecting what we have, but planting more trees. I therefore urge the Minister to ensure that the Government deliver on their commitment to plant 11 million trees during this Parliament, plus a further million in our towns and cities. I note the scepticism we have heard from some this afternoon and from some witnesses in the Committee’s inquiry on the likelihood of the Government being able to deliver the long-term goal of 12% forestation by 2060. DEFRA’s response to the Committee rightly indicates that the private sector will be crucial in delivering on that very long-term goal. I agree that it is important for the private sector to do more.

With that in mind, I hope the Minister will consider putting a renewed focus in the Government’s clean growth strategy on planting trees as carbon stores. My understanding is that companies can include trees planted abroad in their carbon accounts, but cannot claim a similar credit for trees planted in the United Kingdom. I hope the Government will consider changing that. In other crucial decisions they will be making over the next few months, such as the replacement for the common agricultural policy, I hope that the Minister and Secretary of State will take into account the importance of woodlands and hedgerows. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that trees, hedges and small woods are better integrated into our new system of agricultural support.

In his speech to the Oxford farming conference recently, the Secretary of State said that he wanted sustainability and environmental goals to be at the heart of the UK’s new system of farm support after we leave the EU. I urge the Minister to ensure that that includes rewarding farmers for taking care of trees on their land and supporting them to add new trees, hedges and shelterbelts. It is important to bear in mind what has been said this afternoon and what is in the report about the importance of ensuring that the system for administering and applying for support payments is vastly simpler, more straightforward and more logical that the CAP it will replace.

In conclusion, as the evidence to the EFRA Committee showed, woods and forests provide a whole range of benefits to everyone in our society, including tackling climate change, reducing floods and improving air quality. As we have heard eloquently from a number of speakers, there also include significant economic benefits. As places of beauty and tranquillity, woods and forests can deliver significant and valuable public health advantages by providing opportunities for recreation, physical and mental relaxation and an escape from the pressures of life in modern Britain. Projects such as the northern forest illustrate the value we place on our woodlands, because it has captured the public’s imagination.

In preparing my remarks today, I was reflecting on the track record of my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Chipping Barnet, a wonderful man by the name of Sir Sydney Chapman. He was famed for his project, “Plant a tree in ’73”. It was one of the first large-scale environmental movements. It was followed by the less well-known, but equally well-named, “Plant some more in ’74”. While Sydney is sadly no longer with us, the trees that he was responsible for planting will leave a green and leafy living legacy for decades and perhaps even centuries to come. In future years, I hope this Government will be remembered for many positive things, but also for the trees and woodlands we planted as part of our commitment to be the first to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. We have the opportunity to do that. I urge the Minister and her colleagues to ensure that that happens.

John McNally Portrait John Mc Nally (Falkirk) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this interesting, topical and timely debate. I wish a belated happy new year to all. It is good to see members of the Woodland Trust present. I will try to be fairly brief and get to the end of this speech without losing my voice.

Many enlightening points have been made during the debate. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) made good points on how to merge forestry and farming. She also talked about ancient woodlands. I am eternally grateful to the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for her ambition on preserving ancient woodlands. She provided me with a huge insight into the problems that exist. The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) talked about addressing short-termism. We have been practising short-termism for far too long. It needs to stop but there seems to be no end in sight. Things are taken week to week, month to month and year to year, and that has to change. The aspiration that she mentioned needs to become a certainty in policy.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) mentioned tourism, a special interest of mine, which I will speak about later. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) for his words recognising the work that the Scottish Government are undertaking. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) well expressed her local knowledge and interest in the history of her area. She also talked about the conservation of ancient woodlands and the threats to them. All those things are very commendable, and I agree entirely with many of the things that have been said. There is cross-party agreement on many of these issues. Trees, birds, wildlife and the whole habitat depend on the whole transnational situation.

I would like to bring to the Chamber’s attention how the matters we are debating today affect Scotland and their potential impact on Scottish interests. I hope that Members will bear with me—I recognise this is essentially a debate on English issues—if I get a wee bit parochial. The Scottish forestry sector supports more than 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs and contributes some £1 billion gross value added to the Scottish economy. Our forestry sector represents 64% of the UK’s total green wood output. It is an essential part of our landscape’s visual appeal, Scottish industrial supply chains and the provision of a multitude of ecosystem services, from flood mitigation and erosion control to habitat for pollinators.

Considerable social and health benefits are being realised through the Scottish Government’s use of planning policies to encourage the afforestation of vacant and derelict land. Tourism and recreation in Scotland’s national forest estate contributes £110 million each year to Scotland’s economy, supporting around 4,000 jobs. That was brought clearly into focus just yesterday at an event I co-hosted in the Jubilee Room in Westminster Hall with my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). The companies benefiting from the hugely successful series “Outlander” were exhibiting their products there. For providing such a marvellous afternoon, I would like to thank the Earl of Hopetoun; Campbells, which is a successful fine food business located in the Falkirk area; Mary’s Meanders; and Diageo, which supplied the wonderful whisky. It was plain to see that the beauty of our landscape was critical to the success of the series, and the tourism it has subsequently attracted is enormous. Within the series, producers used magnificent trees to set many of the scenes—indeed, trees and forests were crucial to the location sought out.

Our woodlands are to be treasured, but forestry is a sector vulnerable to uncertainty. Trees occupy land for a long time, and leave it in a condition that is expensive to restore to its original state. No sane land manager is likely to consider planting them unless they are certain that they will benefit. In addition, key parts of the sector’s supply chain, such as commercial forest nurseries, find it difficult to cope with surges and crashes in demand. It is therefore vital that the Governments in Scotland and the UK do all they can to provide the sector with a long-term view of the incentives and support mechanisms in the markets that will be available for forestry once we leave the EU.

That brings me to the crux of the matter. The forestry Bill passing through the Scottish Parliament includes the formal devolution of competences over forestry but, as we withdraw from the EU, the allocation of funding for both forestry and agriculture has been retained here in Westminster by the UK Government. As you will know, Mr Davies, European funding has been a vital lifeline for forestry in Scotland and elsewhere, with 55% of the Scottish Government’s forestry grant scheme coming from the European agricultural fund for rural development. The current round of that scheme is worth £252 million from 2014 to 2020. Forestry research is vital as we adapt to and try to mitigate the effects of climate change and the spread of exotic tree pests and diseases. However, as the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee heard during its inquiry, the money made available for it has halved in recent years, and the Forestry Commission’s research agency relies on European money for some 16% of its dwindling budget.

I have a significant question for the Minister, to which I hope she will respond. Professor Graeme Roy, director of the Fraser of Allander Institute, giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament two years ago in July 2016, said:

“Scotland has about 8 per cent of the UK population, but about 18 per cent of UK CAP payments come to Scotland. How will that funding reach the Scottish budget? It will not come through tax revenues. If comes through Barnett, you will get 8 per cent of the equivalent spending in England and Wales, which is certainly not 18 per cent. What is the mechanism by which those additional revenues will flow into the Scottish budget?”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 28 July 2016; c. 17.]

I reiterate that question, and ask the Minister how she intends to bridge the financial chasm identified by Professor Roy that is opening up between Scotland’s present share of the UK’s common agricultural policy payments and what we can expect to receive via the Barnett formula.

At present, we have guarantees from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs underwriting the EU funding allocated up until the UK leaves the EU in 2020, but again that represents a cliff edge beyond which nothing is certain. We have no clarity as of yet about what support for agriculture or forestry will look like in a post-Brexit UK, nor do we know how money will be allocated to the devolved Administrations. Since we have recently seen the appointment of a Secretary of State who is a great believer in communities being their own architects of choice, could the Minister provide an update on his plans for funding post-2020? Such an announcement—it may have been made and I have missed it—would do much to alleviate fears in this sector, such as those expressed by the UK forestry sector representative body Confor, which predicted in 2016 that uncertainty over future grant funding availability will discourage investment in large planting schemes.

The Scottish forestry sector is valued by the Scottish people and Government, and is of strategic importance beyond being a source of timber. The Scottish Government recognise the importance of forestry in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, restoring environmental health and improving human health. It is a vital and expanding part of Scotland’s industrial chain. Considerable private investment has been made in both forest management and processing timber. Investors need reassurance that Scotland is open for business, and clarity regarding future trade arrangements and tariffs. I will end by again asking the Minister for clarity about future funding and trade arrangements, and echoing the call made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton for deeds, not just words.

David Drew Portrait Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Davies. I thank the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), for introducing the debate. If nothing else, it gets Lord David Clark off my back. When I was on the Committee he spent a lot of time asking why we never debated forestry. I had to explain to him that I was a limited voice on a much bigger Committee, but it is good that the Committee has discussed it, and that the hon. Gentleman has managed to arrange today’s debate for the same day as the announcement of the 25-year environment plan. If only I had that much authority, I would not be where I am today.

This is an important milestone and an important piece of work by the Committee. Government Members can be critical of the Government, and I will also make some points in that respect, but today’s debate is largely consensual, because we all love trees and want more trees. The only question is how we get them. Sadly, we do not always simply get more trees—some are cut down, which causes all sorts of problems. I have a great many friends in Stroud who seem to spend a lot of their time sitting in trees that they do not want cut down, but that is Stroud, and they are the people I represent. I therefore have an interest in how trees have grown and been saved, and sometimes not been saved.

Today’s debate is marked by the interests of a number of bodies. I will declare my own interests: I am a member of both the National Trust, which has a great many trees in Stroud, and the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which also has trees. I am indebted to the Woodland Trust, which also has trees in Stroud, and Confor, which does a marvellous job in making sure that the all-party parliamentary group on forestry—it is good to see the group’s chair, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), here—functions very efficiently and effectively. I dare say, That is why we are discussing trees today.

I owe much of my knowledge of forestry to a dear late friend, John Workman, who, by any stretch of the imagination, would be described as a forester. He was such a good advocate of forestry that he bequeathed all his woodlands—he was a single gentleman—to the National Trust. The Ebworth Estate—I do not know whether hon. Members know Stroud—is a wonderful centre. The woodlands around are crucial to the way in which Stroud, as a constituency, lives, breathes and functions. His dream was always that there would be a ring of trees all the way around the centre of Stroud, so that people could walk round without ever leaving the woodland. That has not quite come to pass, because there are certain private woodland owners who have not yet agreed to full access. I say to the Minister that it would be interesting to see how the new structure of farm payments will encourage woodland owners, with sensibility, to make sure that there is proper access, so that people can walk round and get the benefits of that.

Antoinette Sandbach Portrait Antoinette Sandbach
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I am always interested in calls for access, because one of the big problems is the spread of disease. Phytophthora ramorum spores can very easily be spread on people’s boots, so if someone walks in a forestry that has phytophthora in it—most of the Forestry Commission wood in Wales does—other woodland could be infected. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on how he would deal with the question of access versus disease?

David Drew Portrait Dr Drew
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When speaking of access, I used the word “sensibility”. People cannot be allowed to walk wherever they want—that has to be recognised—but there is a lot of evidence that the right to roam, within reason, has been less destructive than some people would allege, and I think that we can move forward on that.

We have had very good contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), from the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and from the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire and for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), as well as a short contribution from the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh). Although hon. Members from the Scottish National party are largely interested in Scotland, it is good that we recognise that this is a genuine United Kingdom debate. We should welcome that, and learn from what they are doing right in Scotland, because we all have to plant more trees.

To be slightly critical of today’s environment plan— I have only just got a copy of it, but perhaps the Minister can explain this to me—the first bit says:

“We will also work with industry and support Grown in Britain to increase the amount of home grown timber used in England in construction, creating a conveyor belt of locked-in carbon in our homes and buildings”.

I am not quite sure what that means. If the Minister can tell me what “locked-in carbon” neutrality is, I would be very pleased to be disabused.

In the few minutes I have left, I will concentrate on three areas, some of which have been highlighted already. I want Minister to understand where there is a need for more detail, both in the response to the Select Committee report and in the 25-year environment plan. First, there is the issue of how we get to 12% by 2060, which is not clearly spelled out in either the response or the 25-year environment plan. We need detail about how that will be achieved. There is a lot on aspiration, but much less on the detail. Those with knowledge of the industry are more than a little sceptical about where the detail will come from.

Secondly, there is the issue of woodland management and how we protect our ancient woodlands, which a number of hon. Members highlighted. We need to lay down clearly what the criteria are for the planning system. I am aware that that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but she will have to talk to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about areas where we are protecting woodlands, which means that they cannot be developed.

A particular interest of mine is how forestry relates to climate change. Again, I have not had the opportunity to read the 25-year plan in detail, but I am a bit worried that the approach to carbon capture and to using woodlands as part of how we deal with climate change is not as clearly spelled out as it could and should be. It would be useful if the Minister can say something about how management, protection and growing more trees will be achieved.

Finally, as the Chair of the Select Committee intimated, the grant system is more than a little messy. The way that countryside stewardship approaches woodlands is dated. There are a number of other grant schemes, which I have never really understood—I am not an expert in this field—but I talk to people who have an interest in how they might be persuaded to grow more trees. As has been made clear, we are not just talking about the new northern forest, much as it is welcome—I suppose the northern forest will be alongside the new northern powerhouse, but it could be around it. This is not just about the big answers, but about the small copses and areas around the market towns where I live. We have got to give landowners, including housing developers, the opportunity to come up with innovative schemes.

I want to mention two other people in passing, because they are apposite to this debate. John Parker, who happens to be a constituent of mine, is the head of trees at Transport for London, and has taught me a few things about how we need to look at tree surgery, which we have not touched on, and the way in which we maintain urban trees as well as trees in the countryside. That is very interesting, because we must not see urban trees as negligible. They are part of the solution, so we need more trees in the urban setting. Chris Uttley has been leading a project to try to keep the water upstream so we have less flooding in towns such as Stroud, and part of that is about the sensitive planting of trees. Those people are important to me locally, and they have part of the solution for dealing with climate change and flooding, and maintaining our natural environment alongside our built environment. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who is going to provide all the detail now she is back in office.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate on forestry, and I thank his Committee for producing its report. Hon. Members will have seen our formal response and our exchange of correspondence with the Committee. I welcome this debate, which is extremely timely, particularly given that the 25-year environment plan was published today. We are moving forward and developing a long-term vision for the environment. Today, the Prime Minister launched our landmark 25-year plan, which sets out how we will improve the environment over a generation. I was very pleased to be reappointed Environment Minister to see some of it through and I thank hon. Members for their kind words.

The much-said mantra “the right tree in the right place” can serve multiple benefits, as has been illustrated today. Forestry and woodland creation, and its sustainable management, offer a wide range of economic, social and environmental benefits, including landscape scale habitats for wildlife, increased biodiversity and reduced flood risk. Indeed, we are spending £15 million on more natural flood management schemes to understand better and more systematically how things such as different ways of planting trees can make life better. They also contribute to improved soil, better water quality, the personal enjoyment of nature and, as has been pointed out several times, the supply of timber.

Well-managed trees, woodlands and forests have a role in the countryside and the urban environment, which is why it is so disappointing that certain councils seem hellbent on removing trees from city streets. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) is keen to ensure the Mayor of London keeps his pre-election pledge to plant 2 million trees in London. We are still working on our plans to help more councils plant trees to meet our 1 million tree target. They will be supported with an advice pack about the best kind of species and cultivars, which will contain guidance on different methods of tree surgery, which the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) talked about. We know that there is excellent practice in local government already, and we want to ensure it is as widely known as possible.

To reassure the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), we remain committed to our ambition to plant at least 11 million trees during this Parliament and a further 1 million trees in urban areas.

Angela Smith Portrait Angela Smith
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The original target was 2020, but this Parliament goes on until 2022. Which is the relevant date?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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I am pleased to say that we made that pledge in 2015, which naturally would take us to 2020. We restated the pledge in 2017, so we have restarted the clock. It will be a further 11 million trees by 2022—in this Parliament. I believe we will do that comfortably, not least because HS2 Ltd is setting aside money, £5 million, for schemes and will plant trees over the next few years, so I am confident that we will go past that target. In this debate, we are focusing on the schemes relating to DEFRA, which is where I intend to focus my attention.

We want England to benefit from significantly increased woodland cover by 2060, which is why we stand by our shared aspiration to achieve 12% woodland cover. We will achieve that only through a mix of private and public investment. I reiterate that it is a key part of the Government’s clean growth strategy, which identified the milestone of an extra 130,000 hectares to be planted by 2032.

I recognise the slow start of take-up of the countryside stewardship scheme and the woodland carbon fund. However, we have made a number of changes, partly driven by our review. I am confident that by focusing our efforts and making these changes, we will see an increase in tree planting.

Chris Davies Portrait Chris Davies
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I was delighted to see in the 25-year plan, which was released this morning, that there will be a national tree champion. How will the national tree champion fit in to DEFRA, and what will their role be?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge asked that question, too. The tree champion will help to co-ordinate activity. This is about having trees in the right place. I see them very much as an ally in ensuring we pull together the different stakeholders. They will also be a champion for urban trees and will ensure the trees we have stay in the ground, particularly in our urban environment. We are making progress in a variety of ways, and the tree champion will be a key part of that.

Angela Smith Portrait Angela Smith
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Will the Minister give way?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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I want to make some progress, because I have plenty to say.

To return to the different schemes, I had the pleasure of visiting the Lowther estate last month and planting the first of 213,000 trees this winter. That has been funded through the countryside stewardship scheme. I was shown its plans for future woodland schemes for a rich mix of broadleaf corridors and softwood plantations that together will provide commercial forestry as well as huge benefits for wildlife. That was truly impressive.

I was delighted that the largest forest to be planted in more than 30 years finally got the green light. The first of more than 600,000 trees will be planted this March at Doddington North moor. That 350-hectare forest will store 120,000 tonnes of carbon, help to manage flood risk, boost timber industry businesses and jobs, and help red squirrel populations. That was funded through the woodland carbon fund.

Most recently of all, as already alluded to, I know that hon. Members are applauding the launch of the northern forest. We expect 50 million trees to be planted for communities along the M62 corridor—truly a green heart, or ribbon, for the northern powerhouse. That long-term project is led by our friends at the Woodland Trust and England’s Community Forests, and we are kick-starting it with DEFRA funding to accelerate this ambitious project. I understand that our partners have already managed to secure extra funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and I am confident that over the timeline of the project, given their successful track record—which is why we are partnering with them to achieve it—they will be able to take advantage of not only corporate funding but development schemes that attract other kinds of Government funding.

We have continued to work with the industry and reviewed the schemes that we have in place to encourage more planting. In taking a number of steps to remove barriers that were discouraging applications for funding to support tree planting, we have made internal changes to improve operational processing. For example, the country has been mapped by the Forestry Commission, which has worked with Natural England to identify appropriate areas for significant afforestation. The commission is also working with National Parks to identify suitable planting areas, and I am looking forward to visiting the South Downs tomorrow to discuss that further.

We have raised the environmental impact assessment threshold for afforestation to 50 hectares in mapped low-risk areas, with full prior notification of relevant details required below that threshold to ensure that we maintain the environmental protection. The Forestry Commission has also set up a large-scale woodland creation unit to support the development of projects by directly influencing landowners. I am grateful to the chair of the Forestry Commission, Sir Harry Studholme, for stepping up his efforts. With him, I will be meeting landowners and estate managers later this month.

Informed by the review, we improved the application forms for the countryside stewardship scheme for 2018 and released guidance three months earlier than in the previous year, in effect significantly extending the application window, which opened last week. The woodland carbon fund, the aim of which is to provide larger forests—to recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin)—is a one-stop shop process administered by the Forestry Commission. Again, we have made significant changes, including lowering the planting threshold to 10 hectares, providing funding for forest roads and making a second-stage payment five years after planting. We have now received two more applications and I am aware of another 10 that are to be submitted.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet talked about the domestic carbon market and, as was highlighted in the clean growth strategy, we wish to establish that. That is my intention. The industry says that it needs more confidence that the planting rates are getting under way before we can establish something that is financially resilient, but I am confident that we can achieve that.

On there being two schemes, we are keeping both because they have different objectives. The countryside stewardship objectives include improvements in biodiversity and habitat, flood mitigation and water quality, while the woodland carbon fund focuses on largescale carbon capture. In both cases the UK forestry standard is the guideline on the mix of planting, which does not predefine the split of species, but diversification of planting, as we have heard, helps to improve woodland resilience and protects future supplies of timber, biomass and other benefits.

We are also considering future schemes carefully. I have previously challenged the sector on improving the quality of woodland creation plans so that they clearly satisfy the expectations of the UK forestry standard. I am pleased that the Forestry Commission, the Institute of Chartered Foresters and key forestry stakeholders are working together to develop support tools, training and communications to upskill all parties involved in the design, assessment and delivery of forestry proposals. Some of the most recent woodland creation planning grant applications have shown a high quality of design planning and are being used as exemplars to guide future applicants.

On active management, which has been discussed extensively today, we know that improving markets for hardwood timber will bring more undermanaged woodlands into production. This year we will continue to promote the market opportunities for timber. Our work with the ICF and other organisations to improve the quality of plans and the way in which we process them will reduce the time taken to get the management plans in place. We do not only support new planting. We offer options through countryside stewardship to support the active management of the woodlands we already have. Since 2016 we have had nearly 600 woodland management applications, which would support more than 44,520 hectares, bringing them back into active management.

On ancient woodland, my officials have met the Woodland Trust and other groups to discuss how best to prevent the loss of such woodland. We recognise its importance and that is why ancient woodland enjoys the special protection that will be further enhanced in the updated national planning policy framework. That said, our records show that there are 340,000 hectares of ancient woodland, which is 26% of total woodland area, and that between 2006 and 2015 just 57 hectares, or 0.02% of the overall ancient woodland area, were lost permanently to other land uses. We are exploring the opportunities for better recording the loss of ancient woodland, including the potential for updating the ancient woodland inventory. I understand that officials are still in discussion with the Woodland Trust about the detail, but its support is welcome.

On other Committee recommendations not already covered, Forestry Commission England will continue to publish the headline performance updates, which include the rate of new principal Government-supported tree planting and both the total area and the percentage of woodland in England in active management, on a quarterly basis. The Forestry Commission will review the indicators it publishes on woodland creation, aiming to reflect the creation supported by Government more clearly. The commission has also committed to providing the sector with information on short to medium-term expectations of planting rates, based on grant applications received and those in preparation. My officials have discussed with the Committee on Climate Change the long-term trajectory for woodland planting to match the five-year carbon budgets and our 2060 aspiration.

On the industrial strategy, it is for the industry to come forward with a proposal for a sector deal, but I assure my right hon. and hon. Friends that we absolutely support the industry. On skills and apprenticeships, the Forestry Commission worked with the sector to create a new apprenticeship standard, and it is liaising with industry, the Royal Forestry Society and the Institute for Chartered Foresters on the creation of higher-level forest manager apprenticeships. The commission is engaging colleges, training providers and assessment bodies to promote take-up of the standard. A small number of universities in the UK also provide forestry degrees, and last year I was pleased to meet students and recent alumni at Bangor University.

At the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we are identifying options to encourage the use of more domestic timber in construction. Nothing will happen overnight, but the clean growth strategy clearly supports the use of more home-grown timber in construction. We will work with Confor, Grown in Britain and the sector. The locked-in carbon is the essence—instead of concrete, metal and all the other things, we can achieve things just as well with wood.

Across Government, we will continue to explore how to do more for British forestry and timber-processing businesses. On the renewable heat incentive scheme, we want to ensure that waste wood is used only in specifically designed boilers. On research—I am running out of time and I appreciate that the Chair of the Select Committee may wish to reply briefly—I assure him that we have developed strong links with the industry and non-governmental organisations. Forest Research devotes 25% of its budget to knowledge exchange. We also work with the Scottish and Welsh Governments to explore future business models. European Union funding is also possible, although EU regulation does not cover forestry. Finally, in response to the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), I have to be candid: future funding arrangements are a matter for further discussion between the Governments of the different nations. I can give no pledge today.

I hope that I have covered all the subjects I wished to. We have made some changes and we are seeing an uptick in the number of trees being planted. People are applying more through our different schemes, and I encourage them to do so further. We will continue to monitor that, adapting as necessary to achieve our ambitions.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish
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I thank the Minister for her words, for her contribution to managing our woodlands better in future and for the tree planting into the future. Now that we are bringing forward a tree champion, perhaps we have the opportunity to look again at our woodland grant system, to see if we can bring it and pull it together.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today. My wife and I take the dog around Battersea Park in the morning when we are here in London. Those trees have been planted for generations, so we can enjoy them now, and they have also seen many political parties come and go. We can be absolutely assured that were we to need a cross-party approach to planting trees for the future, as Governments of all persuasions come and go, that is probably the one thing that we can agree on.

Seriously, trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen, so they are good not only in the countryside but in our cities. They can be our lungs for the future. We can also make much more of our wood industry. We can have everything if we do it in the right way. My final point, as I started the debate, is that as we plant more woodland, we should ensure that it is a mixture of trees and landscapes, so as to provide good access to such forest for all people, whether it is recreational or good for the environment and carbon capture. It can also be good for our future to have more wood in our houses.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).