Why the latest reset of environmental policy could be good for woodworking (although we might be kept waiting)

18 January 2018

Matt Mahony, BWF Policy & Communications Executive

Although it’s been overshadowed by more immediate concerns such as the collapse of Carillion, last week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched its much anticipated 25-Year Environment Plan, a document that could have major implications for the UK timber industry.

The plan sits alongside both the Industrial Strategy and the Clean Growth Strategy and identifies key areas around which policy will be focused, including increasing resource efficiency and reducing pollution and waste.

Why government should believe in being braver

With the new Plan and the recent Clean Growth Strategy, we’re seeing a government that is again dipping its toe into the water on environmental issues. And why not? There is a clear public mandate to adopt an ambitious agenda on environmental sustainability. It’s a genuine cross party issue which is supported by polling data that there is substantial support to strengthen current environmental regulations in the wake of Brexit.

Although the championing of a ‘Green Brexit’ and a ‘Blue Planet PM’ is a little insincere, there will be opportunities to retain ‘the good stuff’ in strategy terms if no longer in name. This would include the popular EU Timber Regulation which was the stated reason why David Cameron’s government stopped short of new criminal offences under UK law for the import and possession of illegal timber.

If the government decides to convert public support for our green and pleasant land into real political capital, Brexit could provide an opportunity to loosen the shackles of existing state aid rules. Taxation incentives for sustainable products could support businesses doing things the right way and avoid endemic short-termism, a big problem in a construction industry tasked with delivering 300,000 extra homes per year by the middle of the next decade and addressing the issue of a leaky existing building stock.

So what of the plan?

The plan itself is certainly lightweight – essentially a list of ‘good things’ which doesn’t go far enough. It’s not far off being at home on Buzzfeed, but in an era when government thinking on sustainability seems stuck between ambivalence and opportunism, it’s encouraging to see a renewed commitment to basics such as tackling climate change, promoting recycling and protecting the forests - even the elusive Great Crested Newt gets a mention.

Many of these aims have clear benefits for woodworking and the use of wood products over less sustainable alternatives, not least the targets to achieve zero avoidable plastic waste, maximise the benefits of the UK’s woodlands, protect international forests and support zero-deforestation supply chains.

There is also a recognition that market forces alone are often insufficient in recognising the social, economic and environmental gains from the better deployment of resources, materials and products.

Natural capitalism

Perhaps most encouraging of all within the plan is the reaffirmation of the Industrial Strategy pledge to support a Natural Capital approach. This will help account for the true value of England’s wood and forests. As well as reflecting more of the wellbeing benefits of a wood culture, the approach accounts for Carbon sequestration – the process by which trees lock-up and store carbon from the atmosphere - and a measurement that can better indicate the true worth of the products we make.

In my opinion, if government is to adopt a long term plan, then this is a good start but we need something akin to an Environmental Constitution to give more robust protection from the type of mercurial decision making that we’ve seen on issues including Fixed-term parliaments and selling off Britain’s forests.

How soon is now?

Where the government’s intentions fall short for me is that setting up a long term plan is all very good but there needs to be more of a sense of urgency across the board. If we are to get millions of new homes within the next decade as the government hopes, then we don’t want inefficient, leaky houses stuffed with single use plastics - we need to address today’s problems today and setting the framework for this can’t wait, especially as hitting the reset button on such issues has cost valuable time.

We want to see millions less deliveries during construction, millions of tonnes of CO2 taken from the atmosphere and stored in the built environment and millions less tonnes of hazardous legacy materials. It should be a no-brainer that large construction projects must be mandated to account for social value and sustainability and are required to use materials that are sustainable and responsibly sourced. NB: in the wake of the Carillion debacle, it’s easy to forget that the three elements of sustainable development that government should now account for in the built environment are social, environmental and economic sustainability.

To bring the plan forward, government also needs to be more open to new initiatives and drivers, particularly within construction. There are some great innovations out there, not least those that BWF and its timber industry colleagues have been working on and those coming from Europe and North America. Although there are too many to list, promising initiatives close to home include Powys County Council’s Homegrown Homes initiative and its Wood Encouragement Policy aimed at supporting forestry and product manufacturing, retaining and creating new jobs and building better, and more energy efficient houses.

If we want real progress by 2022 rather than 2042, now is the time to start acting on solutions. I can think of a good place to begin…

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