Putting the FIZ into the rural economy – Stuart Goodall

WORDS can mean ­different things to different people. Say ‘Borderlands’ to a teenage boy and their eyes will probably light up at the thought of a shoot-‘em-up video game. In rural parts of southern ­Scotland and northern England, it means something quite different; an exciting new economic growth deal with £345 million of funding from the UK and Scottish governments.

Thousands of acres of trees are being planted in Scotland every year

These geographic areas are also home to the greatest concentration of wood manufacturers and related businesses, so it’s great to see that the importance of the forestry and wood processing sector is recognised in the Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal.

Trees harvested in Eskdalemuir or Kielder criss-cross the border, ­ending up at BSW Timber’s mills in Carlisle or Dalbeattie, at James Jones & Sons’ huge operation in Lockerbie, at one of Glennon Brothers’ mills in East Lothian or Ayrshire, or A&J Scott’s mill near Wooler, Northumberland.

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The Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal was given the go-ahead by Chancellor Philip Hammond in last month’s spring statement and it’s unusual in several respects. Unlike previous City Deals in Scotland, based on the regions around large centres of population including ­Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, the Borderlands covers a huge rural area with a relatively low and widely dispersed population.

Stuart Goodall is Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood

Economic sectors that are genuinely cross-border will be vital in pulling the final deal together – and forestry and wood processing, which employs more than 7500 people in the ­Borderlands area, is right up there. Hopefully the ­sector’s ­carbon-busting credentials will stand it in good stead, as the UK Government is increasingly making much of the need for low-carbon ­economic growth.

A report produced last year by ­Confor member EGGER – the ­largest private sector employer in Northumberland, with 630 staff working at its high-quality chipboard factory in Hexham – made a strong case for the industry to be at the heart of the deal.

Like all other wood processors in the Borderlands, EGGER wants more tree planting and wood production, to create jobs and drive low-carbon economic growth. This means ­planting lots more trees, an area where Scotland leads and one where northern England needs to start ­pulling its weight. I’m ­hopeful that last planting season will have seen Scotland finally meeting its annual target of 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres), with an aspiration to plant 15,000 hectares a year by 2025 ­confirmed in the new Scottish ­Forestry Strategy.

England is lagging badly behind, struggling to meet a miserly 1000 hectares each year – across the whole country! In Scotland, planting targets are linked specifically to mitigating climate change and building ­balanced rural economies. In England, it has felt like planting targets have no specific purpose – although current forestry minister, David Rutley MP, has given ­confidence that he wants to see the target met as part of a future expanded ambition.

How can we see a step change in England? Confor’s approach has always been to come up with pragmatic proposals, not snipe from the sidelines, and we are ­working with a range of partners to develop a Forestry Investment Zone (FIZ) in Northumberland as part of a wider plan to embed forestry and wood processing in the Borderlands Deal. A FIZ would seek to encourage ­landowners to plant trees by making the process of government approval simpler, quicker and more predictable.

If northern England can match Scotland, then it will underpin investment confidence and complement the Borderlands Deal’s focus on ­innovation and productivity – ­benefiting both sides of the Border.

A rural growth deal is an exciting new venture, and forestry and wood processing is a sector with the potential for growth in terms of ­volumes and value. If the UK ­Government matches money with action on tree planting, this is a ­venture that could well show the ­cities how to deliver sustainable green growth.

Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood. www.confor.org.uk