Last week, the England Trees Action Plan (ETAP) was published as part of the Government ‘Super Tuesday’ announcements. It proposes welcome changes to the way trees are protected in the planning system along with spending commitments intended to increase tree cover in ways that work for nature and climate. A focus on early action, however, means the document is notably shy of targets and timescales and much important longer-term thinking deferred to other processes.
Those expecting a long-term vision for England's trees and woods may be disappointed. In June last year, Defra's consultation for a new England Tree Strategy (ETS) promised to set out how trees and woods will contribute to the Government's 25 Year Environment Plan. In practice, what has emerged is an action plan accompanied by a 3-year funding agreement.
The ETAP contains very few targets or timescales, and funding commitments are short term. This raises concerns about how or whether all of its elements will be delivered. As an example, there is welcome recognition of the need to get more woodlands into good condition for nature. However, we are little closer to knowing how this will be supported beyond a promise to produce a new Woodland Resilience Implementation Plan. While the ETAP is pragmatic, it leaves some big gaps where strategic thinking about protecting and expanding tree cover should be.
Trees and woods policy can be overly dominated by targets for new hectares of forest. The ETAP's headline-grabbing plan for a trebling of woodland expansion is rhetorical and really just restates the General Election commitment for 30,000 new hectares over the course of the Parliament.
What is new and welcome is investment in domestic tree nursery capacity to reduce demand for imports. With a new Great Britain Plant Biosecurity Strategy also expected soon, this can help prevent the import of tree pests and diseases and respond more effectively when such outbreaks do occur. To nail this point the Government should back this investment with an undertaking that all trees planted with public money will be UK sources and grown.
There is also a commitment to actively fund a wider range of new woodland creation. Using money from the Nature for Climate Fund, the new England Woodland Creation Offer, administered by the Forestry Commission, will offer £100m to private landowners to create a total of 10,000 hectares of new woodland. Alongside more commercial woodland projects, funding will be available for riparian planting, agroforestry and encouraging natural colonisation.
This is a new approach and it is unclear what demand will be in practice. The Woodland Trust and others are calling for monitoring and target setting to ensure the fund delivers the diverse, high quality new woodland that works for nature and climate together.
The ETAP also brings hope of better protection for trees, particularly through the land-use planning system.
A new category of Long Established Woodland is to be established, encompassing woods which are not 'ancient' (pre 1600) but are present on the first OS maps from the 1800s. The prospect of additional safeguards for these ecologically and culturally important woodlands is enticing but is tempered by experience of how little such protection can sometimes count for in practice.
The ETAP also promises updates to key planning documents dealing with trees in urban areas. As well as the new Environment Bill duty requiring local authorities to consult on felling street trees, there will be amendments to National Model Design Code guidance on street trees and the National Planning Policy Framework document wording on tree lined streets and community orchards. However, suggestions that the Tree Preservation Order system would get a much needed revamp have not been included in the final ETAP document.
The new ETAP is a mixed bag. It does contain notable and welcome moves such as funding for natural colonisation and investment in tree nurseries. There is also a suite of changes to the planning system and guidance for local authorities which together could protect and enhance trees in our towns and cities. But there is also a sense that short-term pragmatism has been prioritised over long-term vision. We need that long-term thinking to make sure trees and woods are part of our landscapes, delivering for nature and climate.
To give confidence that the ETAP will be delivered, the Government must make clear when and how each of element of will be taken forward, where funding will come from post-2024 and confirm that a full review of progress with the implementation of the ETAP will be given before the end of the Parliament.
Andrew Allen is Lead Policy Advocate at the Woodland Trust.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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