I hope, too, that we can agree that, as the famous Chinese proverb puts it: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.”
We should take encouragement from the fact that every single major political party committed at last year’s general election to significantly increasing tree cover.
However, the fact remains that we do not have enough trees and we are not yet looking after the trees that we have adequately. That is why the England tree strategy represents a golden opportunity to rethink our approach to trees.
Moreover, it is a chance to show the world how the UK is leading the way in addressing the climate emergency, by championing nature-based solutions ahead of COP26.
Despite the role that trees play in combating the climate crisis, there is no formal way to set targets regarding trees in England. In its sixth carbon budget, the Committee on Climate Change was clear that the UK needs to do more.
According to the committee’s report, we need to increase tree cover in the UK from the current level of 12 per cent to around 20 per cent. This will require up to 70,000 hectares of new trees and woods to be established each year. On our current trajectory, however, we will get nowhere near that recommendation.
That leads me to the Environment Bill, which I feel has a gaping hole on the issue of tree planting. Perhaps Ministers will take another look at new clause 19 which would ensure that the Government prepared a tree strategy for England and produced targets for the protection, restoration and expansion of trees and woodland.
Of course, this is not just a stats game. Quantity is important, but they must be the right trees, in the right places and delivered in the right way.
A good place to start is how we calculate the expansion of trees and woods. Rather than looking simply at a number-of-trees-planted figure, we need a standardised, reliable national metric, such as the percentage of land area covered by trees.
One of the most obvious lessons of the current public health crisis has been the importance that people place on green space. For many people, especially those living in flats and those without a garden, the local park has been a lifeline without which lockdown would have been even more of a struggle. I believe that the natural world should be not a faraway, abstract concept, but a part of our everyday lives – a notion that holds true regardless of whether we live in Barnsley or Benbecula, Sheffield or Shetland.
The Woodland Trust’s “Space for People” research highlights what needs to be done in this respect. Across the UK, only 21 per cent of people live within 500 metres of accessible woodland, and 27 per cent do not have a larger woodland within four kilometres of their home.
By committing to increase the number of people who are able to benefit from trees and woodland in our towns and cities, the England tree strategy could help to transform our relationship with nature. That is why I believe that local authorities should be mandated to produce statutory local tree plans.
Crucially, the plans would need to be town hall led rather than Whitehall driven. That means ensuring that local government has the power, money and capacity to deliver green reform.
I am pleased to say that Barnsley Council is well on the way. We have strongly supported plans to grow the Northern Forest, and have recently recruited a woodland creation officer.
The project of the Northern Forest is close to my heart. I was part of the team that put the first trees in the ground, I planted the millionth tree, and last year I co-ordinated a letter, to which more than 120 cross-party Northern leaders added their support, calling on the Prime Minister to back the Northern Forest initiative.
Levelling up should not just be about new trains and skills programmes, crucial though they are. Regional inequality affects every part of people’s lives, including – crucially – their health and wellbeing. Projects such as the Northern Forest should be afforded the status that they deserve.
It is a purpose around which I hope we can all unite.
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