John Gummer

The National Forest: green conservatism in action

The concept of conservative environmentalism comes under regular attack from both the left, and the UKIP-tinged right, with the former arguing that environmental action without wide scale state intervention is ineffectual, and the latter suggesting that action on climate change is fundamentally un-conservative.

Bright Blue’s green conservatism project has been launched to refute these arguments; to demonstrate that environmental degradation can be effectively addressed by conservatives and that such action is in line with conservative traditions. It’s an argument supported by a 200 square mile wide case study in green conservatism – the National Forest. 

The former East Midlands coalfield is perhaps an unlikely location for an exemplar of green conservatism to take root. Twenty years ago the area was in difficulty, with an economy hit hard by the collapse of mining and a landscape scarred by the visual legacy of heavy industry. Regeneration seemed a long way off – until John Major’s Government picked up on a slightly whimsical proposal made by the Countryside Commission (the forerunner to Natural England) to create a new ‘national’ forest. Environment Secretary John Gummer MP seized on the idea and proposed applying it to the East Midlands. In 1994 he announced a new forest would be created in the former coalfield – describing the scheme as an ‘‘ambitious and imaginative environmental project to create a new forest in the heart of the country, in an area where much of the land has been despoiled by mineral working’’.

Two decades on, imagination has given way to leafy reality. The designated area of the National Forest stretches from Leicester to Lichfield, an area that in 1994 was only 6% woodland, half the national average. 8 million newly planted trees later, woodland cover stands at 20% and is rising fast.

This remarkable progress has been delivered not through taxpayers’ money paying for each tree planted, but through conservative policy tools; private sector sponsorship, the participation of civil society and strong local planning rules.

The National Forest Company (NFC), set up by John Gummer’s Department of the Environment in 1995, has secured millions of pounds of private sector sponsorship to fund the planting of trees and has successfully encouraged local communities and national charities to contribute time, expertise and money towards the growth of the Forest. The NFC’s success in building up a National Forest brand has resulted in the Forest becoming a source of local pride and identity, helping to sustain both private sector investment and resident volunteering. Local authorities that cover the National Forest have adopted the NFC’s planning guidelines, only giving planning permission to developers who agree to plant at least 20% of their site with new trees. As a result, developers have funded the creation of 1,400 hectares of forest since 1995. 

This broad-based funding structure has meant that the National Forest has been in a good condition to weather the age of austerity, and it continues to grow despite the post-2010 squeeze on public finances. It is as outcome-effective and it is cost-effective – the tripling of woodland area over two decades means that the National Forest is now taking 66 kilo-tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year. There have been real economic and social benefits also – tourism to the National Forest now contributes £287m to the local economy and 200,000 people now live within 500 metres of an accessible woodland. Since 1995, 340,000 people have been involved in National Forest-related projects, including 186,000 children.

The commitment of John Major’s Government to the National Forest created a financially sustainable project that is making a meaningful contribution to reducing carbon dioxide levels, whilst also boosting the local economy and increasing public access to the countryside – green conservatism par excellence.  

It’s a dizzying example of the potential centre-right environmental policy has not just to protect England’s green and pleasant land, but to enhance and extend it. What could be more effectively environmental, and muscularly conservative, than that? 

Matt Browne works for a communications consultancy, and is an Associate at Bright Blue

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.