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Wood using businesses and the rural economy: the future is small scale and local

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If I hear any more eulogizing of the local scale biomass combined heat and power (CHP) plant proposed for Discovery Park, near Sandwich Kent, I will weep. Ok, so it will provide jobs and, according to the publicity, it will produce up to 11 MW power and 8 MW heat: enough energy to power 21,000 homes, all beneficial, but it will also generate many lorry movements and threaten some of our most sensitive ancient woodlands with industrial forestry.

These larger infrastructure projects are part of the solution but only part. Is this really the only idea we can come up with in the 21st century to reduce our carbon footprint: a giant bonfire?

The technology for zero carbon homes is mainstream. We are quite capable of not leaving our gadgets on standby. We have other high value and more efficient uses for poor quality timber than wood chip: we can make low impact building materials from small dimension, poorer quality logs and use log wood close to it's origin in clean burn domestic log burners and boilers. Small scale and local solutions are more resilient and more flexible.

The Weald has a proud history of wood utilisation. It was one of the largest tracks of woodland in early medieval England and even today retains nearly a third woodland cover, three times the national average. Woodland has played a key role in the social and economic development of the Weald. Wood was used for a multitude of different uses and supported many industries and many skilled craftsmen and women.

When the Romans returned to Britain in 43AD they were keen to control what was then one of the best iron producing regions in Northern Europe with its ready access to charcoal, made in the nearby woodlands, for processing. The banks of the River Rother, with fine oaks available in the forested hinterland, were centres of medieval ship building. Imagine the degree of skill, craftsmanship and ingenuity required to select the necessary timbers, roughly fashion them and transport them along muddy sunken tracks and shallow rivers to the coast to be made into ships such as the 1000 ton ‘Jesus’ built for Henry V and one of the largest ships in medieval England. That same craftsmanship and ready access to local timber has given us a legacy of timber framed farm buildings: the highest concentration surviving in northern Europe and a key component of what makes the High Weald one of the most beautiful landscapes in the UK. And then there are the many other items - wooden barrels for storing and transporting goods; woven baskets, tool handles, log wood for fuel, chestnut hurdles and fencing – all vital for everyday life until recent times.

600 years later and with 21st century technology at our fingertips, all we can think of to do with the wealth of timber all around us is to heap it up into a huge bonfire and burn it.  We appear to have neither the curiosity nor ingenuity to utilise these vast resources, provided for free by nature, to meet our other needs – to build affordable homes; to substitute for the plastic packaging we discard in huge qualities; to support our young people in industries that are sustainable. And what of the unintended consequences of investing in a single simplified solution: the driving down of timber prices so that only industrial woodland management can deliver the raw material cheap enough; the destruction of extensive woodland archaeology by timber harvesting machinery, and the loss of those traditional woodcutting skills crucial to managing steep sided, small and sensitive ancient woodlands? 

Imagine for a minute that the same level of financial support had been invested in the coppice industry and small scale wood using businesses - providing funds for research and development to produce low cost modular housing components; small loans for developing woodland businesses or training a new generation of heating engineers to deliver integrated domestic renewable energy systems? We can only hope that the biomass CHP plant proposed for Discovery Park is in the vanguard of resurgence in small scale local wood using enterprises in the Weald. 

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