We all win when new trees are planted. Let’s make it an election pledge
That dangerous pre-election period has begun, where social issues can easily fall off the agenda in favour of politicians making financial promises in an effort to woo the electorate and put the economy centre stage in the debate. Over the next five months, we will hear plenty about high-speed rail, airport expansions and the housing crisis, often at the expense of issues of health, wellbeing and social isolation.
Yet economic and social benefits don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Of course, there’s no silver bullet, but we can start by channelling investment and political will into UK industries that have a broader multiplying effect on society beyond their basic financial contribution.
The forestry and timber products sector is just one example of a productive UK industry (valued at £8.5bn by the Office for National Statistics) with ripple effects far beyond the economy. It’s now well accepted that the quality of our living and working environments is directly connected to our physical and mental health, energy levels and overall fitness. At a time when we’re seeing worrying statistics demonstrating an increase in young people with mental health issues and clear links between poverty and obesity, this has arguably never been more important.
For example, the presence of natural spaces, such as woodlands, for walking, contemplation and exercise has been shown to relieve physical symptoms such as high blood pressure and obesity, as well as mental symptoms of stress and depression. It’s for this reason that the Forestry Commission has developed strong links with the NHS; patients are regularly being prescribed to use its walks in their rehabilitation, while the organisation’s own NHS Forest initiative has been established to link hospitals with local green spaces.
Then there’s the recreational value of having wooded areas close to conurbations for activities such as running, cycling, climbing and dog walking. There are an estimated 250m day visits to woodlands each year and the annual value of recreation in Britain’s forests is worth about £484m to the economy. Woodland generation is playing a major role in regenerating brownfield sites and bringing fresh forest closer to urban areas, yet only around 10% of the population have access to local woodland within 500 metres of their home. This must be increased and ought to be a campaign promise for all politicians.
That’s where the commercial forestry industry can help. Growing trees for timber production is a long-term investment; it takes 40 to 60 years for trees to reach maturity, depending on the species. But if commercial forests are opened to the public, which most are, that means 40-60 years of beneficial leisure, education and recreation opportunities, not to mention a wide array of ecosystem services – something you can’t say about the construction of a new motorway. Today’s sustainable forestry management practices mean more trees are grown in a continuous, renewable cycle.
There are also social wins from the increased use of timber products inside our homes and buildings. The thermal properties of timber can a provide a warm, energy-efficient and long-lasting finish, while the combination of natural light and the organic feel of wood has been shown to lower stress levels.
This was proven at the ground-breaking Dyson Centre for Neonatal Care at Bath’s Royal United Hospital. The designers used exposed timber throughout the centre to differentiate it from more typically cold and clinical hospital environments. A research project analysed the stress levels of parents visiting both the old neonatal unit and the new Dyson centre. While families arrived with similar levels of anxiety, prolonged time spent in the old unit saw stress levels rise in the majority of visitors. In stark contrast, those who stayed in the new centre actually saw their stress levels fall.
If we are to boost woodland cover in the UK and expose more of the population to its benefits, we must expand the UK forest estate and drive investment in new commercial forests. This means recognising the benefits and boosting demand for the products and use of timber.
To achieve this, we need a new approach to valuing and rewarding the management, improvement and expansion of the woodland ecosystems. This means opening up existing woodlands and creating new ones accessible to the public. Investment is required to make this attractive to woodland owners – for example, supporting open access or pathways.
In tandem, we need policies favouring the long-term use of timber in the built environment. Without demand for products from the forest, there will be no investment and, therefore, no skills, jobs or wider benefits.
Parties need to look beyond making facile financial offers during this coming election. Instead, they should start thinking about how economic measures can also improve our health and wellbeing, and our natural world, while providing skilled jobs in a wide range of industries from forestry to manufacturing and house building.