FORESTRY INDUSTRY body Confor has analysed the main parties’ manifestos ahead of the imminent December 12 General Election – and warned that, outside Scotland, large planting targets might just be 'pipedreams' without major changes to the system.

Confor suggested that, with a YouGov poll identifying climate change as the second most important issue in the election for young people (after Brexit) the coming vote could rightly be described as 'the climate election' – and tree planting has been given a much higher profile in the current crop of party manifestos than at previous elections.

Looking at those policy pledges in turn, Confor delivered its varying verdicts:

Conservative Party

The key Conservative promise is a new £640million 'Nature for Climate' fund to increase tree planting in England.

The Tories have pledged to work with the Devolved Administrations to triple UK tree-planting rates to 30,000 hectares every year – and said that there was space for at least 30 million more trees, between expanding existing woodland and establishing new plantations, and planting in urban spaces to improve air quality.

There would also be a scaling up of the nursery sector to grow the necessary saplings, and 'new partnerships' with landowners.

Confor responded: "We welcome the greater ambition, but much more needs to be done to ensure these challenging targets are actually met – especially given the failure to reach the modest target of 11 million trees in five years set by the previous Conservative government. The status quo has to change and that will require strong political leadership.

It is heartening the manifesto mentions scaling up the nursery sector and forging partnerships with landowners as regional partnerships are crucial to growing new forests at scale across England. The reference to working with the devolved administrations is interesting and England needs to learn from the positive experience of increased planting in Scotland. Indeed, England needs a Mackinnon-style review of processes (which helped turbo-charge planting in Scotland) to ‘get tree planting done’ - or we risk five more years of dither and delay.

Labour Party

Labour has pledged to embark on an 'ambitious' programme of tree planting, with both commercial forestry and native woodland species, and has suggested that this will involve two billion trees being planted by 2040, creating 20,000 new 'green' jobs in the process.

It also revealed plans to make the NHS a net zero-carbon service, with an NHS Forest of one million trees.

Confor commented: "The plan to plant two billion trees is a massive step change in ambition from 2017 (when Labour said it would plant 'a million trees of native species'). This is very welcome after Confor’s work to persuade Labour politicians to grasp this agenda. However, there must be strong leadership and a commitment to streamlining planting application and approval processes if genuine progress is to be made. And there must be an understanding that this sort of target cannot be met without creating new, large-scale productive forests.

"We also welcome the recognition that forestry and timber can deliver on Labour’s green jobs agenda, while an NHS Forest of one million trees is an eye-catching proposal which recognises the positive link between trees and positive physical and mental health."

Liberal Democrats

A Liberal Democrat government would plant 60 million trees every year, increasing UK forest cover by one million hectares by 2045, according to the party's manifesto.

Describing their plan to tackle the climate emergency as the 'largest tree-planting programme in UK history', the LibDems said that reforesting would have other benefits, helping reverse declining biodiversity, reducing air pollution and improving public spaces. It would also aim increase the use of sustainably harvested wood in construction, capturing carbon and reducing construction's overall emissions.

Confor responded: "The Woodland Creation Targets we published this year, suggest 40,000 hectares of new woodland should be planted every year by 2030 to make the contribution needed to reduce atmospheric carbon. The Lib Dem pledge to increase UK forest cover by one million ha by 2045 equates to 40,000 ha a year for 25 years – in line with the Confor target.

"This is very positive, but the same caveats apply as to the Conservative targets – processes must be improved and all agencies must pull together to make it happen. However, if the Lib Dems hold the balance of power in a new government, we look forward to them pressing for these ambitious targets. As a staunch, pro-EU and Stop Brexit party, they will be aware UK forest cover (13%) is only one-third of the EU average – and that this has to change."

Scottish National Party

With a good tree-planting track record at home, the SNP pledged to press for a UK-wide increase in new woodland creation, working towards a target of 60 million trees planted annually in the UK by 2025, with 30 million of those in Scotland, helping tackle the Climate Emergency, support biodiversity and grow rural employment.

Confor reacted: "This is a very positive statement and it is encouraging the SNP is keen to share the successful Scottish tree planting formula with the rest of the UK. While some improvement is still required, the progress made has been based on a structured approach to streamlining processes around application and approval (the Mackinnon review), strong political leadership and joined-up policy – with both tree planting and increased wood use linked to wider policy, notably climate change targets.

"The real key is the strong relationship between industry and government and its agencies in a shared national endeavour to plant more trees, and to work together in future to use more home-grown wood."

Green Party

True to their name, the Green party said that it wanted to see 700 million new trees planted, and aim for 50% of all farms to be engaged in agroforestry by 2030.

It would encourage the planting of more trees in more towns and cities, including apple, nut and other crop trees than can produce food, while supporting rural farmers to diversify their incomes through new forest management.

The Greens promised new targeted support for small-scale family farms and for new entrants to farming, including increased security of tenure for farmers, to help develop sustainable farming methods, and diverse uses for agricultural land and buildings, such as fitting solar panels on farm buildings and planting orchards and other woodland. They would spend £1 billion on research and development for farming and forestry, and £0.7billion on tree planting.

Confor said: "The commitment to plant 700 million trees by 2030 – about 35,000 hectares a year – is ambitious and like the LibDem target, is closely aligned to what Confor suggests is achievable. It shows the growing consensus among the environmental lobby that trees have a crucial role to play in tackling the climate emergency, also supported by Friends of the Earth’s ambition to double UK tree cover, and includes recognition of the benefit of more home-grown timber.

The Greens also want a much greater emphasis on integrated farming and forestry, a policy we are pleased to support as part of a more sustainable and diversified approach to rural land use after Brexit."