Woodland Planning Guide

Woodland Planning Guide


This guide has been put together by Local Authority Technology CIC as investment in research to help local councils with complex subjects.
The information and suggestions come with no warranty, but should be used to provoke thought within the local council and educate members and staff.

Woodland has enormous potential to deal with some of the most critical challenges of our times - reducing carbon emissions, supporting biodiversity, providing ecosystem services, creating employment, and improving health and well-being. But making the most of this potential is proving to be difficult for local councils for several main reasons:
  1. there are many competing requirements for suitable land (in particular housing development)
  2. local councils often don’t own any land, so woodland development requires close cooperation with local landowners
  3. the subsidies available for woodland under the DEFRA Environmental Land Management System (ELMS) and the Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) regulations are not mature
  4. woodland planning and Forestry Commission certification is complicated and requires expert support.
The Local Authority Technology CIC is developing and trialling a Woodland Planning Guide in Parish Online which aims to simplify the woodland planning process and make it easier for councils to include new woodland as part of their Neighbourhood and Net Zero Plans.

The Benefits of Woodland

Britain (at 13%) has very little woodland cover compared to most other countries. The European average woodland cover is 46% and the world average is 31%. In May 2021 DEFRA published “The England Trees Action Plan 2021-2024” which aims to triple the rate of new woodland creation in England from 10,000 Ha to 30,000 Ha per annum.

The UK is one of the least forested countries:
Percentage Forest Cover
Europe (EU)
Europe (Total)

The main benefits of woodland are:

  1. Biodiversity:  Woodland is one of the very best habitats to help ecosystems to recover (provided it is planted and managed with this aim in mind). Woodland does not suffer from the damaging effects of monoculture and the extensive use of chemicals associated with agriculture.
  2. Carbon Storage and Sequestration: Mature woodland provides an excellent carbon store (up to 1,400 tons of CO2 equivalent per hectare), and growing new woodland therefore offers the opportunity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away in the wood and roots of trees. This allows councils to offset at least part of their carbon emissions, which is an essential part of every Net Zero plan.
  3. Eco-system Services: Woodland supplies many benefits in addition to carbon storage and biodiversity. These services include the enrichment and stability of soil, flood prevention, improved air quality and the provision of shade.
  4. Leisure and Well-Being: Woodland provides an ideal environment for walking, horse-riding, and cycling. All these activities promote health and well-being.
  5. Local Employment: Woodland generates local employment, for instance in the planting and management of trees, the management of leisure activities, and in wood-related industries.
  6. Using Timber to Replace Carbon Intensive Products: Timber from woodland can be harvested and used to create sustainable products and services which replace carbon-intensive alternatives, particularly for building construction.

Strategic Considerations

Strategic considerations when developing a woodland plan include:

Carbon Sequestration versus Carbon Storage

Mature woodland stores a lot of carbon, but the rate of sequestration of new carbon peaks when trees are about 30 years old and then declines to near zero when the trees are fully mature (typically after about 150 years for native broad-leaf deciduous trees). This is illustrated in the diagram below. This key point means that an effective woodland plan must include the extraction of wood from a mature woodland so that there is always space and light for new timber to grow. And at least some of the extracted timber must be used for a useful purpose (such as timber construction or fuel) to provide a carbon benefit (otherwise the extracted timber will return its carbon to the atmosphere and cancel out the benefits of the new woodland growth). 

Illustration of how carbon sequestration of new woodlands peaks after a few decades, whereas carbon storage increases towards an equilibrium. (Based on Woodland Carbon Code data for un-thinned Yield Class 8 Oak in 5-year time intervals on a mineral soil with minimal soil emissions. Note: the modelling of early growth is limited by a lack of data so the timing and height of the early peak should only be treated as illustrative.)

Mixed Benefits

It is important that a woodland is managed to deliver a mix of benefits (biodiversity, carbon sequestration, carbon storage, ecosystem services, leisure, local employment, and timber products). This mix will dictate the type and density of trees planted.

The DEFRA Environment Land Management System (ELMS) is designed to provide subsidies for each type of benefit to encourage a mixture of objectives. For instance, DEFRA wants to discourage woodland being optimised for timber extraction. This would entail planting a single species of softwood and clear-felling large areas at a time which would be damaging for biodiversity, ecosystem services, and leisure. By granting subsidies for these other benefits DEFRA aims to make non-optimised timber extraction commercially viable (in the same way that paying subsidies for herbal leys and set-aside encourages environmentally-responsible farming practices).

Mixed Woodland

Mixed indigenous woodland is best for biodiversity, habitats and leisure.  DEFRA therefore wants to encourage a mix of species, (with the mix depending on local conditions, including soil, flood risk, and habitats).

Creating local employment

Woodland provides the potential for local employment, especially once woodland is harvested for timber. The timber has to be cut, transported, processed to create products (such as building panels), and finally marketed and sold. All these activities can be outsourced or used to strengthen the local economy.

Timber Products in the Building Industry

The building construction industry is responsible for almost 40% of world-wide carbon emissions much of which is associated with the use of cement, bricks and steel. Timber building construction therefore has huge scope for reducing the carbon emissions associated with conventional construction methods. Timber can be engineered to create building products which are strong, safe and long lasting. These products are growing in popularity for use in small and large buildings, and this trend is likely to accelerate as a powerful way to fight climate change. The UK currently imports 80% of its timber for construction, and so there is great scope for developing a domestic timber industry.

Mjøstårnet (Trondheim) (280ft) is the world’s tallest wooden building

The Black and White Office Building, Shoreditch, opened in 2023, is a timber construction

The Phoenix Project, South Downs National Park, is a proposed timber development which, if approved, will sequester 500,000 tonnes of CO2 

Developing and Implementing a Woodland Plan

We are working on a Woodland Planning Guide for Parish Online which aims to provide data and advice for councils which want to develop a proactive woodland plan. We expect to publish this guide early next year, but some of the key datasets are already published in Parish Online as described below:

Step 1: Existing Trees

Parish Online now contains a Friends of the Earth map of all the existing trees in Britain. This provides an excellent starting point for thinking about a woodland plan because it shows where trees can be planted to strengthen the vital connections between existing wooded areas. 

Step 2: Woodland Opportunity Areas

Friends of the Earth (with the support of Terra Sulis) have also provided Parish Online with an analysis of the key woodland opportunity areas (shown in the hatched green polygons). These areas exclude higher priority habitats, SSSIs, historic sites such as battlefields and high quality agricultural land (on the assumption that it should be reserved for agriculture).

Step 3: Map Planning Constraints

The next step is for the council to exclude any areas designated for development in the Local or Neighbourhood plans. Typically, these areas will include land earmarked for residential, retail, business or infrastructure development. Landscape considerations, such as the protection of views, may also limit the scope for new woodland.

Step 4: Land Ownership Polygons

Using the existing trees and the main woodland opportunity areas as a rough guide, a council can now overlay land registry polygons and start to gauge the interest of local landowners. The map below shows that a (fictional) landowner Fred Woods is interested in the opportunity to create new woodland.  

Step 5: Consider Optimum Woodland Schemes

The interested landowners must now be involved with the council in deciding what planting schemes to apply for. This is likely to be the most complicated and time-consuming step and is likely to require extensive compromise between several different factors including:
  1. Woodland objectives from the point of view of biodiversity, carbon sequestration, carbon storage, eco-system services and the local economy
  2. The tree species best suited to the local soil, water and weather conditions
  3. The wishes of each landowner, which may not be in line with the wider area woodland objectives. For instance, at a council level the woodland scheme may favour a densely planted corridor of trees to connect two existing woodland areas to support wildlife. But this may not suit some of the affected landowners who have the absolute right not to take part in the scheme. So, the council and the landowners must work together to find compromises.
The local Forestry Commission Woodland Creation Officer will usually be available to support the council and the landowners in developing the best practical woodland scheme.

Step 6: Apply for grants and Forestry Commission Certification

The final step is to apply for grants and for Forestry Commission Certification of the woodland scheme. There are many grants available to support the costs of planning, planting and managing new woodland schemes. In addition, there are grants available under the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO) for the benefits delivered by the new woodland (biodiversity, carbon, ecosystem services etc). There is also the potential to sell Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) credits to the principal authority to offset the carbon costs of new developments in the area.

Other Notes: Woodland Plans and Biodiversity Duty

There is a very large overlap between woodland creation and the emerging Biodiversity Duty guidance (which includes the Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) regulations). see https://www.gov.uk/guidance/complying-with-the-biodiversity-duty#who-must-comply-with-the-biodiversity-duty. This creates a problem because the Biodiversity Duty guidance is very immature and there is a temptation to delay woodland creation planning until the rules are clear. For example, the Biodiversity Duty anticipates the creation of 50 Local Nature Recovery Strategies which will guide biodiversity action planning (including woodland). But none of these Local Nature Recovery Strategies has yet been published, and this creates the temptation to delay woodland planning until the rules are clear. But our advice is not to delay action – woodland planning will be a long process in any case, and it’s best to get started as soon as possible as the climate emergency requires urgent action.

Other Notes: Collaboration with the Principal Authority and other parties

A key lesson emerging from our woodland planning project is for parishes to work together in a team and in collaboration with the principal authority, the local Biodiversity Information Centre, and the local Forestry Commission Woodland Creation Officer. This collaboration minimises the cost and effort involved in the project. It also reduces the friction that can arise if parish woodland ambitions diverge from the principal authority’s ideas – in the end Parish Neighbourhood and Climate Plans need to be consistent with District-level Local Plans, and so it makes sense to harmonise the plans from the very beginning.

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