Plans for a Northern Forest take centre stage in government's new environment plan

| 28th February 2018
The National Forest

The National Forest is the perfect blueprint for government plans to create a new 'Northern Forest' that will run from Liverpool to Hull.

The government 25 years ago proposed the ambitious National Forest project, which now provides a home to 8.5 million trees and spans 200 square miles of the Midlands. And now the current government is looking to mirror this success with a new Northern Forest. At some twenty times its size, it's a bold but welcome move says JOHN EVERITT, chief executive of National Forest

The flagship policy is the creation of a new Northern Forest, and at 50 million trees, £500m cost, and stretching from Liverpool to Hull, it can’t be accused of a lack of ambition

In the early nineties, in the last throes of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the government published its landmark white paper on the environment, This Common Inheritance.

The document was hailed as a major breakthrough at the time, ratcheting the environment up the political agenda and setting out what was then a big vision for a new National Forest in the Midlands.

Fast forward just more than 25 years, and the current government is publishing a new environment plan to much fanfare, this time heralding a new Northern Forest.

A Green Future

The new plan, A Green Future, charts the next 25 years for the environment and has been warmly received by most commentators.

Getting these plans right is not always easy: too many instant actions and you are accused of lacking vision, adopt a long-term view and the doubters decry it is all fine words with no delivery.

What is striking about this plan is that once you delve beyond the headlines around plastics, it does signal what I think is a fundamental shift in approach.

Firstly, it genuinely feels like a cross-government plan and not one just firmly parked in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Moreover, it recognises the multifaceted benefits of our natural environment, acknowledging that our economic prosperity is inextricably tied to the condition of ‘natural capital’. 

And finally, it is ambitious - inspiring even - in its scope, moving beyond simply settling for environmental protection and pledging to enhance our environment within a generation.

Plain sailing

Okay, you can argue that this will require firm legislative backing and clearer funding mechanisms to make it happen, but these can always follow once the Brexit landscape has settled.

The plan also makes welcome reading for tree lovers, finally recognising the multifunctional benefits provided by woodlands, with an estimated value of £270 billion.

It is great to see environmental regeneration positioned in this way, contributing to job creation, health and wellbeing and quality of life, recognising the value that can be achieved with both public funds and private investment. 

However, our policy landscape is littered with grand initiatives that never found their time.

Indeed, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the National Forest itself. ‘The Notional Forest’ was a favourite label from those detractors, smirking even as the young saplings began marching across the landscape.

Retaining focus

But now look what has been achieved with 8.5 million trees planted and forest cover increasing from six percent to more than 20 percent across the 200 square mile area of the Midlands.

Together with increases in property values, a burgeoning visitor economy and a renewed sense of community pride, this is a success story that successive governments can be proud of.

What the National Forest has taught us is the importance of a strong vision and leadership, shared commitment from farmers, planners, and communities to make things happen, and the alignment of local funding mechanisms and policies as enablers. Without just one of these, everything will fall down.

At some 20 times the size of the National Forest, the challenge for the Northern Forest will be on retaining focus and coherence, and making a visible difference on the ground over such a large and diverse area. 

The Northern Forest is a bold statement of intent. The next 25 years will be the real test of success, and while this is a blip in the life of a forest we know it is a long time in politics.

This Author

John Everitt is chief executive of the National Forest Company, which is responsible for coordinating the creation and management of the 200 square mile National Forest spanning parts of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire.

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