Positive political difference for forest industry

23 October 2023

The UK forestry minister is working closely with the industry to support its development and now a sector deal with government is in prospect, reports Confor chief executive Stuart Goodall

I wrote this article as we approached the anniversary of Liz Truss’s appointment as PM. Many adjectives have been used to describe Ms Truss’s term in office, with “tumultuous” being perhaps a common one. Personally, I think a lot of the financial and economic shocks that those 49 days in office wrought on the country have been overtaken by a range of underlying factors, including the cost of living crisis, high inflation, high interest rates and high energy costs to name but a few. However, those 49 days are a stark reminder of how impactful a minister, especially a Prime Minister, can be.

It was with that thought in mind, I’ve been reflecting on a less high profile minister who was appointed the day after Liz Truss became PM – the UK forestry minister Trudy Harrison. Unlike her former boss, Trudy (as she insists on being called) is still in office and has undoubtedly been a force for good.

Over decades, the production of timber in England has been damaged by successive Tory and Labour Defra ministers who have prioritised environmental objectives without any balancing action to support industry. Trudy has brought a completely new leadership perspective to Defra.

Under Trudy’s tenure we have seen the development of a Defra-led, cross-departmental “Timber in Construction Policy Roadmap”. This is now at the final draft stage, and while it still needs to be beefed up to ensure that homegrown wood products are acknowledged as having a part to play in increased use of timber in construction, it is a welcome acknowledgement by government of the role of wood which industry can build on, not least because this should be an issue that transcends party policy.

The Roadmap also serves as an important reminder of how important UK whitewood (conifer) is for the construction sector.

Trudy has also supported Confor’s proposal to develop a National Wood Strategy for England. In essence, this strategy seeks to establish the link between government policy towards the domestic forest resource and the future health of the wood processing sector in England and the wider UK. This may seem an obvious thing to people in our industry, but it has been misunderstood and/or ignored for decades and has been a major contributor to the negative impact that government has had on the sector.

At a recent dinner and formal meeting with the Confor Board, Trudy accepted Confor’s request to work together to develop a sector deal for the forest-based industry. This would be modelled on sector deals for other industries, and would seek to develop a partnership between government and industry to tackle strategic challenges and opportunities for the future economic success of the sector, including skills, statistics and promotion.

Politics is a tough business and tenures can come to an end at short notice, but for now working with the Defra minister feels positive with the promise of substantive and lasting action to come.