Saturday 11 September 2010

The Forests of TAFKAR*

I've been working on a plan, recently, to get some more trees in the ground. Nothing new there to anyone who has visited this blog before, but I thought it was time for an update.

I chair the Northwest Forestry Framework (soon to change it's name to something more in keeping with the political zeitgeist, but more on that another time) and have been working with a whole host of people, both in the Northwest but also in the national offices of the Forestry Commission, to put forward several areas in the Northwest as possible pilot areas for a major national push on woodland creation.

As an area of England with a level of woodland cover well below the national average, there is scope and opportunity for large scale tree planting and development right across Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Merseyside. When you look at the statistics, we are poorly served in these areas when it comes to woodlands.

The good news is that each of these areas has also developed clever and canny new models for woodland creation that deliver multiple benefits and move beyond traditional public sector investment models towards partnerships with business and the voluntary sector.

It's all very, 'Big Society'.

Now these areas are signing up to a ‘forestry manifesto' that I've been touting around the region since the start of the year. This manifesto seeks, over 40 years, to deliver a doubling in woodland cover, to have an immediate and significant impact on carbon stores, timber production, environmental resilience, green jobs, local image and happiness and wellbeing; this is a vision of an intensely productive, as well as beautiful, landscape.

Show me the money

It all sounds very motherhood and apple pie, but who is going to pay? There are a number of existing or planned investment models across the Northwest which warrant further development and replication elsewhere. These include:

• Woodland planting as a key aspect of PFI (Public Finance Initiative) contracts and, specifically, waste management strategies;

• Working with large-scale developers to create an attractive setting for investment and adding value to land-based asset portfolios;

• Practical business partnerships providing improved local area ‘image', biomass resources or climate change adaptation;

• Woodland or green infrastructure bonds, where investors can support woodland creation by investing in a bond that provides non-fiscal benefits in lieu of interest payments as part of a CSR or sustainability strategy;

• Developing a suite of woodland creation opportunities alongside community interest levies/section 106 arrangements where developers support environmental works as a condition of their planning consents; and

• Integrated land use planning to maintain and improve water quality.

• Landscape-scale, economically-linked programmes to aid recovery and local economic resilience.

Some of the above options sound a little jargon laden, but they have the potential to help us get some trees in the ground, and that's what I care about. Each of these investment models is either already in play across one of our counties or city regions, or is ready to be developed by one or more partners.

Breaking down barriers

From the discussions we've been having so far, these partners are ready to start delivering woodland creation, on the ground, if certain barriers to progress can be removed. These barriers include:

• The ‘Hope value' attached to under-utilised land and the misplaced notion that new woodlands permanently remove large areas from possible future development;

• More flexible, short to medium term land use deals and frameworks that will allow the notion of ‘temporary' woodland to be pursued;

• Clear signals on the future of carbon pricing and accounting in relation to woodland creation;

• The lack of a mechanism for business to report on the carbon benefits of woodland creation programmes as part of their net greenhouse gas emissions; and

• The consideration of effective tax regimes to encourage investment in new planting in areas of need as a way for business to play a part in 'big society' programmes.

Making it happen

So the exciting thing is that if we bash down a few barriers, win over some hearts and minds, and pull our fingers out, the partners in the Northwest Forestry Forum are ready to begin work piloting a new wave of woodland creation using innovative funding and delivery models such as these.

More trees, in the ground, delivering a huge range of benefits.

And the track record for delivery across the region is solid and impressive, with the Community Forests (e.g. Mersey Forest and Red Rose Forest) having already planted 12 million trees and millions more having been planted through the Forestry Commission's Capital Modernisation Fund and Newlands programme.

Here are some more tangible examples of where can start planting.

Real life example - Mersey Belt

There is an immediate opportunity for an ‘Adapting the Landscape' pilot across what has been coined the ‘Atlantic Gateway', connecting the twin city regions of Greater Manchester and Merseyside with the Northern areas of Cheshire.

Such a pilot would be focused on woodland creation in and around key physical development sites and along transport corridors; on productive forestry including biomass; on leisure, recreation and the ‘visitor economy'.

Funding can be drawn from business through receipts from soils deposition, community interest levies, Section 106 agreements, through an easing of planning constraints if the creation of greenspace is assured and possible short-term amnesties against business tax.

Delivery partners would include large development businesses in the area, as well as the key Local Enterprise Partnerships and the voluntary sector in the form of community forests and Groundwork.

Real life example - Lancashire

In Lancashire there is already an innovative model for woodland creation in the form of the county's ‘Woodlands from Waste' programme linked to a soon to be commissioned, 25 year, £2 billion Waste PFI.

A partnership of Lancashire County Council, 13 Local Authorities and their commercial contractor, Global Renewables, alongside the Forestry Commission, will be planting and managing 100,000 new trees per year for the next 25 years - creating woodland on brown and greenfield sites across the area. The cost is being met through savings on landfill taxes and, in addition, is utilising a growing medium by-product of the waste treatment process.

Real life example - Cumbria and Lancashire

Water company United Utilities has pioneered a programme called the Sustainable Catchment Management Programme (SCaMP), working with farmers and land managers, local authorities, Government and other conservation organisations to influence how water catchment areas are managed and properly funded. The objective is a double win of improved water quality (under the European Water Framework Directive) as well as conservation of the natural environment. UU's partner in the programme has been the RSPB.

The project has leveraged in public funding to help deliver an increase in clough woodland, with 450 hectares of upland oak woodland to be planted, some 300,000 trees being planted and 200km of fencing to allow for moorland restoration and woodland planting. It has carried out the work in two of its four estate areas: Bowland in Lancashire, and the Southern estate including Longdendale, the Goyt and parts of the Peak District.

Meeting Defra's priorities

It may sound a bit arcane, but in the absence of any major eco bills or statements, there are still some clear signals as to what the new government's priorities are, not least in the departmental 'Structural Reform Plans' which have beenpublished. How does the above outlined activity ‘fit' with the three key priorities outlined in Defra's structural reform plan?

The woodland creation opportunities highlighted can directly contribute to and foreshorten the delivery of each priority and relevant actions and milestones. Specifically:

Support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production

Defra's objective is to enhance the competitiveness and resilience of the whole food chain, including farms and the fish industry, to ensure a secure, environmentally sustainable and healthy supply of food with improved standards of animal welfare.

Woodland creation can contribute to this objective in a number of ways. It will provide affordable measures of support for hill farmers via diversifying farm incomes e.g. through timber sales and reduced energy cost savings through woodfuel.

It will also help with animal husbandry, particularly in the uplands, primarily through the provision of shelter. Woodland creation will also lead to more sustainable, integrated land use where for example, higher value agricultural land holdings can be protected through woodland creation ‘upstream' stablising soils and alleviating flooding.

Biodiversity and landscape

Defra's objective is to enhance and protect the natural environment, including biodiversity and the marine environment, by reducing pollution and preventing habitat loss and degradation.

A pilot of new woodland creation in the Mersey Belt, Cumbria or Lancashire will contribute to this in a number of ways.

It will deliver more green spaces for local communities, new native habitats and wildlife corridors needed to help wildlife adapt to expected climate change impacts. It will help stabilise soils, improve water quality and reclaim damaged, brownfield land. In addition there will be increased tree planting by private sector and civic societies.

Support a strong and sustainable green economy, resilient to climate change

Defra's objective is to encourage businesses, people and communities to manage and use natural resources in a sustainable manner and to reduce waste; and work to ensure that the UK economy is resilient to climate change.

A woodland creation pilot will directly address this objective, as the approaches above show, it can directly provide a source of carbon storage and can be deployed in partnership with the private sector.

Next steps

As you might imagine, I'm dead keen to play these arguments out to national players - especially Defra - but also to the emerging Local Economic Partnerships which have been causing such a stir in local politics over the last few weeks.

In addition, this proposal will be the centrepiece of our next meeting of the Forestry Forum on November 8 of this year; if you want to come along, just let me know. We need every bit of help we can get to achieve that goal we've set for ourselves - a doubling of woodland cover.


*TAFKAR = The Area Formerly Known as Region.

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