A cold December morning at Defra’s Millbank offices provided the setting for an interview with UK Forestry Minister Dan Rogerson, the purpose: to quiz him on the impact and aims of government forestry policy.

Being ushered along the halls I recalled past TTJ news stories. In 2005 Greenpeace protested here, blocking the entrance with a tonne of plywood and unfurling banners reading "ban illegal timber". There was also a brief but heated exchange between TTJ and former forestry minister Elliot Morley when the latter said he was too busy to answer a few simple questions on the phone.

Meeting an at-ease Mr Rogerson in his wood-clad office, the minister reflected on his first year in the post and with just months to go before a general election. Things started with a bang and the start of the Grown in Britain campaign.

"When I arrived in the job, my first engagement was to go to Heal’s in London [for the launch]," he said. "I think the campaign has been really good for getting people to work together and building confidence and a way for the sector to show the potential for growth. It is another forum for the sector to come together. The industry could be potentially disparate, but this coordination helps get its message across."

In particular, he highlighted the value of the campaign’s connecting timber supply chain with buyers, contractors, architects and blue-chip companies.

Government action

But what has the government achieved? The minister pointed to the appointment of chief plant health officer Professor Nicola Spence, to spearhead action on tree disease. New regulations have also been formulated to counter the threat of pests, while investment has been made in research and additional resources given to the Forestry Commission.

In terms of the sawmilling/forestry sector, Mr Rogerson said extra government money was not necessarily the answer.

"I was wondering when I started whether people would say ‘give us more cash’", he said. "From my discussions with the sector, with regard to softwood, my understanding is that the investment is there, but it’s about making sure we have the right regulation standpoint. Regulation is the issue."

Then there’s the question of levels of productive conifer planting, with forecasts of a shortfall in several decades’ time.

"We are investing in supporting planting," the minister said. "The issue is the length of time it takes to get the trees into the ground.

We are keen to address concerns. We’re seeing plenty of planting coming forward. It’s important we drive that softwood supply for timber frame homes construction [and other uses]. The potential is there for increases. We’re very keen that forestry marks its place in the scheme of things."

The minister got first hand experience of tree planting during a recent a visit to Cumbria, where he met Confor and local forestry representatives to learn more about how the industry is working in partnership with the Forestry Commission, local authorities and others to develop strategies for seizing untapped growth opportunities in England’s northern supply chains.

He also pointed to a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) pilot which is running in County Durham through the year. This is aimed at enhancing EIA procedures in new planting projects. That means both increasing awareness among landowners as to when EIAs are required, but also to streamline the process and cut red-tape to ensure it does not act as a barrier to new woodland. This will include assessing how woodland design and information sharing can be "optimised", to facilitate planting while minimising environmental impacts.

Mr Rogerson has recently been lobbied by Confor to take up its fight for sawmills to get relief payments from a proposed scheme for energy intensive industries to offset the indirect cost of renewables. But the timing – the government is expected to make a statement early in 2015 – and the fact the department for energy and climate change is also involved, meant the minister would not be drawn on the matter.

"There are a whole range of things that affect the sector," he said.

Wood first

I asked him what he thought of the Wood First proposal (a recommendation by the Independent Panel on Forestry advocating prioritisation of timber in procurement policy due to its sustainability/low carbon characteristics), pointing out that France had something similar.

Mr Rogerson said he was aware of the arguments but emphasised that there were already many drivers towards use of wood for sustainability.

"There are architects who are very keen to use wood. We see a lot more wood clad housing and movement on zero carbon houses. A wood first procurement policy is not something that the coalition government has been looking to do. We have not been material specific. There are a lot of drivers on policy areas, which are all going to have a benefit."

Meanwhile, on certification, the minister said he was interested to hear from forest/ woodland owners who felt that the costs of certification were affecting their profitability.

"I am always interested to hear from people who feel the processes are not working," he said.