Collaborative management of the Mersey Forest in North West England
The Mersey Forest was established in 1991 and is a network of woodland and green spaces in the north west of England. It is the largest Community Forest in the UK and the boundaries range from North Cheshire to Warrington, to Sefton in the North. The area has suffered from an array of lasting historical, social, economic and environmental issues. Throughout the 1980s there was a major shift in industry in North West UK, there were many coal mining communities that were all put out of work by the closure of the mines . The Mersey Forest team are a dedicated and passionate group who intend to tackle some of the deep-rooted issues through green infrastructure planning and partnership working.
The three core aims of the Mersey Forest is to, firstly attract investment and strengthen the local economy, second, boosting health and wellbeing in the area, and third, getting the most from woods and people’s local woodlands. It was a reaction to the drastic land use policy change in the 1980s, to 'bring forestry down from the hills' .
The area only had 4% forest cover when the project was established in 1991, and the woodland that was there, was in very poor condition. They were neglected and the costs were too high for any improvement to be made. A ‘negative feedback cycle was evident’ . In the latest Mersey Forest plan, released in 2014, there is a commitment to reaching 20% forest cover in the boundaries of the area, 1370km2, this is up from 12% on the original long term plan.
The direction and governance is defined by the Mersey Forest plan. It has been written primarily in accordance with the government forest standard, UKFS (UK Forest Standard), and not only with the values of the Mersey Forest team, but those of the combined partnership . The document is public and widely promoted, as it sets the key policies of the delivery of the Mersey Forest, this enhances transparency and allows anyone to take an interest in the working of the forest. Day to day governance is directed by the Mersey Forest Steering group and Working groups. The steering group is comprised of representatives from each of seven local authorities, they work together through the Mersey Forest partnership agreement, a legal arrangement. Representatives from the partner groups are invited to these meetings, and decisions are made at these meetings about steps taken in the future.
Green infrastructure and woodland regeneration is central to alleviating some of these deep-seated problems in the area. The vision is to achieve ‘more from trees’  the Mersey forest strategy is well complemented by community-scale green infrastructure planning and delivery. Green infrastructure is defined on the Mersey Forest Website as ‘our life support system - the network of trees, parks, green spaces, canals and rivers that lies within and between our towns and cities.’ .
To make it an even better place to live and work, and to achieve the targets set out in the Mersey Forest Plan, partnership working had been adopted as one of the key methods to generate change. These partnerships have been built across a huge range of different stakeholders, the core partners have been the Forestry Commission in England, Natural England, the Environment Agency and the seven local councils across the Mersey Forest, as well as landowners, local businesses and central to it all the local communities .
There are diverse groups of affected stakeholders in the boundaries of the Mersey Forest. Historically individuals in the area have relied on the land for income, through various means, loosely forming groups based on this. There were many coal mining communities before the mine closures throughout the 80s. Plus there has been a reliance on agriculture, to this day 50% of the land in St. Helens is used for this. To the south, in Cheshire, there is large wealth inequality, it is historically where many Liverpool and Manchester based football players live, but also has some very high levels of deprivation in the UK context. The affected stakeholders in the case of the Mersey Forest do not rely on the land for their livelihood in the way many indigenous peoples across the world do, for subsistance. Some do through commercial agriculture, but for those that do not, deep connections to the land remain. There is a plethora of landowners in the area, the Mersey Forest team help to deliver the aspirations of these landowners .
There is a huge array of interested stakeholders. The partnership working has allowed vast number of relationships to be made with a variety of partners. The core interested stakeholders (who have a legal arrangement as part of the Mersey Forest Partnership) are the Forestry Commission, Natural England, the Environment Agency, and the local authorities within the boundaries of the Mersey Forest (Cheshire West and Cheshire, Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St. Helens, Warrington) . There are several European partners involved, who assist on project that are EU funded. As well as partners on climate change, plus other partners who aid with funding such as the Big Lottery ).
In the UK, there is a history of inequity in land ownership . This is not different in the Mersey Forest area. There are a large range of land ownership arrangements across the Mersey Forest, the different woodlands in the different local councils tend to have differing tenure regimes. However, there are some key land owners across the Mersey Forest. These include, the Forestry Commission, private landowners and the respective local authorities. Bold Forest Park has a complex tenure regime, there are a variety of owners. The key owners are St. Helens Council, Community Forest Trust, Community Forest Land Trust, and the Forestry Commission .
Another example is Clinkham Wood, in St. Helens, owned by the local authority, the final responsibility ultimately resides with them (i.e. they have exclusion, withdrawal and alienation rights). This shows how much trust is given to the community groups, and what it can mean to the pride of the community, to play a part in looking after the woodlands on behalf of the local council . In all the woodlands, bar some privately owned woods, public access can granted for basic recreational use. These woodlands have been created and enhanced for local people to use, each area has a differing case attached to it, and differing circumstances dictate what is able to happen in each woodland.
Use rights are granted to local people who own wood burning stoves and open fires, or desire firewood for any purpose. .The wood allotment scheme gives the chance to go into young forests and extract trees which have been demarcated in young woodland. This concept allows people with relatively low knowledge in the forest to get involved and get a hand on chance to harvest logs on a small scale. The trees are small enough to be cut with a hand saw, yet can produce good sized logs, thus the participants can get some basic training in safety, without having to have intensive or long term training. The opportunity for this project has been granted by the work of the Mersey Forest due to the work done twenty years ago of planting areas of woodland, which are now coming to the age which needs thinning. There are many benefits to this scheme, it’s a great way to engage new stakeholders with local woodlands, and its flexibility allows site owners to be pragmatic and fit the principles to the local situations. The scheme has been piloted, and proved extremely popular, and has now run for three years  .
The trend in the England is community woodlands have less production objectives, but recreation and conservation objectives, compared to a wider UK context (as the UK has a low total of timber produced, England in a global standing is very low). This follows in the Mersey Forest. Some, but not many of woodlands are currently viable for log extraction. A key aim in the future, upon the maturing of some of the woodlands, is to increase the level of high quality timber extracted from Mersey Forest woodlands . The English Forest policy statement in 2013 called for an enhancement of English timber production, with an emphasis on deciduous wood . Much of the new woodland planted by the Mersey Forest is native broadleaf species, complying with the policy statement, showing top down influence in the governance of the Mersey Forest 
From the genesis of the Mersey Forest, to the present day there has seen an organic evolution in how it has been governed and administered . Core throughout the evolution, has been partnership working. It began, a more top-down approach, national government giving local authorities mandate and resources for being the thrusting force for influencing change  . 'Friends of' groups were created and were offered funding, in the hope that it would eventually produce profits, the government did not want their money going down the drain, and for the residents and members of these community groups to do something constructive with it . These friends of groups are open to anybody from the community, that wish to and can get involved, allowing representation to whoever would like it, but excluding those unable to due to lack of time.
The Mersey Forest team works both with and for partners, through five key points: working with landowners to provide guidance to enable land transformation to take place, helping communities to engage, generating funds, marketing and promotion, research and development and finding a more cost effective or new ways to achieve objectives. The team coordinate the partnership working, with help from local councils and the TCV (The Conservation volunteers) . They get forest partners, Forestry Commission England are instrumental in many projects, the Woodland Trust also play a part in the delivery of the Mersey Forest, as well as other partners, including Natural England and the environment agency . They help local communities, who in many cases do not know a great deal about their forest area. Explanation on how to manage it responsibly, and using the money given originally, for training and implementation to take place, and enable responsible forest management to take place .
The Steering Group is they key to the successful delivery of the Mersey Forest. Defined by the Partnership Agreement, the role of the Steering Group is, to 'give advice ... on implementation of any plan, the budget and other financial matter, including performance monitoring, best value and and staffing'. The Project Director of the Mersey Forest Team reports to the Steering Group on these, amongst other issues. The Steering Group is attended by members from the local authorities involved, supported by the link officer from each. Representatives from core partners (Natural England, Forestry Commission and Environment Agency) are also in the Steering group and the chair is an independent private sector chair. Decisions are voted on, with each member having a single vote, with the chair having the casting vote. Steering Group members represent their particular constituent group and make sure the money they have put into the project has been used sensibly and effectively. As well as this scrutiny, they are encouraged to take pride in the assistance of the delivery of, and enhancement of the Mersey Forest in accordance to the Mersey Forest Plan. They are encouraged to spread the word and present opportunities for other potential partners within their wider network.
Crucial to the planning of the Mersey forest is the statutory planning system. The National policy framework declares that 'an approved Community Forest plan may be a material consideration in preparing development plans and deciding planning applications' . Local authorities provide local plans, which give the setting for new developments. These plans are supported by the Mersey Forest team to prevent 'unacceptable loss or damage to trees'. Local authorities can also help and fund the Mersey Forest through various means. Funding of the forest and new projects is done looking at the long term. This is enabled due to the investment model taken, which is excellent value for investors, thus is an attractive prospect. Income streams are matched to others, depending on the project. Funding for the Mersey Forest can be grouped into four main categories: 'grants, consultancy work, corporate social responsibility, and unrestricted donations' . The funding is secured through work by the team, and backing it up with the latest evidence based research to show how crucial it can be to a range of sectors .
The Mersey Forest are not limited to forest partners, many are from wider areas, such as local, to international level, public, and private businesses and NGOs . Each partner plays a different role, helping to achieve delivery of community scale green infrastructure. This comes under four distinct types: ‘formal group (active), formal group (inactive), informal group and project’ – these are distinguished by different governance . They do this through setting policy, providing resources and delivering on the ground . Becoming a partner of the Mersey Forest is an attractive prospect to many as it is not just helping the Mersey Forest, but the wider area, all sectors can be enhanced by the success of the forest. Benefits are provided both ways. This is exemplified by the interaction between the Mersey Forest and the Landowners they ‘are frequently supported with the management and evaluation of projects at many occasions by the Mersey Forest team for many separate parcels of land’. The advice given is valued by the landowners so many are keen to get involved in the project .
In 1991, the Mersey Forest Partnership set out with a vision, one that would take a great deal of dedication, effort, time and compromise to fulfil. The challenges faced at the beginning of the project were plentiful, tensions between groups of local, affected stakeholders, was a problem they had to overcome, plus health issues of many of these local people. Along with a variety other social issues, including apathy of local people to the lack of their natural environment. The toxic natural environment was and is another hurdle, and required a great deal of ecological restoration. There were limited resources, this was another hurdle they had to overcome. Partnership working has been instrumental in dealing with these issues, made easier by the number of partners that have got involved. Making the Mersey forest an attractive partner has been key to this too, coordinating well and managing to provide benefits to all parties.
The inclusion of networking and multi-community forest group events is an example of excellent inclusion and the opportunity to have these workshops can be very constructive, allowing different groups from across the UK to share their experiences. These could be improving by widening the scope, and getting people from across the world to share their experiences, rather than just English community forest schemes . This is exemplified on a smaller scale by the Sefton Coast Landscape Partnership, which has undertaken evaluation and review, to learn lessons on partnership working and how they can improve going forward .
The fact that 9 million trees planted is a good tool for raising awareness of the good work done in the Mersey Forest . 9 million is a figure that would catch the eye of many who have little interest in such project. Some may not be aware of the benefits of forest cover and green infrastructure in the UK due to the meagre 12% forest cover across the country, and a general loss of a woodland culture across the UK, England, more so than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Many projects undertaken required a large amount of work, in most sites, especially those on spoil heaps required ecological restoration, and ground restoration to reduce toxicity. There are difficulties with planting on brownfield sites, in this case it was especially difficult as ‘pollution control measures were non-existent, and records of waste composition were not maintained. Lack of adequate soil depth, inadequate rootable material, poor drainage, and escaping landfill gas and leachates have created difficulties for vegetation establishment’ .
The three core aims of the Mersey Forest, attracting investment, boosting health and, getting the most from woods , whether these have been successfully fulfilled is a good measure of whether the Mersey Forest has been a success. Thus far, there is no doubt, these core aims have been addressed. The Mersey forest has been key in delivering the national governments rural vision set out in the 2012 statement of ‘businesses and thriving rural communities in a “living, working countryside”, based around three priorities: economic growth, rural Engagement and quality of Life’ .
Forestry used to improve health conditions in the area is a great tool as it provides ‘front of pipe’ and ‘end of pipe’ health benefits, in other words, encourages a healthy lifestyle to prevent illness, and can be used to help people recover after a serious illness or injury . There has been hunger among local people to increase their physical activity, The Mersey Forest’s REACT programme worked to try to do just that in 2004, and had great results. Programmes in this sector has come a long way since that. There are new programmes to address this issue currently. The Natural Health Service has been developed to help tackle increasing health issues across some sections of the population in particularly deprived areas. Through use of the natural environment, GPs and other bodies who provide health services will be able to use the natural environment created, for five main deliverables; 'health walking, Mindful Contact with Nature, Forest Schools, horticulture therapy and practical conservation such as Green Gym.' . Funding issues are rife on the National Health Service in the UK, so to lessen the burden by use of the Natural Health Service, who fund from elsewhere, will have wider positive benefits, and allow people to use nature to increase their health .
The goal posts, in terms of trees planted, have changed from the birth of the organisation, originally, the Mersey Forest Team were aiming for 12% forest cover, and they have moved it to now 20% , this shows unbridled success from the original plan, to the most recent one. Getting children and the wider community to do woodland planting, such as in the Big Tree Plant  and in Kingsley Primary school in Liverpool , is an excellent method of woodland regeneration, as they will naturally become attached to the woodland they planted, throughout their lives, they will return to the woodland and be able to point out the tree they planted. This increases the connection of children to their local environment and to nature, they will begin to value it as theirs and take more responsibility, as opposed to the some of the young people who currently use their green space to set fire to wheelie bins and as a refuge for drug abuse.
The power dynamic of the Mersey Forest is complex. Each partner has the amount of power they are granted during the partnership meetings. The core partners and have great influence in the decision-making process, and general delivery. There are some issues, on a community level, with engagement within the some community groups, as many people who must keep their livelihoods going and do not have the time or resources to get involved in woodland management. This could potentially create resentment of those who are involved. This will not help bridge the gap between the community groups.
Underpinning the success of the Mersey Forest is the Mersey Forest Team, their dedication is something they should be very proud of, and to have got the success they have in the circumstances they were faced with in 1991 is a marvellous achievement. Many people in Merseyside and North Cheshire are very thankful for all the work that has been done, to know this, one just must look at the level of community engagement as the Mersey Forest project has developed over time. 65% of people say their environment has improved thanks to the work of the Mersey Forest 
The Mersey Forests great success has made a huge difference to people’s lives in the Merseyside and North Cheshire area, they have done what they can with the resources available and made incredible partnerships. There are some recommendations and things to consider going forward.
A great deal of funding across a range of projects has been from international partners within the EU, the streams of funding are called into question in the aftermath of Brexit. It could have serious implication to the funding across the area. This may mean stronger partnerships with domestic bodies are required, or perhaps looking elsewhere for assistance, North America, for example. Many lessons can be learnt from the Canadian Model of community forestry, though the environmental context is very different, in the long term the ideals should be shared.
Once the 20% forest cover target has been reached, ecosystem and community based continuous cover forestry could work very well to maintain the aesthetic and cultural value, while also generating income from the woods and offering employment to local people and increasing their connection to the land. A local forestry industry could be a genuine possibility, in 1991 no one could have imagined this. Young people who have been involved in the planting of these woodlands will have nurtured their attachment to various sites would likely be very happy to go back and work in forest they, or their parents had created. In the shorter term, as the woodlands mature, those trained in thinning in the woodlots could extend their training and could help the wider community by potentially having independent timber auctions on site, introducing wider communities to the idea and making the link for some, between a tree stump and benefits, while keeping the image of clear-cuts out of mind.
I wish to extend a special thanks to Clare Olver who has aided me with material for this page, as well as telling me in person about the Mersey Forest in February 2017, and Carl Smethurst, who led me on a tour through Colliers Moss in Bold Forest Park on the same, very rainy, day.
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