Britain’s forests: not seeing the wood for the trees

Forests are an essential component of our natural environment. They provide eco-systems for wildlife to flourish, beautify landscapes, and provide green spaces for recreation and leisure. Matt Browne, an associate at Bright Blue, has already written for this site about how the National Forest in the Midlands, planted under John Major’s government, is an exemplar of green conservatism in action.

Yet further action is required to improve the state of the UK’s forestry. England has one of the lowest levels of forest coverage in the Europe. Just 11% of its land surface is covered with trees, compared to an EU average of over 44%. Across the whole UK, the figure is not much higher – just 13%.

The pendulum has now started to swing the other way, as forestry’s share of UK land has started to tick up. The nadir came after the First World War, when forest coverage fell to just 5%. The Government now boasts that woodland cover is back to the levels of the fourteenth century.

Policy framework

The twin challenges for government in improving forest coverage are maintaining existing forests and planting new trees.

Ancient woodlands are defined as forests planted over 400 years ago and make up approximately a third of England’s total woodland. They are particularly important habitats for wildlife. They enjoy special protection from development, although organisations like the Woodland Trust claim that many are under threat from a loophole in the planning guidelines. In 2014, the Communities and Local Government select committee recommended strengthening the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework, adapting the clause that allows ancient trees to be cut down if the benefits of development outweigh the loss.

Forests are a sensitive and potent political issue. One of the biggest policy reversals in the last Parliament came when plans were announced to privatise the state-owned Forestry Commission, which administers the 18% of the UK’s forests that are in public ownership.

Following the u-turn, the Government set up the Independent Panel on Forestry to advise on the future of public woodlands in the UK. In response to the Panel’s report, the Government in 2013 announced its target to increase tree coverage in England from 10% to 12% by 2060.

The Government has maintained this commitment, by pledging to plant more trees in the UK in this Parliament. In the Spending Review last year, £350 million was ring-fenced for spending on public forests, with the aim of planting an additional 11 million trees over the course of the Parliament.

Yet analysis last week by the Woodland Trust found that the rate of new tree planting had slowed, and was insufficient to meet the planting rates required to meet the 2060 target. The goal requires the planting of 5000 hectares of trees annually on average, but last year just 700 hectares were added.

Benefits of woodland

The maintenance of forests falls within the Government’s natural capital policy agenda, which provides a framework for ascribing value to and enhancing natural assets. In their latest report, the Natural Capital Committee, set up by the Coalition government, called for more trees to be planted on the periphery of major cities and towns. They argued that this would bring greater recreational benefits and carbon savings than continuing to plant new forests in peatlands. They quantified the net economic benefits of this approach as being worth £550 million per year.

Planting more forests will have a number of important benefits for the UK’s natural environment. First, trees lock up carbon, allowing warming emissions to be removed from the atmosphere and helping to mitigate climate change. The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that an additional 10,000 hectares of trees are planted annually in order to cost-effectively meet the emission reductions in the Climate Change Act 2008. It’s worth noting that the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation for additional tree planting is twice the level implied by the Government’s 2060 target.

Second, trees can make catchment areas more resilient to flooding. They slow the flow of flood water, by evaporating more water, increasing water absorption by the soil, roughening up land surfaces, and decreasing soil erosion. This helps the environment adapt to the effects of climate change. In her statement to Parliament following the flooding in December 2015, the Environment Secretary Liz Truss MP identified tree planting as part of a long-term approach to flood risk management.

It is also claimed that there are economic benefits of woodland. By quantifying the monetary value of a hectare of woodland in terms of health, climate, business, recreational, and water management benefits, the Woodland Trust has estimated the total value of £270 billion of Britain’s forests.

The Government’s 25-year environmental plan is due before the end of the year. Ministers have indicated already that forests are going to be one of its focuses. It’s clear that greater afforestation offers many public benefits. The challenge is now to increase the rate of planting to match the ambition. The forests planted under this Government could rival the Major government’s National Forest as a demonstration of green conservatism in action.