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The ‘Plan for Nature’ Is Right to Be Ambitious – But Labour Can Do More for Rural Life

Labour launched its ‘Plan for Nature’ today, with headline offers of ten new national parks and 2bn trees planted by 2040. 

Both sound impressive, but the detail is key.

Though Labour has not specified where the new national parks would be created, early indications suggest they would mostly involve upgrading the status of existing designated AONBs (areas of outstanding natural beauty). Labour cites possible candidates as the North Pennines, the Malvern Hills, the Chilterns, the Dorset and Suffolk coasts, and the Lincolnshire Wolds – all locations with existing AONB designation.

If this means the plan is less ambitious than it first appears, it nevertheless comes with welcome benefits. National park status means more funding – Labour promises a 50% increase (representing a 30% improvement on their pre-austerity budget). It would mean improved access rights and stricter environmental and planning regulation – taken out of local authority control and placed in the hands of the national park authorities. Coupled with new targets for nature restoration and carbon sequestration, national park status could prove a powerful weapon in addressing crises in climate and biodiversity and improving countryside access.

By contrast, Labour’s tree pledge is highly ambitious, upping the ante on the ‘tree arms race’ – with all parties promising substantial increases in tree planting as part of the solution to crises in climate and biodiversity. The fag-packet maths puts this at 190 trees planted per minute, every hour, every day, for 20 years.

Great. But how?

Westminster commentators have converted themselves into forestry experts for the day to mock the idea that such a target is physically feasible. But an individual skilled planter can manage around 1,000 trees a day in the right circumstances (the current world record is held by a Canadian who planted 15,170 over 24 hours). More difficult will be the supply. Tree nurseries cannot meet additional demand at will, and at peak times already rely on imports.

Without careful oversight, rapid reintroduction of non-native trees could end up causing more harm than benefit. Likewise, where natural seed sources exist, artificial plantations may not be the best option: natural afforestation is slower but produces more resilient woodlands and better ecosystems. Since insects co-evolved with native trees, improving biodiversity means the right trees must be planted in the right places, making correct sourcing and thoughtful planning more important than simply planting at scale and speed. Alternatives to unpopular existing tree planting procedures – which rely on plastic protectors that litter artificial plantations, and herbicides like glyphosate to control competing weeds – can come with their own political dilemmas: think deer culling and genetic modification.

Whilst such vast tree planting would certainly create jobs, with knock-on benefits for rural areas, we still need to consider where the new plantations will go. Labour is arguing that the trees will be homed in a combination of the new and existing national parks, national forest programmes, public land (delivering an ‘NHS Forest’), and by working with urban communities. Yet tree planting on this level (for comparison – there are currently around 3bn trees spread across the UK) will almost certainly require the rewilding of agricultural land: a controversial sell to the farming community that will need to be addressed with care. Recent efforts to rewild the Cambrian mountains have floundered against hostility from the upland farming community, who view such projects as an external imposition and a threat to their way of life. To achieve success, such suspicions will have to be placated, and the consent and employment of farming communities made central to delivery.

Indeed, farmers were little mentioned in Labour’s announcements today – and whilst the party’s ‘Plan for Nature’ makes welcome noises about reforming farm payments to reward the provision of public goods, these depart little from existing Conservative proposals. More significant is a pledge to reverse losses to county farms – a sort of social housing for farming, allowing new entrants to lease from the council at low rates. Currently, many young farmers – who tend to be the most passionate and forward-thinking on environmental concerns – are shut out of an industry which either requires family inheritance or infeasible amounts of start-up capital.

More substantial expansion of county farms, with tenancy contingent on its environmental stipulations, could have fitted thematically with Labour’s broader manifesto agenda and helped create the grassroots advocates it needs to help shift practices in the sector. Likewise, upfront financial support for environmental initiatives would show that Labour understands the forces preventing well intentioned farmers from acting: if a farmer must fund schemes from their own pocket only on promise of delayed repayment, they may decide the risk simply isn’t worth taking, or limit their ambitions to what they can presently afford.

For too long, Labour has accepted the dominance of Conservatives in rural areas. Out of the 50 most agricultural seats, 40 are held by Tories, with the remainder split between Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. Rural communities tend to feel ignored and culturally distant from Labour – suspicious that their vision of the countryside reflects metropolitan concerns, rather than their own.

Yet the Tories have been complacent: failing to redress rural poverty, the withering of village life, and the vast imbalances in land ownership which prop up a desperate state of affairs for all but the wealthiest farmers and agribusiness. Chronic indebtedness and insecurity, lack of control over prices, and isolation have led to farming having the worst suicide rate of any profession. Labour would rightly denounce such a situation in any other industry: it ought to be central to its offer now.

Labour badly needs a unifying story which shows how its various policy offers – many of them bold and ambitious – add up to a different kind of Britain. Our relationship to nature can be part of that story: saving national species, re-enchanting landscapes and high streets, restoring biodiversity, revitalising villages and empowering food providers. Put natural history on the curriculum and give everyone the unassailable right to the countryside. Radically upgrade the Localism Act to enable locals to take back control of their land, their energy, their pubs and their woodlands. In place of silly homages to St George’s flag and British values – so beloved of previous Labour governments – Labour should offer to make belonging real again.

Jon Moses is a PhD researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Published 28th November 2019

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