Why our future should be made of wood

01 February 2017

Back in the early days of the Conservative-Liberal coalition the government proposed selling off the UK’s forests.  The backlash from organisations like the National Trust was swift and effective. 

As you may know from watching episodes of ‘Yes, Minister’, when a government is faced with a particularly tricky situation, they set up an inquiry chaired by the great and the good. In other words they ‘kick it into the long grass’ and wait for the hullaballoo to die down. 

Which is how the then Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, ended up overseeing the Independent Inquiry into Forestry.

The report when it came was impressive; it is readable, concise, interesting, full of common sense and is packed with practical suggestions.  What’s more it’s a blue print for job creation, better health and a greener environment. It’s highly applicable to the North East of England.

Forestry employs an equivalent number of people per hectare as farming, and in addition forestry spending in the local economy is double that of farming.  As we leave the EU there’s an opportunity to potentially move some existing farmland that is excessively reliant on Common Agricultural Policy subsidy over to forestry.  Such a move would maintain an equivalent number of jobs in the North East but with some additional big advantages.  For one thing it could make us fitter.  As the Bishop’s report points out we become healthier, physically and mentally, for our time spent walking in the woods.

Woods and forests close to where people live are heavily used, places like Chopwell and Hamsterley being great examples.  We therefore need more and bigger forests close to where people live.  Which is why we in the North East should be looking at planting at least two new forests.  One between Tyneside and Blyth/Morpeth and another between Tyneside and Sunderland, both stretching from the coast as far inland as possible creating wildlife and leisure corridors from the North Sea to the Pennines.  Such planting would secure the greenbelt in place, preventing future urban sprawl and creating two great green lungs that will improve the air quality for all who live and work in the Tyne and Wear urban area.

These new forests will, in time, provide us with timber, and so create more jobs. This timber can then be used to build homes particularly using the new technique of Cross Laminated Timber (CLT). This safe, durable material enables construction at a scale and height in wood which was never previously thought possible.  Last year in Vancouver the world’s tallest wooden building was constructed at 18 storeys, and in Vienna a building even taller at 24 storeys is currently being erected.  Has the time come to build the UK’s tallest wooden building on Tyneside or Wearside?

This year at Sherburn-in-Elmet, between York and Leeds, Legal and General Homes will open the first CLT plant in the UK.  With the use of wood in construction likely to soar in the next decade maybe the time has also come to build a CLT factory in the North East processing timber from Kielder to build homes in the region and create shorter supply chains? This would create a new industry with even more new jobs.

Which brings me to the final major benefit of forests.  Forests ‘eat carbon’, or to be technical, they sequestrate C02.  In the battle against climate change there is no one silver bullet but given trees already soak up 10% - 20% of Europe’s carbon emissions then more trees would mean we had an even bigger CO2 ‘sponge’.  Things made out of wood go on sequestrating carbon even though we’ve chopped the tree down.  So new timber framed buildings are significant contributors to making sure our children have a future on this planet. 

Timber in construction can replace concrete and steel, both of which are major causes of climate change due to the large amount of energy needed in their manufacture.  Concrete is estimated to be responsible for 8% of carbon emissions globally.

If you have been reading closely you will now know why my motto for the next two years will be ‘plant, make, build’, with the priority being jobs, jobs, and more jobs.


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