The Assembly is due to debate a Committee report on enhancing Welsh woodlands on 13 December.
The Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee published its report – Branching out – A new ambition for woodland policies - at the Royal Welsh Show back in July. The report makes 13 recommendations to the Welsh Government, aimed at enhancing the environmental, economic and social contribution of Welsh woodlands.
The Committee hopes that the report will inform the review of the Woodlands for Wales strategy, which Lesley Griffiths AM, the then Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, agreed to undertake by early 2018. Following the Welsh Government Cabinet reshuffle on 3November, responsibility for forestry and woodlands now sits with the new Minister for the Environment, Hannah Blythyn AM.
The Committee’s inquiry
The Committee gathered a wealth of evidence over the five months of the inquiry, hearing from a variety of commercial forestry, environmental, community, recreational, and academic stakeholders, as well as Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and the then Cabinet Secretary. This included written evidence, formal oral evidence sessions and a stakeholder workshop.
Committee Members also visited woodlands and woodland businesses in Newport, Dinas Powys, Crumlin, Merthyr Tydfil, Newbridge-on-Wye, Pwllheli and Maesteg. Here they learned more about the challenges and opportunities facing woodland owners and managers, specifically in the areas of commercial forestry, conservation, community access and recreation.
The Committee’s report
The report is divided into six parts. Part 1 highlights the severe lack of woodland creation in Wales in recent years, with annual planting rates averaging just 10% of the target set out in the Welsh Government's 2010 Climate Change Strategy. The Committee found this is mainly due to regulatory, bureaucratic, financial and cultural barriers.
During oral evidence, the Cabinet Secretary acknowledged that radical change is required to meet the target. She set out that the Welsh Government and NRW are working together to better align the regulatory and funding processes, and provide more support to applicants. The Cabinet Secretary said she is also committed to promoting the benefits of woodlands among the farming community.
Parts 2 to 5 follow the four themes of the Woodlands for Wales strategy, namely: responding to climate change; woodlands for people; a competitive and integrated forest sector; and environmental quality.
- The Committee found the lack of planting to be limiting Wales’ ability to mitigate its carbon emissions, while adapting to the increasing flood risk has not been sufficiently addressed;
- Good progress is being made with the use of woodlands by community groups and for recreation. However the declining trend in canopy cover in urban areas was raised as a concern;
- The Committee found that the lack of coniferous planting is a particular problem, as it will begin to severely constrain the viability of the commercial forestry sector in the near future; and
- A lack of funding for management of native woodlands is thought to be affecting the restoration of plantations on ancient woodlands, and the environmental quality of woodlands more generally.
The Cabinet Secretary told the Committee that she is keen to increase Welsh timber production and for it to be used more widely in construction. She also committed to looking into the possibility of reintroducing the Glastir Woodland Management Scheme, and issuing guidance to local planning authorities on planting and replacing urban trees.
Part 6 explores how the Woodlands for Wales strategy could be improved for the future, in particular through aligning with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. Finally, the report also examines how Brexit presents an opportunity to:
- Develop innovative funding opportunities such as Payments for Ecosystem Services; and
- Better integrate different rural land uses, including forestry and agriculture, within a broader sustainable land management policy. This is consistent with the findings of the Committee’s previous report: The future of land management in Wales.
The Cabinet Secretary’s response
The Cabinet Secretary responded formally to the report in September. She accepted 12 of the 13 recommendations, albeit nine only in principle, and rejected just one.
The rejected recommendation called for the Welsh Government to ensure a minimum of 20% tree canopy cover in urban areas, via Local Well-being Plans and Area Statements. The Cabinet Secretary argued that a single target was unlikely to help deliver the Committee’s goals and would prejudge the local decision making process envisaged under the Well-being of Future Generations and Environment Acts.
Confor said the report is a ‘shot in the arm’ for the forestry industry and that it ‘delivers the central message forestry and timber businesses have been waiting for – more tree planting and especially more commercial tree planting, to provide the raw material to drive the rural economy forward.’
Wales Environment Link (WEL) welcomed the report and the Cabinet Secretary’s commitment to reviewing the Woodlands for Wales strategy. WEL stated ‘we believe that long term targets for increasing tree cover should aim to achieve multi-purpose forestry that delivers for biodiversity and public access as well as sustainable home-grown timber.’
WEL also supports ‘well planned’ proposals for increasing urban tree cover to a minimum of 20%, highlighting benefits to air quality, biodiversity and the health and wellbeing of residents.
Article by Elfyn Henderson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service