Neil took part in a debate on Tree Planting in the UK to highlight the benefits of increasing the acreage of British forests and woodlands. He called for higher tree planting rates to improve our environment, mitigate flood risk and promote our economy. You can watch the debate at this link, or read it below:
Neil: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on securing this debate. He does an excellent job chairing the all-party group on forestry.
Here we are, having this debate in Westminster Hall, and we can look around and see the timber not only in this room but in Westminster Hall itself and the oaks that were used to build that huge roof. Oaks were cut down over the years to build our fleet, when we went across the world and did various things. I will not go into the details of everything we did, but much was successful, although others may not say so. Over that period, we naturally cut down a great deal of oak forest. World wars then had their effect, and we set up the Forestry Commission after the first world war to plant a great number of trees.
Yesterday, we took evidence in the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as part of our forestry inquiry. The one great plea made on grants was to bring back the one-stop shop. People are finding that when they apply for grants, they have to go through Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency and deal with DEFRA. It seems to be taking up to a couple of years to get a grant through, which is just not acceptable. Now, as we look to reform after leaving the European Union, there is much we can do with that grant scheme to make it simpler and more encouraging for landowners to plant trees.
Our Scottish friends who are here are to be congratulated, but I want to prick their bubble just a tiny bit. Some land in the UK is much more suitable than other parts for planting trees, and other land may produce 4 tonnes of wheat per acre. Some of their land in Scotland may not produce 4 tonnes of wheat per acre, so the competition for that land between crops and trees is not quite so great as elsewhere. In the north of England and Wales, there is much land that will be very good for forests, where we can create a crop—we must remember that it is a crop.
I declare an interest: I am a farmer. I do not have a big farm. If I choose to plant trees on my farm, I lock them in for one, two, three or perhaps four generations. If someone has only a small farm, they may not want to do that. I am sure the Minister is aware of that. There is a way we can manage forests: we can have large forests, perhaps on some of the marginal land. We can have deciduous trees and conifers, perhaps with strips of deciduous trees around the edges. We can make it much more accessible to the public and aesthetically beautiful and still have a crop—we must remember that timber is also a crop.
Half the time, what puts a lot of landowners off planting trees is that when they do so, a lot of the population then say, “Over our dead bodies will you cut down any of those trees.” However, trees are a living crop. They grow and mature, and then we use them for building our houses. That is all great, and it is all part of forestry, which we sometimes forget.
Drew Hendry (SNP): The hon. Gentleman makes a telling point about the choices that face people when they are planting. Does that not underline the importance of EU grants in decisions on planting?
Neil: Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but the issue is not just EU grants; it is how we deal with grants after we leave the EU. If we have the right mindset, we could produce a better grant scheme. If a percentage of better quality land further south in England where good crops can be grown is taken for trees, we will have to have a system to reward landowners for doing that. Otherwise, they will naturally decide to continue to grow other crops. Trees may be grown for aesthetic, conservation, and recreation reasons. Major forests may provide recreation, but that may also be done around our cities and highly populated areas. The great challenge for a grant system and support is to get people to plant in those areas, which is what I am keen to see.
Points have been made about climate change and the need to plant more trees to absorb carbon, as well as to stop flooding. That applies not just on marginal and steep land. In areas of run-off where intensive crops are grown, planting strips of woodland stops flooding and soil erosion. We can do an awful lot and we do not have to follow the common agricultural policy. I do not want future Governments to say, “We can’t do this.” We can do it if we look at it sensibly.
Tom Elliott (Ulster Unionists): I thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) for bringing forward this debate, which is very topical. Balcas is a big timber firm in my constituency and I should declare an interest because I have a small amount of forested land on my farm. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one way of developing our own policy in the United Kingdom is to have zoned areas of forestry? He referred to difficult land—at least, I think he hinted at difficult land in Scotland—but he did not mention difficult land in Northern Ireland. Does he accept that zoned areas of forestry might be an opportunity?
Neil: Yes. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but we would have to be careful to have the right zoned areas. I am fearful of civil servants and others drawing lines on a map. They are not always entirely in the right place. We can have zoned areas, but we must put the right system in place to encourage people in those areas to grow trees. People will be more likely to do that if the right grant system is in place, because there will not be competition for what to grow on the land, so it could happen. We need to move forward and to make sure we have a balance between broadleaved trees and conifers. There is an anti-conifer world out there and some people say we cannot have conifers. We can, and in larger forests we can make sure the mixture is right from the recreation and management point of view.
Trees can be planted to stop flooding. I went up to Yorkshire recently with the floods inquiry where, traditionally, the Forestry Commission had turned the soil up by digging trenches and planted trees on top. When there is a flood, the water runs off down the furrow and straight into streams much quicker. As we plant, we must be more careful about possible flooding. Many things can be learned and achieved. With more trees we will create a better landscape and environment, and lock in carbon. We can reduce flooding and we can manage our land better. Highly productive farms have corners in fields and other places that are difficult to cultivate and they can be planted with trees. The area I represent includes the Blackdown hills, which are full of copses and small areas of woodland that are essential in our landscape. We should see more of that.
My final point is the fact that much of our woodland is not managed environmentally or for wood production. It is important that more woodland is managed.
Anne Marie Trevelyan (Berwick): Does my hon. Friend agree that we have some serious problems because of lack of ability to make best use of woodland? In many parts of southern England, where forestry has been managed for many decades, we have a lot of ancient woodland and a concerted effort is needed to support land managers to improve that forestry.
Neil: Yes, my hon. Friend is right. We could have a carrot and stick approach with small grants for such land. Some people buy woodland for tax advantages, so perhaps we could tweak that to require management of the land. If people buy land, should they leave it when it could be managed for environmental purposes as well as to provide a resource? We need a lot of woodchip and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made much of the fact that we import so much wood. We can grow more timber and we can burn it in wood-burning stoves in our homes because there is nothing like wood to provide a homely feeling. That cannot be beaten.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend for bringing forward this debate. We can grow more timber and create more forests with a better environment, but we must use our land carefully as we do that.