[EXP] National Forest Company (NFC) – an exemplar of sustainability in all its aspects
Transforming over 500 square kilometres of central England for the benefit of the Nation
Type: Success story
Date of writing: May 1, 2011
Author(s) of this page: Delia Sambeteanu, Michael Dower
Organization(s): NFC (National Forest Company)
The National Forest Company is an example of sustainable development at a large scale: through the creation of new woodlands, it has helped to enhance the environment, promote greater public use of the Forest, and strengthen the local economy.
Background / Objectives / Region
Before The National Forest was set up in 1994, the area that it now occupies - 500 square kilometres in the centre of England - was one of the country’s least wooded regions. Much of it was marred by dereliction and economic decline due to the decline of deep coal-mining and clay working. The rest contained mixed farmland, some small woodlands, the brewery town of Burton upon Trent, mining towns such as Coalville and Swadlincote, the historic town of Ashby de la Zouch, and other settlements, with a total population of about 200,000. Like many other parts of England despoiled by mineral extraction, the area needed economic and environmental regeneration.
The idea of achieving that kind of regeneration by creating a new large-scale forest was put forward in 1987 by the Countryside Commission (a government agency) in its policy document ‘Forestry in the Countryside’. With government approval, the Commission invited bids from local authorities to host a new National Forest which would realise this idea. Five groups of local authorities submitted bids, and the winner was a consortium of County Councils from Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire. The winter of 1990 saw a symbolic start to the project, with the planting of the first trees witnessed by hundreds of local schoolchildren.
The Countryside Commission then recruited a National Forest Development Team, which put in hand the preparation of a Forest Strategy and Business Plan. During a three-year period, the Team gathered proposals for future enhancement of the area, won widespread public support for its vision and kept alive involvement in the Forest while the ideas were drawn up. After a wide-ranging public consultation and environmental assessment, the first Strategy was agreed by Government in 1994. The Team realised that attractive incentives were going to be needed if landowners and others were to be drawn into creating the Forest. The Government agreed to provide funding for this purpose, and in April 1995 it announced the setting up of the National Forest Company to implement the Forest Strategy.
The prime mover of the venture is the National Forest Company. It is a Non-Departmental Public Body, set up and funded by Government, and is also a company limited by guarantee. This small organisation, with a staff of 14 and an 8-person Board of Directors, oversees the creation of the Forest by working in partnership with a wide range of public, private and voluntary organisations and local communities. The Company’s task is to implement the National Forest Strategy.
Good progress was made against the original Forest Strategy and a second 10 year Strategy covering 2004 – 2014 was endorsed by the Government in 2004. This sets out how the Forest is being further developed.
Working alongside the Company is the Heart of the National Forest Charitable Trust, a charitable body which will be the long-term guardian of the main visitor centre and adjoining lands near the centre of the Forest.
Aspects of sustainable development
The National Forest is a unique national case study of sustainable development at a large scale, reflecting the integration of environmental, social and economic policies. The description below focuses in turn on environmental, social and economic regeneration.
Environmental enhancement. A prime challenge in the area is to redeem land despoiled by opencast coal and clay working, sand and gravel extraction and granite quarrying; to diversify agricultural land and urban green space; and to radically enhance the landscape as a setting for the future well-being of the people and the local economy. Large-scale forestry is seen as a key tool in this process, with its ability to hold soil and water, to grace the landscape, to screen eyesores, to sequester and store carbon, and to provide varied spaces for recreation and rich habitats for wildlife. The Forest Strategy set a target to increase the total forest cover in the area from 6% in 1991 to 33% after 30 or more years. The concept is not a continuous forest, but rather a woodland framework for the landscape, containing a rich mosaic of habitats.
To achieve this great increase in woodland area in a region of such varied land use requires ingenuity and the use of different mechanisms. The National Forest Company has been able, with government funding, to operate a Changing Landscapes Scheme, whereby landowners who wish to create new woodland on farmland or elsewhere are able to bid for funds to plant trees and to maintain them in the early years. The Company also works with other organisations to purchase land to create the Forest. Other mechanisms include action by the state Forestry Commission on public land, tree-planting as a requirement on planning approvals for private development, and action by mineral companies to redeem despoiled land in their ownership.
Through action of these kinds, woodland cover in the area has already increased from 6% in 1991 to almost 19% in 2011. 1,500ha of other new habitats have also been created or brought into management, helping to reverse past losses of habitats and species. Much derelict land has been transformed. Some previously isolated woods, including ancient woodland, have been linked together in order to connect wildlife habitats. Ecological site surveys confirm that new woodland sites of 10-15 years of age are now supporting a range of common and rare species not previously found in the area. The new woodlands contain open as well as planted areas, and many of them already attract much recreational use by local residents.
As well as acting with many partners to create new woodland, the National Forest Company is working to encourage the sustainable management of all woodlands in the area. It works closely with the state Forestry Commission, other forestry organisations and the National Forest Woodland Owners’ Club in advising owners on forest management techniques, and in encouraging local communities to get involved in looking after woodlands. Sites such as Feanedock Covert, in the heart of The National Forest, are used as models of good silvicultural practice, so that landowners can see how to realise the full potential value of their woodlands.
In planning the woodlands, the Company is very aware of the need to mitigate, and to adapt to, climate change. The provision of linked habitat corridors will enable species to migrate if they need to do so. The stock of new trees chosen for planting includes cultivars both from sources within or near the Forest and from areas elsewhere (notably southern England) which have different climates, so as to build resilience into the total stock. Research plots include trees from elsewhere in Europe, to test their suitability as the climate changes.
Social provision. Alongside the environmental improvement, the Forest Strategy places strong emphasis on the involvement of local residents in the creation and recreational use of the Forest. Schools, community groups and businesses (e.g. Rolls Royce plc) are being successfully involved in the planting and maintenance of new sites. Most of the new woodlands can be explored and enjoyed by local people and by visitors from outside the area, and there is growing recreational and touristic use of these areas. New local parks are being created within the woodland pattern, and most of the Forest’s population now live within 500m of accessible woodland. A network of footpaths, cycle routes and horse-riding trails is being steadily extended. Between 1995 and 2010, over 340,000 children took part in educational activity related to the environment and to sustainability. More widely, there is evidence of the increase in community spirit, and of pride and a sense of communal ‘ownership’ of the Forest. For example, over 25,000 people took an active part in the Forest’s activities in the year 2010 : about 16% of these came from socially excluded groups.
Economic regeneration. With a past economy based partly on coal mining and clay quarries, and the more recent collapse or decline of these industries, the Forest area has its share of unemployment and hardship, with areas of relative economic disadvantage in parts of both the former coalfield and Burton upon Trent. However, the local economy is quite diverse, and the Forest Strategy aims to strengthen it further. The area benefited from £164m investment in regeneration between 1995 and 2010; and the Forest Company has directly supported the growth of employment in tourism and the woodland economy. The National Forest is becoming a significant destination for sustainable tourism, with new attractions such as the Conkers Discovery Centre and the National Memorial Arboretum and new accommodation such as chalets in attractive woodland and a large Youth Hostel. Tourism now supports over 4,300 jobs in the Forest area.
As for the woodland economy, the Forest Company is constantly seeking ways to help local landowners and enterprises to add value to woodland products. A key event in this respect is the annual National Forest Wood Fair, jointly organised by the Company and Leicestershire County Council, which brings together increasing numbers of people who grow, buy, sell or use timber and other woodland products. Wood is now used for heating in six significant buildings in the Forest, with six more planned. The Regional Development Agency has given advice and grant-aid to small wood-processing businesses and local contractors. Over 220 jobs have been created or safeguarded through forestry, farm diversification to forest uses and woodland businesses since 1995. The Forest Company and its partners are determined that this economic growth shall contribute to, and not damage, the quality of the environment.
Challenges / Perspectives
The main achievement of the National Forest Company is not so much the rapid increase in tree cover, but that it has helped to enhance the environment, promote greater public use of the Forest, and strengthen the local economy. Much progress has been made towards the targets set by the Forest Strategy. But it will take many decades, and continuing investment, to realise the full benefits of creating such a forest. Success will depend upon continued Government support, including finance, in order to sustain the enthusiasm of all the Forest’s partners. Following the national election in 2010, the new coalition government confirmed its support for the National Forest Company, so the momentum in delivering this complex and long-term project will be sustained.
The National Forest project is an ambitious exercise in long-term sustainable development, focused on the environmental, social and economic regeneration of a large sub-region which was partly despoiled by mineral working. It shows how a radical change in the environmental quality of an area can be achieved by a strong partnership of many different organisations and landowners, animated by a small, non-bureaucratic body set up and supported by government. It shows how the three pillars of sustainable development – environmental, social, economic – can be delivered in parallel and how good value for public money can be achieved. It proves the value of having a clear and convincing vision, adequate and flexible funding arrangements and dedicated staff.
Many other rural regions of Europe are affected by environmental blight, social malaise, economic decline or all of these. Such regions could do well to study the approach taken in the National Forest.
National Forest website: www.nationalforest.org
Discussion with Simon Evans, Director of Operations, National Forest Company
National Forest Company
Email: enquiries ( a ) nationalforest.org
Scale of intervention : Regional
Keywords: sustainable woodland, locally-based economy, woodland creation, diversification of economic activities, improvement of biodiversity, woodland management, ecotourism, wood supply chain, natural habitats preservation, ecosystem services, conservation and management of natural resources, climate change, renewable energy, public-private partnership, Governance