Two years on from General Election 2019, are tree planting promises any closer to being delivered?
More weight must be thrown behind our tree planting ambition to help achieve net zero.
Politicians are not known for agreeing on policy - any policy - and that tends to be particularly the case during general election campaigns.
However, in December 2019 there was a rare case of consensus around a massive expansion of Britain’s woodlands to aid in the fight against damaging climate change. While Labour promised to plant billions of trees the Conservatives settled on a UK-wide figure of 30,000 hectares (around 75,000 acres) of new woodland annually by 2025. This would mean about 50-60 million trees planted each year, depending on species and spacing.
Recognising this new policy priority the well-established All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry decided to add tree planting to its title and I was pleased to take over as Chair when the group met for the first time in January 2020.
Despite the pandemic, the group has flourished, using the online format to reach out and engage with a new audience of businesses, policy-makers, regulators and anyone with an interest in UK forestry and woodlands. While we have not been able to meet in person, the reach of the group has extended and even those who cannot attend can catch up online afterwards through the YouTube channel of Confor - the forestry and wood trade body which helps organise APPG meetings.
A major focus for the APPG is ensuring progress towards delivering planting commitments - not just in England but also in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is a tough challenge as it's over 30 years since the UK was able to plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland each year. Since then much has changed with tougher rules and regulations to ensure the right tree is planted in the right place. Modern forests have both native and commercial species planted in well-designed woodlands, delivering across many policy priorities such as biodiversity, climate change and the rural economy
Currently only Scotland is on track to achieve its targets with significant deficits in all the other nations - showing a lack of political will behind the ambition.
As we approach the halfway point of this Parliament, the window of opportunity to make up any shortfall is getting narrower, while the need is becoming greater. Our group has heard worrying evidence that future supplies of wood in the UK are set to fall, while global demand for timber continues to rise. Given the UK is the second largest net importer of timber after China, this strategic situation means timber needs a higher priority in government plans for land use.
Most sawmills are family owned and can trace their roots back through many generations. Office-bearer Drew Hendry MP represents a large constituency in the north of Scotland including Nairn, where local sawmill Gordon’s Timber reached its 160th anniversary earlier this month. These mills are embedded in rural communities and offer long term sustainable employment for rural communities in areas where few other options are not available.
We owe it to the future success of rural businesses across the UK to ensure there is a stable supply of timber and to achieve net zero we have to recognise that we cannot keep importing more and more of the wood we need for a low-carbon future. Our group is committed to making the tree planting aspiration a reality.
Ben Lake MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.