Into the trees

The National Forest is beginning to spread across 200 square miles in the Midlands, Paul Gosling talked to Susan Bell, chief executive of the woods
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The Independent Online
There can be few jobs as satisfying as to be in charge of the first major forest to be planted in Britain for nearly 1,000 years. Susan Bell, chief executive of the National Forest, knows how fortunate she is, and on a bad day, when the politics of the task get her down, she walks round one of the many new plantations to remind herself why she is doing it.

The vision of the National Forest is far more than simply re-creating a massive expanse of woodland across 200 square miles of the Midlands; the project also aims to instil optimism and supply jobs in a depressed and depressing former mining area. "The weight has shifted towards economic regeneration," says Susan Bell. "It became apparent quite quickly that the environmental improvement was enormously popular, trees were enormously popular - but there was equal pressure to improve the social and economic conditions of this area. The coalfield runs through the middle, and the closure of the coal mines here over the last 10 years has led to 10,000 job losses. The forest was seen, by the local authorities and by the people themselves, as a way of attracting new businesses, and improving the health and wealth of the area."

One hope of the National Forest is to create its own infrastructure, not just to promote tourism, but also to create a new culture to relearn traditional skills such as furniture and charcoal burning. Much of the wood will be sold to the construction industry and the paper industry.

These jobs alone, though, will not reinvigorate the economic climate of the region. A countryside that is visibly changing each month is already attracting incoming young businesses. This is part of the mix that makes up the National Forest, bringing new plantations and new business units into a shared setting. It was originally envisaged that woodland would cover half the area of the forest, at the point where the counties of Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire meet. Now it has been accepted that this level of cover is too ambitious. Even converting one-third of the land to forestry is difficult,not least because British Coal, when facing privatisation, did little to help regenerate the area. Ms Bell welcomed the transfer of land to English Partnership, the regeneration agency, with a dowry that will see more derelict land made available for the forest. But, she says: "What British Coal has in the past been allowed to walk away from is an absolute disgrace."

Involving farmers was also problematic. Until recently, the rules of the Common Agricultural Policy's set-aside fund excluded turning fields into woodland, and the National Forest's own grants scheme has been in competition with the CAP. The BSE crisis and the retirement of many farmers have led some to dedicate land for forest, but the key to accelerating planting has been a system of open tendering.The National Forest has a pounds 2m annual budget, mostly from the Department of the Environment, half of which goes to the tender scheme to persuade landowners to make land available for tree planting. An annual programme now invites landowners to bid for money, specifying what they will achieve. Bids are then assessed on the basis of value for money. Landowners who tender can grow wood commercially; the aim is to have a mix of 60 per cent native deciduous woodland, with 40 per cent of faster-growing softwood.

This sympathetic approach to the economic interests of landowners has seen an impressive increase in tree-planting rates. In the five years since Susan Bell was appointed there have been 1.2 million trees planted, and nearly 400,000 trees are now added each year. Susan Bell is committed to a partnership approach, working with farmers, mineral-extracting businesses, local government and schools. Her acceptability to so many different interest groups in part reflects a singular background - she is a journalist who, because of her interest in the environment, had a planning career in private practice, then became land use adviser to the Country Landowners' Association, followed by a spell in public relations.

Extraordinary jobs require an extraordinary skill mix, and this is a unique job; Susan Bell gives the impression that she is constantly thrilled by it