Defra unveils new grant scheme for woodland creation, as post-Brexit green watchdog finally launches
The UK Government has confirmed plans to pay farmers and other landowners for creating woodlands, in the same week that its post-Brexit environmental watchdog has been granted its full legal powers.
The new grant scheme, called the England Woodland Creation Offer, will see farmers and landowners being paid a grant of some £10,000 per hectare for creating new forests (also known as afforestation). It was first floated last summer and, following its opening this month, is set to remain open through to 2024.
Farmers and landowners will receive a grant of up to £8,500 hectares to cover the cost of planting trees, plus an annual maintenance payment of £200 annually for ten years. They may be eligible for more funding if they can prove additional “public benefits” of their woodlands. For example, there’s an extra £500 per hectare payment for reducing flood risk, £400 for improving water quality or £2,200 extra for allowing public access.
The Forestry Commission and the UK Government’s Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) are jointly overseeing the scheme. It will be paid for with some £16m of funding from the Treasury’s Nature for Climate Fund, which originally launched at the 2020 Budget with £640m of funding and is set to receive an extra £110m of funding through to 2025.
“Trees and woodland play a vital role in protecting the planet and help mitigate the increasing threat of climate change and biodiversity loss,” said the Forestry Commission’s chief executive Richard Stanford.
“Creating woods can be an excellent way to diversify farms, especially on marginal land – and there are exciting opportunities to grow and manage trees in a way that maximises the benefits they provide for climate, nature, people and the economy.”
The scheme forms part of the England Trees Action Plan, which launched in summer 2021 and was developed after a consultation that took place in the summer of 2020, receiving more than 20,400 responses.
Defra’s headline pledge on trees is to treble tree planting over the course of this Parliament, to at least 7,000 hectares of woodlands per year by 2024. Just 2,300 hectares of woodland were planted in England in the financial year of 2019-20.
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In launching the England Woodland Creation Offer, Defra also emphasized that it can be tied in with other incentive schemes recently launched in a bid to help farmers improve biodiversity, soil quality and carbon sequestration.
“By taking up grants such as the England Woodland Creation Offer now, farmers and landowners will be able to transfer into a future environmental scheme at agreed points without having to repay their current funding, meaning there’s no need to delay planting trees now,” Defra said in a statement.
Under the Agriculture Bill, the Department recently launched the Basic Payment Scheme under the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) package, as well as the Local Nature Recovery scheme and Landscape Recovery scheme. The former will pay farmers for conserving and restoring soils and grasslands, while the latter pair cover actions that deliver biodiversity gain.
While the principle of the schemes has been broadly welcomed, with many farming industry thought-leaders having long criticised the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the general consensus is that there are still many questions left to be answered – and that delays getting answers will mean less money for farmers.
In promoting the England Woodland Creation Offer, Defra is pre-empting many of the same questions from the industry. It said in a statement that the scheme would be open to farmers on the basis that they make their own choices – not that the Government will impose certain approaches on them in order to deliver its environmental targets. It also questioned the line of argument that putting land aside for nature can harm business.
This latter line of thought has been raised by the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) deputy president Stuart Roberts, who has said that “we cannot end up in a situation where we are losing productive and versatile farmland and reducing sustainable domestic food production, only to increase our reliance on food imports from countries with lower environmental credentials”.
Defra has stated: “The National Food Strategy highlighted that the kind of land that could deliver the greatest environmental benefits is often not very agriculturally productive, with the most productive 33% of English land producing around 60% of the total output of the land, while the bottom 33% only produces 15%.”
A full, formal response to the National Food Strategy’s recommendations has not yet been published.
In related news, the UK’s post-Brexit environmental watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – this week gained its full legal powers following its formation in November 2021. The formation was made possible due to the Environment Bill receiving Royal Assent after a process through Parliament that lasted around two years.
The purpose of the OEP is to ensure that businesses and local authorities comply with the UK’s long-term green policy requirements – a function previously performed in the UK by the European Commission.
Debate is ongoing about whether the body has sufficient “teeth” to properly hold the Government to account and to prosecute organisations breaking green policy requirements. The OEP is currently consulting on its draft strategy and enforcement policy, with the consultation due to run through to 22 March.
OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey said: “We have new and important functions. In fulfilling them, we will act independently, strategically, responsibly and without fear or favour. Our aim will always be to make the best possible difference to the natural environment and to protect people from the effects of environmental harm.”
Greener UK’s senior parliamentary affairs associate Ruth Chambers has stated that while Dame Glenys and her team have “started excellently, setting the bar high and with an open and engaging approach”, the OEP will doubtless face challenges.
Chambers said in a blog: “The real test of success for the OEP will be its impact and how effective it is in persuading and encouraging public authorities to fulfil their legal obligations on the environment. With the state of nature in freefall and our air, water and soil quality in peril, the OEP will have its work cut out. Expectations are high and we expect the OEP to be proactive and fearless, and to use its powers wisely and transparently.”