Lee Waters MS, Deputy Minister for Climate Change
Wales needs a step change increase in woodland creation to tackle the climate emergency. We need to plant 43,000 hectares of new woodland by 2030, and 180,000 hectares by 2050 to meet the ‘balanced pathway’ set out of the UK Climate Change Commission. That is equivalent to planting at least 5,000 hectares per year. Last year, just 290 hectares of woodland was planted in Wales and annual woodland creation has not exceeded 2,000 hectares since 1975.
Meeting our climate change commitment requires a call to arms.
Planting more trees is not only essential to help avoid catastrophic climate change but will provide a wide range of other benefits to Wales, including creating ‘green’ jobs, helping to address the nature emergency, increasing well-being, and mitigating flooding and air quality issues. Many of the trees planted will contribute to the new National Forest for Wales.
Delivering this will require an alliance for change involving many partners. The vast majority of new woodland will not be planted by the Welsh Government, but by the communities, farmers and other landowners across Wales. Our approach will involve both harnessing the enthusiasm of communities and finding solutions which work for landowners, while avoiding land most productive for farmers.
Meeting net zero, particularly in the construction sector, will also mean using much more timber in Wales. 80% of the timber used in the UK is imported and only 4% of the 1.5 million m3 of harvested Welsh timber is processed to be used as construction graded timber. A lower proportion of timber is used in all forms of construction in Wales than in Scotland or Ireland. There is real opportunity for timber processors and manufacturers in Wales to contribute to a ‘wood economy’ in Wales, creating new jobs in rural Wales as well as building an innovative supply chain for high value added, longer life uses.
There is a large degree of consensus about the barriers to achieving these aims. The Trees Task Force have identified a number of actions which can be taken quickly to address some of these barriers. It has also identified a number of more difficult issues which require urgent follow up work.
Planting this many trees will require a range of interventions and actions by all of us. We would like every family with a garden to plant more trees, and every school and community group to sign up to the Woodland Trust free tree scheme. We will also be working with public bodies to map land they own to proactively identify where more trees can be planted, learning lessons from approaches like Belfast One Million Trees.
Better engagement is needed with communities and landowners who want to plant trees and we need to learn from community and land owner expertise. Current guidance has been found to be complicated and appears restrictive; it is not easy for those who want to create new woodland to navigate regulatory and funding systems. We will publish new, simpler guidance written from a citizen’s perspective. The task force identified a clear need for woodland officers who can help communities to navigate interactions with local authorities and NRW, we will explore how to provide this. We will also begin work to identify areas for 30 new woodlands and 100 Tiny Forests as part of the National Forest programme.
Meeting our woodland creation targets will not be possible without attracting private sector funding. We also recognise the risks of investment which could potentially lead to undesirable large scale changes in land ownership. We will establish a working group to consider models to attract investment in woodland creation without disrupting existing communities and patterns of landownership.
On farms we need not just planting of new woodlands but also planting of ‘hedges and edges’, such as trees along field boundaries, scattered trees and shelterbelts and we will look to ensure support for tree planting encourages these options as we transition to the proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme.
The Task Force agreed that current Welsh Government funding for tree planting has been too inconsistent and difficult to access. While it is important to ensure that new woodland is planted in the right places and in the right way, the process for doing this is too slow and bureaucratic.
We recognise that meeting our targets will require us to prioritise woodland creation and to ensure we can provide the significant future funding required, including a long-term commitment of maintenance payments for trees. We will set out more clarity on future budgets in the coming months as part of work on our future domestic rural development funding and the wider Welsh Government Budget.
There are some actions we will take straight away. Welsh Government has committed £17m to tree planting over the next two years through our Glastir Woodland Creation scheme. We will open a new window as soon as possible to allow more applications for this funding and ensure the full budget is spent. We will make changes to the way NRW approve plans to speed up delivery, including a new simple desk-based exercise for low risk woodland plans and re-focussing NRW resource on up-front pre-application support for landowners.
As we move beyond the Rural Development Programme we will introduce a new woodland creation funding offer. This will include separate funding for creating new woodland, to develop a regular stream of new projects and enable us to be more agile in allocating funding to tree planting. We will launch a pilot of this system this year, making support available for at least 500 hectares of future woodland plans.
Our new scheme will make funding for woodland creation available consistently through the year rather than in unpredictable windows. It will introduce a system of earned recognition which empowers woodland planners to design sustainable woodlands while ensuring there are appropriate checks that trees are planted in line with the UK Forestry Standard.
We will ensure that any changes to woodland creation support are now consistent with plans to transition to the proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme and work to ensure a well-managed transition which does not leave a gap in woodland creation support.
While this exercise has focussed on removing barriers to tree planting, we recognise that it should not be considered in isolation. It is also important to ensure good ongoing management of trees and woodlands and that there are continued strong protections for our ancient woodlands and trees.
The Task Force has also considered what changes are required across the timber supply chain to encourage greater use of Welsh timber and fibre in construction. Contrary to some perceptions, Wales is capable of growing high quality timber and there is an opportunity to increase the amount of Welsh wood used in higher value added areas. This requires a strategic approach to coordination across the supply chain to ensure there is a stable supply of Welsh timber, an innovative processing sector, and stable demand from end users such as Housing Associations.
The discussions of the deep dive will form a starting point for the development of a timber industrial strategy for Wales. This will build on the success of the Modern Methods of Construction Strategy and the Home-Grown Homes project led by Woodknowledge Wales. It will include looking at the role of NRW, who have committed to selling up to 30% of their timber through alternatives to the current model focussed on sale for highest financial value. On the demand side, an important first step to stimulating greater demand is enabling lifecycle analysis of the carbon in a building, including ‘embodied carbon’ in construction materials.
Further detail will be set out in a new Woodland for Wales Action Plan later this year. We will shortly appoint a new Strategic Advisory Panel of Woodlands, made up of independent experts, to monitor and advise on delivery of these actions.
I am very grateful to all of the members of the panel who helped conduct the ‘deep dive’ for their time and commitment to remove barriers to tree planting.