The UK’s ancient woodland is in crisis – and Theresa May’s greenwash can’t hide it

A deer in the woods. Image: Getty.

Last week I paid £15 to dedicate a tree to my friend’s new baby, via The Woodland Trust website. His arrival in this chaotic world made me think of all the ways I wished it was more perfect for him: less polluted, more certain to be full of “dappled things”; more caring.

After browsing the trust's different options, I settled on a tree in a new native forest being planted at Heartwood near London. Photos of the site suggest that the plastic-bound saplings are still very much in their infancy but I liked the idea of them growing old as he does. As the Chinese proverb goes: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is now.”

This put me in a receptive mood to hear that Theresa May is thinking along similar lines. On Sunday, in a prelude to this week's historic release of the “25 Year Plan for the Environment”, she announced that the government will help create a new “Northern Forest”; a “vast ribbon of woodland” that will stretch from coast to coast between the cities of Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

This is a big win for forestry campaigners. The Woodland Trust and The Community Forests Trust have carefully developed the project together, and hope it will deliver major benefits – from flood reduction to increased biodiversity.

According to the director of the Mersey Forest Trust, Paul Nolan, the new £5.7m of Defra funding is a vital first step towards meeting the scheme’s full, £500m, target. “It’s a good start and we’ve got 25 years to make the case for further money and support,” he told the New Statesman.

Yet while children still grow up with tales steeped in trees, Britain's real-world woods - our living, breathing capsules of sylvan time - are in crisis.

Just 2 per cent of the UK has tree-cover dating to 1600 or earlier and the Woodland Trust believes the overall decline to be so bad that England is entering a state of “deforestation”. At Kew Gardens, researchers are already resorting to preserving endangered species in seed banks.

This alarming situation contains a warning about the wider battle currently waging between environmentalists and planners. It raises questions about what trees, and nature more widely, is worth and whether its value - in the most fecund sense of that word - can ever be fully measured at all.

It is a concern that commentators and NGOs have raised in the last few days, cautioning that any new tree planting must not be wielded as a form of compensation for (or a distraction from) the trees that are being lost to the government’s development plans.


“It’s a supreme irony that the current routing of HS2 threatens 35 ancient woodlands north of Birmingham. We need new forests and ancient woodlands - not one or the other,” said Friends of the Earth’s Paul de Zylva in a statement on Sunday.

For James Cooper of the Woodland Trust the UK’s ancient forests should be considered “irreplaceable” - like the Cathedrals that they are so often compared to, and protected with the same level of care.

But unlike the protections provided for our built heritage, the government’s present National Planning Policy Framework allows developers to destroy ancient trees as long as they can demonstrate “sufficient need”.

As long as this loophole remains in place, the next best option is to ensure that any lost woodland is replaced with the highest possible ratio of new planting. For HS2, Natural England has supported a proposed ratio of 30:1 - but Cooper believes that only a 5:1 ratio is being delivered at present (though says this will have nothing to do with the proposed new Northern Forest).

Fracking too is a concern. Just this week, the West Sussex County Council approved fracking firm Cuadrilla’s application to test the flow of oil at Balcombe. Friends of the Earth has also revealed that, in Sherwood Forest, Ineos has sought and received permission for seismic surveys, despite public assurances to the contrary.

It is in this wider context that we should listen to May and Michael Gove announce their (overdue) “25 Year Plan for the Environment”, which it is hoped will suggest new solutions for everything from soil decline, to plastic pollution, to climate change.

One leafy shadow already cast, earlier this week, is the fact the government backtracked on advice for ancient woodland protection, changing a section of the “Standing Advice” it issues to developers. Whereas it had previously advised a 50m “buffer zone” as an appropriate mitigation measure around ancient or veteran trees, it now only advises a minimum of 15m.

Another is that organisations like the Woodland Trust still, despite repeated lobbying, have no reliable data on the condition of the UK’s ancient woods. Those datasets which do exist are “not fully maintained”, and local planning decisions are not centrally updated, the Trust says.

Without greater clarity, ambition and tools to measure progress, the government risks missing the woods for the trees on its environmental policy – and not just for forests.

India Bourke is editorial assistant and environment correspondent at the New Statesman, where this article first appeared.

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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