Experts call for tree policy consistency

Forestry panel report's demand for more trees close to people sparks calls for a ministerial role and national strategy.

A Forestry Commission panel review was sparked by plans to sell woodland - image: HW
A Forestry Commission panel review was sparked by plans to sell woodland - image: HW

Tree experts have welcomed mention of urban trees in a report published last week but called for creation of a tree minister.

The remarks were made in the final report of the Independent Panel on Forestry, set up last year by environment secretary Caroline Spelman after her plans to sell off tracts of publicly owned woods triggered a massive "no" campaign.

The sector welcomed the recommendation not to sell woodlands. But in other areas, Tree Council director-general Pauline Buchanan Black said the report failed to acknowledge difficulties caused by lack of consistency on policy.

"Trees live for 120 years, Governments five and policy is constantly changing. No one brings together Defra, communities, transport and defence departments, all of which have massive numbers of trees. A tree minister could do this function."

But recognition of the 89 million urban trees and that trees need to be planted closer to people was lauded along with the report's suggestion that section 106 money should have more focus on trees and woods.

Myerscough College research fellow Dr Mark Johnston, who wrote the seminal Trees in Towns II report in 2008, also welcomed "significant mention" of urban trees. But he wants to see a recommendation for a national urban trees strategy.

"We've been poor on including these trees in policy. But first we need baseline data, so cuts to research funding are worrying," he said.

Such a strategy could include some or all of the 10 targets identified in his report, such as for at least 90 per cent of newly-planted trees to receive systematic post-planting maintenance until established.

Arboricultural Association trustee Dr Jon Heuch said: "The report acknowledges urban trees but we wanted the law on pests and diseases changed and there's no sign of that. Currently, the Forestry Commission remit covers forest trees but not urban ones such as London plane."

Prospect, the union representing Forestry Commission staff, criticised a lack of detail on Forest Research, the commission's scientific wing.

"It has already suffered a 28 per cent cut in staffing. We fear that it could shrink in size and be difficult to sustain," said negotiator Malcolm Currie.

Defra said it would respond to criticisms next January. But Open Spaces Society general secretary Kate Ashbrook said the Government needs to consider how to secure permanent access to the 82 per cent of woodlands in private ownership.

Campaign to Protect Rural England head of campaigns Ben Stafford agreed: "The real test is how the Government will act now."

Forest backing

"The public forest estate costs £20m a year to the taxpayer but delivers many times that in benefits to health, recreation, tourism and natural services. I am delighted the Government is going to listen to the recommendations and ensure that forests such as Grizedale and Whinlatter in Cumbria - huge assets locally and nationally - remain in public hands."

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP, Westmorland and Lonsdale

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