Fifty years ago, Conservative MPs, including my father, rallied behind a national “Plant A Tree In ‘73” campaign in the face of Dutch Elm Disease. Although tree disease remains a big problem, the context is different.
Now, we are planting trees to tackle the twin threats of biodiversity loss and climate changes. At our current trajectory, I worry that in another three decades, we will not have planted enough trees to stave off these great environmental challenges.
The saying “a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit” encapsulates a key tenet of conservative environmentalism, to protect our natural inheritance for future generations. Tree planting is the epitome of this belief.
This is certainly something my father understood. When debating politics he liked to remind people that whereas William Gladstone enjoyed felling trees, Benjamin Disraeli took great joy from planting them. As Secretary of State for the Environment in the early 1970s, he granted government support to the “Plant A Tree In ‘73” campaign.
In response to the Dutch Elm Disease crisis that had killed millions of trees in the UK, this campaign was championed in Parliament by Sidney Chapman, a Conservative backbencher. From idea to initiation to implementation, this was a thoroughly conservative environmental mission.
The campaign successfully galvanised support and action across the country. Trees donated by the likes of the Forestry Commission were then planted by councils, schools, and community groups. Soon after, The Tree Council was founded and an annual National Tree Week was established to keep up the momentum. Paying homage to its founding mission, this National Tree Week the message to us all is to “Grow a Tree in 23”.
Our national enthusiasm for tree planting has not waned. In my constituency of Worcester, there have been concerted efforts. In 2016, the city council launched a project to plant 2,000 new trees to transform the city landscape. And in more recent years communities across the county planted around 50,000 trees as part of the Queen’s Green Canopy initiative. It is a similar story in towns and cities across the UK.
Unfortunately, despite these valiant community efforts, England’s woodland cover is still lagging behind our closest European neighbours at just 10.2 per cent. We are far from meeting our national tree-planting targets. But perhaps more importantly, we are failing to seize the economic, environmental, and social opportunities tree planting could present, in the form of new jobs, revitalised industries, and greener communities.
To solve this, the Government is right to focus on access to nature as a first step. Getting individuals to value nature requires them to be out in nature. Too few people have it readily available. The Government’s target for everyone to be a 15-minute walk from their nearest green or blue space is therefore critical and goes hand in hand with our need for more trees.
One consequence of lack of access is a lack of knowledge. It is a travesty that, in a recent study, 82 per cent of children did not know what an oak tree leaf looked like or that 83 per cent were unable to identify a bumblebee. These statistics, and many similar ones, led me as Education Minister to support the introduction of a Natural History GCSE as part of a nature pathway in education, to equip our young people with the knowledge of nature and skills to restore it.
But one GCSE can only go so far. A lack of knowledge also leads to a lack of people knowing how to manage and look after local nature. This is especially worrying when demand for skilled nature-related jobs is growing rapidly. Many businesses are turning to nature-based solutions to issues like climate change and water pollution. More workers with nature-related skills are needed to get these plans off the ground, from land managers and groundskeepers to ecologists.
The National Audit Office identified a lack of expertise as a major risk for the Government’s overall tree-planting programme. The Forestry Commission alone is experiencing an 18 per cent staffing shortfall. Industry is looking to the Government for support to create a nature-based workforce.
Staffing is not the only concern. A lot of our tree-planting hopes are put in the hands of private landowners. As well as a skills shortage, there are a lack of incentives to actually plant these trees. While the Sustainable Farming Incentive will go some way to put trees on appropriate farmland, another round of Landscape Recovery funding would better spur tree planting at the scale we require.
Supporting nature-based skills certainly seems to align with the Prime Minister’s own vision laid out in his Plan for Growth as well as delivering a key call of the Dasgupta Review. Teaching nature-based skills is part of a world-class education. He also rightly said that the route to Net Zero is paved with new industries and good-quality jobs. The same can be said of the route to a greener and more biodiverse Britain. Nature-based businesses should not be excluded from the conversation.
The Government’s commitment to green skills in the realm of decarbonisation has been admirable. We must now treat the jobs and skills required to reach our nature recovery goals with the same gusto. Without it, I fear that, come the inevitable centenary “Plant A Tree In 2073” campaign, we will face even greater challenges getting our young people to recognise iconic British trees such as the oak which is after all our party’s symbol, let alone achieving our goals and targets for tree planting.
First published by ConservativeHome. The Robin Walker MP (Worcester) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.