Interview - Pam Warhurst, chair, Forestry Commission

Those who have heard of the Incredible Edible Todmorden initiative, which aimed to transform the Yorkshire town into a haven for local food, may well also be familiar with Pam Warhurst.

Pam Warhurst, chair, Forestry Commission - image: Forestry Commission
Pam Warhurst, chair, Forestry Commission - image: Forestry Commission

When the former leader of Calderdale Council co-launched the initiative two years ago, she was determined that by inspiring those in the town, there could be a local food revolution from the bottom up.

It is this belief in the value of inspiring people to think differently that Warhurst plans to exploit in her role as the new chair of the Forestry Commission. Having taken over from Lord Clark of Windermere, who retired from the commission at the end of 2009, she has joined at a time when trees and forestry are increasingly high on the environmental agenda.

In November, the Government backed the commission's report from the University of Sheffield's Professor David Read showing the links between trees and adaptation to climate change. At the end of March, a Woodland Carbon Task Force was launched to increase tree planting in the UK and help the country adapt to climate change.

"We need more trees to be planted in this country," explains Warhurst, who is chair of regeneration company Pennine Prospects and was awarded the CBE for services to the environment in 2005.

"The reality of what trees bring to people's lives is very positive (in terms of) their health, happiness, economic opportunities and climate change adaptation," she points out.

"Whether in the country or the city, corporation or local authority, we need to inspire everyone about the value of trees. I don't differentiate between the importance of getting more forest cover in Scotland or more trees in London and Liverpool."

The role of urban trees in adapting to climate change has been on the Forestry Commission's radar for a number of years, adds Warhurst. But the body's remit has changed significantly since its inception just after the First World War. When the commission was set up in 1919, its purpose was to create more woodland to meet the timber needs associated with war after problems during the First World War.

"The commission was about woods for war and we are still about that in a sense but now it's a different war," reasons Warhurst. "It is a health and climate change war. It was about the late 1980s we started to say maybe we should rethink the forestry agenda. That has metamorphosed into delivering sustainable development solutions."

While Warhurst does not have a specific background with trees, some may know her for her involvement with the Countryside Agency, which has now morphed into Natural England.

A passionate speaker on green infrastructure and its benefits, she is eager to ensure the engagement of others in the planning chain and beyond to meet environmental, social and economic objectives. "It is really important that in spatial planning we have a mindset that recognises it is not just about laying the grey infrastructure," says Warhurst.

"We need to speak in a language that everyone understands, from those interested in habitat creation to people involved in flood risk and cooling cities, so everyone gets why trees in cities are important. I think we are on the threshold of making that breakthrough. It is for bodies such as the Forestry Commission and health trusts to band together with a common voice and really push it."

Clearly the months ahead are going to be rocky in terms of public finances.No department will be immune from cuts and, as a quango, it is uncertain how the Forestry Commission will fare.

But Warhurst believes that the nature of the commission's work can help the Government and local authorities, as well as the private sector, to achieve some important aims.

"There is a huge challenge on public finance ahead," she admits. "How do we cost-effectively tackle climate change and get a healthy population? How do we shift to a low-carbon economy? We don't expect blank cheques to be written, but we can show how (trees) can bring real benefits."

As a leader, Warhurst's track record in getting things done may well stand her in good stead. Indeed, the Incredible Edible Todmorden initiative has proved so successful that it has spawned similar movements in other UK towns.

"We started off with a health centre and put in cherry trees, apple trees and herbs. That inspired other health centres to do the same," she recalls. "Suddenly you start to create a critical mass around a movement."

If Warhurst can only recreate that critical mass in inspiring decision makers to invest in tree planting, then the UK can perhaps move away from the back of the European field in terms of woodland cover.

"You can have all the targets in the world but if you haven't inspired people to get on board then they will forever be targets," she explains. "Let's inspire people to push the boat out on this one and create a culture that shifts people's behaviour."

1995-99 Leader, Calderdale Council
1999-2001 Chair, Calderdale NHS Trust
1999-2006 Deputy chair, Countryside Agency
2005 Appointed CBE for services to the environment
2006-09 Board member, Natural England
2007 Chair, Pennine Prospects
2008 Co-founded Incredible Edible Todmorden
2010 Chair, Forestry Commission

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