Without doubt, the big political news of the summer has been the decision of the UK to leave the European Union. The immediate consequence for FoTF has been the arrival of both a new Secretary of State for the Environment and a new Forestry Minister. Thetford Forest MP Liz Truss moves on to the Ministry of Justice and is replaced by Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary. Ms Leadsom’s previous appointment was in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Rory Stewart becomes the Minister at the Department for International Development. He is replaced by Suffolk Coastal MP Dr Therese Coffey.
FoTF has wasted no time inviting Dr Coffey to visit Thetford Forest and see at first hand the incredible work that is done on the Public Forest Estate (PFE) for wildlife, public access and archaeology while at the same time supporting the timber industry. We have sought assurances that she will honour the pledges made to us by Ms Truss and Mr Stewart in person less than a year ago to protect the PFE for the nation (see Spring/Summer 2016 Newsletter) and that this legislative protection will be in place within the lifetime of this Government.
While the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU remain uncertain, it is interesting to note that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond recently pledged to maintain the system of Farm Subsidy payments that the EU makes to private landholders. With the fabled £350 million per week saved by leaving the EU already promised by exit campaigners on health, education and defence, where will this money will come from and how it will affect DEFRAs already strained budget? Will the burden fall upon our publicly owned woods and forests? We implore Mr Hammond to make available the relatively minor sum of £22 million per year recommended by the IPF (Independent Panel on Forestry) to ensure that the PFE continues to deliver the huge benefits for health and well-being and the environment that it already does.
Earlier in the summer, FoTF hosted the latest of our fact-finding tours for DEFRA officials. Stephen Penlington and Colin Whelan were able to see the conservation work of our volunteers and the recently restored medieval Mildenhall Warren Lodge before heading off to see forest operations in action. During the course of the day, they also learned about FC’s work with community forests in Thames Chase and were shown their award-winning research into the woodland species that might be better adapted for growth in Thetford Forest in an era of climate change. FoTF regards these visits as vital to developing an awareness and understanding among key policy makers of the importance of our woods and forests and how they deliver so many benefits for so many people.
As we enter a period of uncertainty FoTF remains committed to ensuring that promises made will be delivered and that the nation’s publicly owned forests will be safe for us all to enjoy in perpetuity.
In our last Newsletter (No. 60, Autumn/Winter 2015), Friends wondered why there seemed to be little progress on implementing the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry’s (IPF) Final Report (published way back in 2012) to set up legislation to protect our publicly owned forests for the Nation. The replies we received from Parliamentary Candidates for the 2015 General Election, along with feedback from our attendance at National Forestry Forum events hosted by DEFRA and our contacts with other interested parties, suggested widespread support for the IPF’s recommendations. With such a level of agreement on a way forward, it was difficult to understand why no progress was being made.
However, while the Newsletter was going to press, Friends were able to meet directly with both the Secretary of State for the Environment, Elizabeth Truss MP and her Parliamentary Under Secretary with responsibility for Forestry, Rory Stewart MP.
The meeting began with Friends describing our work in Thetford Forest. Rory Stewart then asked what we would like to see in relation to the future of the Public Forest Estate (PFE). We told him that we wanted to see legislation at the earliest possible opportunity, that the PFE should be held in Trust for the Nation and that there should be a level of funding that would properly sustain the social and conservation activities of the Estate. We warned him that timber production was going to decline in the coming years, having a negative effect on the Estate's income going forward. We mentioned that we have concerns over Forest Services, that their expertise would be diminished as a small part of DEFRA if Forest Enterprise went their separate way as the evolved Public Forest Estate Management Organisation (PFEMO). We restated our belief that whatever form of overseeing body is created for the new PFEMO - Guardians, Trustees, Management Board - that it should have community representation on it.
Rory Stewart's responses (in the presence of, and with contributions from, the SoS) can be summed up by the following:
The discussions also touched upon volunteering, commercial forestry practices, strength of feeling for public forests and finally, to include us in consultations over DEFRA's 25 year Environment Strategy.
Friends were encouraged by what we heard from the meeting with the SoS and her Minister but will continue to campaign until our forests are actually secure for us all to enjoy. We remain concerned over future funding levels and would argue that any money spent on the PFE brings benefits way in excess of any monetary value.
At the time of writing (Dec. 2015) we are acutely aware of the terrible flooding in the North of England and the dreadful disruption to so many people’s lives. This will understandably and quite rightly take precedence within DEFRA. Rory Stewart’s responsibilities also includes that for flood defences. The SoS has stated that there will be no reduction in the budget for flood defences, though DEFRA has to face a day to day budget cut of 15%. This will inevitably put increased stress on the finances of other parts of DEFRA's activities.
Ironically, trees could play a part in a long term flood prevention strategy. Part of the IPF’s report calls for increased tree planting in England. The Government, in its response to the IPF, has committed to increasing woodland cover in England from 10% to 12% of the land mass. With an increasing awareness of the value of woods and forests beyond their mere commercial worth, the role of trees in an era of climate change has never been more relevant.