The Woodland Trust’s CEO Beccy Speight is interviewed in advance of the Government’s 25 year plan for the environment and to promote a Reception the Trust is hosting in Parliament today.
With the UK departing the European Union and the Government formulating a new strategy to address the housing crisis, Beccy Speight says it is a “significant moment for woods and trees”. But that’s not to say the CEO of the Woodland Trust spies only threats with no opportunities.
The Woodland Trust is part of the Greener UK coalition of 13 organisations, with a combined public membership of 7.9 million people, seeking to ensure that the entire body of European environmental law is transposed into domestic law after Brexit. Campaigners are keen to see that principles such as “polluter pays” continue outside of the EU. The conservation charity is also involved in calls for a domestic environmental watchdog to be established to ensure that standards do not slip after exit day in March 2019. Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, has said he would consult on such a body.
“That’s all about threats and making sure that we manage risk. But the other piece of course about leaving the EU, is about opportunity,” Speight says. The opportunity she refers to comes in the ability to develop a bespoke land use strategy outside of the confines of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which Speight says has “not really delivered for trees and woods for a long time”.
“This is the biggest opportunity we’ve had in land use management for 40 years, to really rethink what we hope will be a much more integrated approach, so that trees and woods are incorporated towards land use that absolutely looks at rewarding public benefit with public money,” she says. “There are things like, for example, wood pasture and agroforestry, these are all things that have tended to fall between the gaps in terms of the current CAP system. “So, we really want to work towards a new, much more integrated system where things like that are recognised and rewarded for the broad public benefit that they bring in terms of the environment.”
On the domestic front, the Woodland Trust has its eyes set on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) review, which follows on from the Government’s earlier Housing White Paper. Here, the charity wants to see protection for ancient woodland strengthened. Speight believes that the existing safeguards, stipulated in paragraph 118 of the NPPF, give “unscrupulous developers” the chance to feel they can “have a pop” at building on ancient woodland, which makes up about 2% of land coverage. The Woodland Trust has sought legal advice which too has drawn the same conclusion. “The thing that we think would make a difference would be to equate irreplacable ancient woodland as our most biodiverse terrestrial habitat much more with our best built heritage and to say that development on ancient woodland would be wholly exceptional. That really would strengthen the protection and fulfil the intent the Government has expressed”, she says.
Another immediate priority for the Woodland Trust relates to the significant increase in tree disease in Britain, both in the diversity of the afflictions, the species affected and the rates of incidents. “That’s being brought about mainly through increased global trade. Climate change has a part to play, in that our climate is changing and probably some diseases are benefitting from that. That is a massive issue,” she says. Speight is particularly concerned for trees outside of woods, which cannot withstand tree disease in the same way a wood can. So, how to tackle this issue? “There are a number of things. One is about biosecurity and thinking about how we try and prevent further diseases coming in,” she says. “We need to think about things like where we source our trees from. If we’re planting new trees, we need to go UK-sourced and grown as much as possible. And we need to think about the rest of the plant trade and issues such as wooden packing in terms of biosecurity too.” She adds: “But we also need to think about the impact on our wildlife and landscape of what will become a safety issue of trees dying alongside roads. “The council could come in, shut the road, and think, ‘we may as well take everything down while we’ve got it shut’. That kind of approach will be taken. So, we need to think about how we’re going to get trees back into the landscape to keep that connectivity for wildlife and to keep the aesthetic of our landscape whole. We’re going to need to think about how we tackle that.”
Speight has welcomed much of Michael Gove’s approach since he got the keys to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. But she wants the Environment Secretary to not lose sight of key domestic concerns while he confronts issues overseas such as the ivory trade and deforestation abroad. “You can’t on the one hand be espousing about deforestation in places around the world, when we think we’re entering almost blind-sightedly into deforestation in the UK, because of the current low planting rates,” she says. “There is something about saying to Michael, ‘okay, absolutely there are worldwide issues that we have to step up and play a role in. But there are also really important domestic environmental issues as well’. I really hope that he will come through on those.”
With the Government set to unveil its 25-year plan for the environment – probably early in the New Year- Speight wants some “ambition” around planting rates. “The manifesto commitment to 11 million trees in terms of planting is a drop in the ocean, really,” she says. Speight would also like to see trees and woods play a vital role in ‘natural capital’ areas such as natural flood management and some clear delivery mechanisms for realising the ambitions expressed in agendas such as that captured in the recent Clean Growth Strategy.
All this and more will be on the agenda at the Woodland Trust’s parliamentary reception in the Palace of Westminster today – hosted by Neil Parish MP, Chair of the EFRA Select Committee. The event in Members’ Dining Room 4pm to 6pm, will also see the launch of a collection of essays on the place of trees in the landscape after we leave the CAP. Entitled ‘Putting Down New Roots’, it includes pieces from a range of authors including Neil Parish, Shadow Environment Secretary, Sue Hayman, think tank representatives, the forestry industry and landowners.