Background to the report

Trees can provide a range of environmental and social benefits, and the government has committed to increasing tree-planting rates across the UK. In May 2021, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) published its England Trees Action Plan 2021 to 2024. This sets out the actions government will take this Parliament, in partnership with the private sector, the third sector and communities, to set England on course to at least treble woodland planting rates by March 2025.

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To achieve the government’s tree-planting target, Defra has established the Nature for Climate Fund Tree Programme (the Programme). The Programme aims to fund the planting of trees to enable government to be on the trajectory required to achieve the target of 7,500 hectares a year by 2025 while also achieving additional environmental objectives such as improving biodiversity and air quality. It has three tree-planting projects, each of which comprises a range of different grant schemes and funds, and three ‘enabling’ projects, covering communications, increasing the supply of tree seeds and saplings, and promotion and engagement.

Scope of the report

This report evaluates whether Defra’s management of the Programme is likely to achieve value for money. Our study examines:

  • how Defra has implemented the Programme (Part One);
  • how likely Defra is to achieve the aims of the Programme by March 2025 (Part Two); and
  • the risks that Defra needs to manage to ensure the Programme achieves and maintains a longer-term increase in woodland coverage from 2025 to 2050 (Part Three).

Report conclusions

Defra has worked quickly under challenging circumstances to launch seven new grant schemes and partnerships in time for the 2021-22 planting season. However, moving at such pace has left gaps in the Programme. For example, its monitoring and evaluation framework will not be in place until after the end of the first planting season, which means it will not be fully sighted on performance against wider environmental benefits, including biodiversity, and limits the lessons it can draw from the Programme’s early stages. There are now several significant challenges that it will need to address if it is to achieve its ambitious target, including increasing and sustaining landowner interest, ensuring there are sufficient skills on the ground to support tree-planting, and expanding the supply of saplings. It also needs to secure the active support of other parts of government to plant trees on their land and incorporate tree-planting in, for example, planning rules and infrastructure projects.

Despite Defra’s efforts, new tree-planting in 2021-22 looks set to be well short of what it set out to achieve. This makes its 2025 target and a continued increase beyond 2025 to the levels required for the government’s net zero strategy look all the more challenging. Defra’s Future Forestry Project, launched in October 2021, will explore the longer-term challenges and a range of fundamental policy changes, but Defra is not yet doing enough to establish where the foundations for longer-term delivery – nursery capacity, the sector workforce, private investment and public engagement – need to be by 2025 to set up a sustainable increase in tree-planting. Without managing the Programme more firmly in the context of the long-term picture, Defra is unlikely to achieve value for money.

“Defra has done well to launch new schemes to support landowners to plant trees. Yet despite its efforts, it is not expecting to achieve the amount of new tree-planting in 2021-22 that it set out to, and should have done more to make sure its targets were realistic.

“There are significant challenges Defra will need to address if it is to achieve its ambitious targets and support government’s wider Net Zero agenda. These include sustaining the interest of landowners, ensuring there are sufficient skills on the ground and securing the active support of other parts of government.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (4 Mar 2022)

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