Water companies in England have announced plans to plant 11 million trees, as part of a wider commitment to improve the natural environment and to support the industry’s Public Interest Commitment goal of achieving a carbon neutral water industry by 2030.
Trees will be planted on around 6,000 hectares of land across England. There will also be work to restore original woodland and improve natural habitats, which will include hedgerows and grasslands as well as trees.
While some of this land is owned by the water companies themselves, additional land will be provided by partners such as local authorities, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB. Local partnerships with councils and regional NGOs will ensure that projects include urban tree planting.
The industry already has plans in place to plant the first 2.5 million of the 11 million trees. It said the next priority will be to identify additional sites across England which are appropriate for tree planting or habitat restoration. The Woodland Trust has agreed to work with all the water companies to help identify sites and manage the planting programme once it is developed.
The move follows an explicit call to the industry to support government tree planting targets. Former environment secretary Michael Gove included the call in a January 2019 letter to Water UK chair Sir Brian Bender, commenting on Ofwat’s Initial Assessment of PR19 Business Plans. He said: “I also look forward to hearing more about the role of the sector in planting trees. Woodland creation is a key part of the 25 Year Environment Plan. This government has a commitment to planting 11 million trees by 2022, and an additional one million in urban areas. Water companies could be a key partner in helping the government to achieve these ambitions and I encourage them to meet with the Defra Tree Champion, Sir William Worsley.”
Commenting on the new announcement, Worsley said: “I welcome this pledge from England’s water companies, who have clearly seen the value in planting trees and acknowledged the vital role they will play in helping us to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Trees are carbon sinks, provide crucial habitats for precious wildlife, mitigate flood risk and provide a valuable renewable resource in timber – and I encourage other industries to follow Water UK’s excellent example to ensure we boost planting rates across the country.”
Water UK pointed out water companies already have a strong track record on habitat conservation and tree planting. It said: “For example, United Utilities has already planted around 800,000 trees since 2005 and is committed to a further 440,000 in the next five years, primarily across urban environments. Severn Trent has planted over 500,000 trees since 2015 and plans are in place for 250,000 trees to be planted in the next five years. In addition, Anglian Water has plans to plant a million trees, hedging plants and shrubs in urban areas, as part of a 25-year initiative.”
The commitment has been widely welcomed by environmental groups.