County Hall is facing furious criticism after it announced plans to use taxpayers' money to buy up huge tracts of countryside so it can meet its own tree-planting pledge.

Norfolk County Council, which is currently having to make £60m of cuts and savings, said it intends to purchase around 800 acres of land in order to hit its aim of planting one million new trees by 2025.

It says the scheme will create a new 'country park' for the public.

But critics claim it will cost at least £10m just to buy the necessary land and that the project is a "desperate" attempt by the Conservative-controlled council to achieve a target it is currently far from hitting.

One of the region's former MEPs described it as a "waste of money" which would see vast sums of cash transferred from taxpayers to the wealthy landowners selling their property to the council.

The authority announced in November 2019 that it would plant a million trees within five years in an effort to help the county achieve net zero carbon status by 2030.

Diss Mercury: 500,000 new trees could be planted in a new country park for Norfolk500,000 new trees could be planted in a new country park for Norfolk (Image: Press Association)

But so far only 250,000 have been planted. To get the scheme back on track, the council wants to buy land in south Norfolk for a further 500,000 trees, which will absorb atmospheric carbon.

Opposition councillors said the idea was a "desperate bid" by Tory leaders to avoid the embarrassment of failing to hit its tree-planting target, rather than a carefully considered proposal.

Diss Mercury: Labour county councillor Maxine WebbLabour county councillor Maxine Webb (Image: Maxine Webb)

Labour county councillor Maxine Webb said: "Labour are huge backers of tree planting. But this smacks of a desperate bid to make up for failing to get close to the one million tree target.

"The timescale is late, there’s no co-ordinated plan. This feels like an undeliverable grand gesture, poorly thought through.

"We estimate the cost of the land alone will be at least £10m, plus the cost of trees, planting and maintenance.

"A country park is great, but they have no idea where. Conjuring up a site of over 800 acres, without damaging food production capacity, is a tall order."

Diss Mercury: Stuart AgnewStuart Agnew (Image: Archant)

Stuart Agnew, a former UKIP MEP for the region, said the scheme was "utter drivel".

"It's a complete waste of taxpayers' money. There are lots of good reasons for planting trees, but doing it to hit an arbitrary target is utter drivel," he said.

"What we are seeing across the whole country is people buying up land to plant trees so they can virtue signal their greenness.

"The whole thing is a complete scam and it will take land out of agricultural production."

The council blames the Covid pandemic for delaying its tree-planting project.

County Hall's tree projects team was asked to come up with ways for the authority to hit the target.

Diss Mercury: County Hall in NorwichCounty Hall in Norwich (Image: Mike Page)

Ideas included joining forces with other organisations or planting more on the farms which are owned by the authority and rented out to tenants.

But officers concluded those approaches would not lead to the target being achieved, so suggested 500,000 could be planted in a new country park, of at least 820 acres.

A location has yet to be identified, although officers favour finding a site in south Norfolk. They say more than one site might be needed.

Diss Mercury: Some of the first trees which were planted as part of Norfolk County Council's planting driveSome of the first trees which were planted as part of Norfolk County Council's planting drive (Image: Norfolk Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group)

The cost of such a project is also yet to be revealed, but council documents say "this proposal has significant financial implications which will need to be carefully considered".

The documents also say there would be a cost to maintain the site, although the Forestry Commission would fund that for the first 10 years.

Diss Mercury: Conservative county councillor James BenslyConservative county councillor James Bensly (Image: Liz Coates)

James Bensly, chair of the council's infrastructure and development select committee, which will discuss the proposals on Wednesday (May 17), said: "The exciting proposal to create a new country park fits well with our ongoing Greenways to Greenspaces project, that’s opening up access to nature to many more residents and visitors to our beautiful county.

"I look forward to being able to consider the details and discuss this proposal with fellow councillors."

Labour councillors said the council could have planted some of the trees on the Holt Hall site, the former education centre which the authority sold to Gresham's School.

Diss Mercury: Holt HallHolt Hall (Image: Archant Norfolk 2015)




Norfolk County Council's bid to plant a million trees within five years grew from a motion brought to full council by independent councillor Sandra Squire.

That came as the Conservative-controlled council came under pressure to do more to tackle climate change.

The goal was for Norfolk to achieve a net gain of one million trees, to help towards the authority’s ambition to become carbon neutral by 2030.

But, with the clock ticking on the 2025 target, the council is some way off from reaching one million trees.

The Covid pandemic certainly interrupted the project, preventing people from getting out and about and planting trees.

It has been clear for some time that the authority was struggling to get to where it needed to be.

The council attempted to boost how many were being planted by encouraging people to plant trees to mark the Queen's jubilee and her death.

Yet, so far, only about 250,000 trees have been planted, with just two more tree planting seasons to come before the five year project comes to a close.

Council leaders, clearly growing worried at the potential embarrassment failing to hit the tree target would bring, asked council officers to think of ways to help get to the one million figure.

It is impossible not to raise eyebrows at the sudden suggestion, which has never been part of the thinking, publicly at least, to buy 800 acres of land to build a new country park, where 500,000 trees can be planted.

Critics say that smacks of desperation. Is this a case of the council, which, remember, is having to save £60m, with jobs on the line, being prepared to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers' cash to save political face.

Country parks can be wonderful, but they need careful planning when it comes to infrastructure and access. It does not auger well if the main motivation behind one is to spare the blushes of politicians for failure.

And should landowners, who would sell the council the land, really be getting richer as a result?

We all know there are pressing reasons to address climate change.

The danger is that such seemingly ill-thought-through schemes will only undermine public support for the cause.