“Wales needs something big if it’s going to address the problem of lack of woodland creation in recent years. Tree planting has fallen way behind targets, rendered almost inert, crippled by lack of clarity about its policy-delivery and dogged by commercial uncertainty. Inevitably, in the year of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) we’re experiencing a great deal of political messaging about trees’ vital role in sequestering carbon, air quality, bio-conservation and managing water.
The new Welsh Government was elected with a commitment to create a National Forest. We already had our net-zero targets. Elected and established, the new Government now features a new Climate Change Department with extraordinary wide-ranging powers. We’ve heard a dramatic call-to-arms to address the tree-planting problem and plant some 180,000 hectares of trees by 2050 to get the country back-on-track. In the wake of published recommendations from the Welsh Government’s Trees & Timber Taskforce, the Climate Change Department’s Deputy Minister, Lee Waters MS, announced the TWIG tree-planting incentive: a 100% grant, up-to £250,000 available to landowners or those in management control of land, available right now. While managing the pandemic remains a huge priority and burden on resource, this amounts to a dramatic signal of intent – a Wales-wide initiative to contribute to tackling the climate change crisis, and meet some of those other Wellbeing of Future Generations Act goals: a happier, healthier and more sustainable Wales.
Land managers, we know, have an appetite for tree planting. Much of Welsh land – certainly our climate - is ideally suited for forestry. The Welsh Government itself is focused now on regenerating an indigenous timber industry and, of course, woodland and forestry have their vital role to play in delivering public goods – something to be rewarded in the fledgling Sustainable Farming Scheme. TWIG certainly looks like an important step in the right direction and we are right to sit up and take-notice.
However, TWIG has shown us that even a 100 per cent-grant can bring landowners some problems. At just over a month’s duration, the application window is frustratingly short (it closes on 27 August), bearing in mind all the preparatory research, planning and provision of evidence required to extend existing or create new woodland. Even for smaller projects – say less than five hectares – it may be difficult to get the necessary clearance under the Environmental Impact Assessment (Forestry) Regulations.
If you haven’t already started planning a woodland project, it’s probably too late to start now to get approval under TWIG for this year
Perhaps more importantly, even if your forestry project is shovel-ready, the essential qualifying criterion about allowing public access creates further difficulties. Privacy is important for some landowners. Even those who might welcome public access – they might manage a neighbouring campsite, parking and welfare facilities or a café, for example – it’s not as easy as sticking-up a sign and installing a stile.
New access routes need to be connected with existing ones – either as an extension or as a logical connection. Where access is provided clarity is necessary on the type of access allowed. Woodlands may be popular for walkers, but they are also attractive for equine use and cycling. These need suitable access/egress points and furniture. Where routes become multi-use, there may be special standards to meet, even considerations about insurance liability. Access is a fundamental Welsh National Forest outcome. As the grant rules show here, land managers who are not willing to provide access in their application should go no further.
Welsh Government officials have been understanding when I’ve put these points to them. They’ve confirmed that this first application window is intended to pick the low-hanging fruit, ie: suitable projects which may be outside the Glastir criteria and, (dare I use the pun?), log-jammed by a shortfall in capital. As a new process, they don’t want to get bogged-down in the first round of applications – and they want to be able to refine the grant scheme ready for new application windows next year and beyond. Moreover, the short initial window enables them to provide the Minister with some quick and hard evidence that Government policy is delivering. Stand-by then, after the applications have been processed, and on the eve of COP 26 - for an announcement that thousands of trees have been planted in Wales thanks to the TWIG initiative.