WELSH GOVT ‘NATURE FUND’

On January 5, 2014, in Uncategorized, by vic
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The WG has a £6m fund for Nature. Terrific news! Or maybe not, having attended a WG workshop seeking proposals on how to spend the pot. Apart from basic problems (parking etc), the half-day was quite insufficient for the aim and format. The large round-table discussions I participated in were almost entirely unproductive, with no chairperson, and loud mouths monopolising the discussions. But the main problem was that there appeared to be a hidden agenda to utilise the fund only for projects that would produce a financial return, so straightforward suggestions on spending that would assist wildlife were not good enough. It seems that the first priority was to ensure that the £6m benefits the economy, with any practical support for Nature coming a poor second.
Depressing, but not too much of a surprise given the WG policies that are becoming apparent – as much development in open countryside and urban green spaces as developers will build on, wind factories ad nauseam on the precious Welsh uplands, a motorway through 5 SSSIs on the Gwent Levels, unrealistic agri-environment schemes that cut subsidies to farmers and minimally benefit wildlife…. and so on. The environment and natural resources are being sidelined, everything must be sacrificed to economic growth. Even if that hits Wales biggest industry – tourism.
Without much hope I have suggested the following: -
1. To replace the critical loss of local authority ecologists (and probably also WG ecological resources), who were beginning to make a positive difference. It is clear that most LAs are finding ecologists and other environmental resources the easiest cuts to make in this time of public service reduction, and the positive activities of promoting biodiversity, educating, co-ordinating and raising awareness will cease. The remaining ecologists will be reduced to commenting on planning applications. Perhaps this could be achieved by way of working with existing relevant organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts.
2. It is quite clear that the Welsh planning strategy is for growth, including as much greenfield development as developers want, resulting in continuous and substantial loss of countryside and wildlife habitats and corridors. Some of the funding should be used to assess the effects of this strategy, and whether / how changes should be made to comply with biodiversity targets.
3. Speaking as a farmer’s husband, the current agri-environment policies are not working, either to assist hill farming or the environment. Again, some of the funding should be used to produce more realistic and effective eco subsidies.
4. There seems to me to be an almost complete lack of eco education for youngsters nowadays – use the fund to assist schools or establish other youth groups to get children away from their games machines, enjoy local green spaces, generate a sense of place, and grow adults with more appreciation of the natural world and its benefits for humanity.
5. Leverage – use some of the funding for projects for Welsh ecological and environmental organisations (including higher education bodies) to carry out for WG.
6. To mention the one semi-realistic possibility that I heard at the Merthyr workshop, use funding to kick-start a project removing diseased larch, selling the timber, and planting suitable replacement woodlands and other habitats.

I hope I am wrong, and we find the £6m really does produce a sea change in our declining Welsh natural environment. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Given the difficulties that environmentalists have had over the years to get Torfaen County Borough to understand our concerns about sacrificing green fields to the gods of growth and ‘development’, it is quite a shock to find a Biodiversity Management System being proposed, as a pilot, for addressing strategic land-use issues (particularly the current Local Development Plan process). Perhaps it is a consequence of the authority’s shock at the decision by the Council to change its collective mind on the large-scale South Sebastopol development.

Whatever the reason, the draft Torfaen Biodiversity Action Plan is at first glance an exciting and innovative new way of bringing biodiversity in from the cold, to be a main consideration in planning strategy, rather than a minor issue which needs only lip service to sideline and ignore. At the same time, one can sense that there may be dangers in establishing formal Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) in this area, if that is the aim. We may gain protection for some valuable green areas, but at the expense of defining other green areas as developable – or so it will be claimed by speculators. At the time of the first South Sebastopol, the planner stated at the Council meeting that Countryside Council for Wales had not objected, so the planning application should be approved; ignoring the fact that CCW’s brief was limited to commenting on statutorily protected areas only (National Parks, AONBs etc) - or so the CCW Chairman told me. (The brief seems to have widened since then).

The gist of this new strategy for biodiversity is: -

1. The need for this was identified from review of the Torfaen Local Biodiversity Action Plan (LBAP) and conflict within the Local Development Plan (LDP) - I assume the LBAP was being pretty well ignored in the LDP process. The failure of WAG to hit its target to halt biodiversity decline by 2010 must have been due in part to the failure of local authorities to take it seriously.

2. But give someone in Torfaen their due, a consultant was instructed to do something about it, and here is the first step. The ‘Early Draft’ says that it is designed towards  ’mainstreaming biodiversity’ and ‘encouraging public engagement’. Also that ‘ … the value of ecosystem services has been undervalued …’   Most environmentalists would applaud the latter statement. We shall see if it suceeds – but in Torfaen there is hope, in the wake of this current Council’s conversion to enlightenment at South Sebastopol  

3. The points I took away from a recent meeting on the draft strategy were: -

a) Six ecosystem types considered; b) a database (GIS) of all green areas in Torfaen based on this classification to be produced; c) a framework to be established for each (presumably for conservation / enhancement); d) prioritising these areas into 4 ‘Tiers of Value’, defined as Tier 1 – protect, Tier 2 – trade, Tier 3 – ignore, Tier 4 – Enhance;          e)  then applying all this to potential development.

Tier 1 is the gold standard - if it works well, no Tier 1 classified land will be developed. The contentious element is of course the ‘trade’ proposal. Development of Tier 2 areas would be possible if the developer proposed a sufficiently attractive swop – enhancing another area to an equivalent value. I can see a number of concerns and foggy areas in this, for a start will Tier 1 turn out to be a minimum, Tier 3 most of the green areas? (What Tier would South Sebastopol achieve?) Who decides the classification, professionals only, or will there be a public consultation element? Can changes to area classification be accommodated? Amenity (lawn) grassland (Tier 3) is described as ecologically useless – that could be challenged. There are others, but that’s enough for now.

But perhaps I am too churlish – this is an exciting attempt at a really new way of valuing green spaces, and thereby combating unsustainable and irresponsible speculative development. We must hope it is successful, and leads to a transformation away from a planning process that regards green spaces as easy and natural growth of the built environment.  Local readers – GET INVOLVED! Contact TCBC and ask questions about your local green area.

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