On 1 April 2013 Natural Resources Wales (NRW), the new environmental body for Wales, came into being. Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru translates more poetically as Wales’s Natural Wealth.
NRW is enormous, an amalgamation of the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Environment Agency and Forestry Commission. CCW itself was a combination of the Countryside Commission and Nature Conservancy Council (NCC), created by the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
CCW came about because of the fragmentation of the NCC. Scottish landowners put pressure on the Secretary of State for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind, to punish the NCC for its vigorous opposition to landowners’ afforestation of the Scottish Flow Country. Rifkind in turn persuaded Chris Patten, the environment secretary, to carve up the NCC.
In England the NCC became English Nature. The Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991 then created Scottish Natural Heritage from the NCC and Countryside Commission for Scotland.
Up in arms
At the time CCW was mooted, wildlife and access bodies were up in arms: both were afraid that their interests would be watered down. The access lobby feared that a combined body’s statutory duties for nature would take priority over recreation and public paths, which were mere powers. We formed Wales Wildlife and Countryside Link (now Wales Environment Link) initially to fight the plans. As the Environmental Protection Bill went through parliament we lobbied against the clauses which would form the new agency.
When the bill was in committee, the environment minister David Trippier proudly announced the new chairman. He was to be landowner Michael Griffith from Trefnant, Denbighshire, whose credentials, Trippier said, were ‘impeccable’.
The Ramblers knew that there were many path problems in Denbighshire and, led by the indefatigable footpath secretary, Cyril Jones, went out to check the paths on and around Mr Griffith’s land.
They found many problems and issued a press release on 16 March 1990: ‘Unless action is taken immediately about the appalling state of the paths close to the Clwyd countryside home of chairman Michael Griffith, his credibility as the watchdog boss will be very much in doubt … What we found was a disgrace. One path was unlawfully ploughed out of existence and had a crop growing on it. Other paths were unlawfully blocked off in four places … But their awful state is not unique. In Wales as a whole, the Countryside Commission found last year that on a typical two-mile country walk, there is an 85% chance of finding your path blocked in some way.’
So the new chairman’s credentials were not so impeccable after all. To give Michael his due, he smartly put the paths right and never bore a grudge. While he naturally favoured farmers and landowners he was willing to engage with us. In 1995 he joined Ramblers Cymru on their round-Wales walk to celebrate the Ramblers 60th jubilee, and he and I went swimming off Lleyn after we had enjoyed a heavenly summer’s day walk with the Ramblers.
Over its 22 years CCW has had excellent leaders. The chairmen were Michael (who died far too young in 2009), John Lloyd Jones (a farmer with a great appreciation of national parks and the value of access) and Morgan Parry (who managed parks for Gwynedd County Council, was director of the North Wales Wildlife Trust and established the Wales office of the World Wildlife Fund). The chief executives were Ian Mercer, Paul Loveluck and Roger Thomas.
All believed in the importance of being independent of government. Ian Mercer wrote in The Merits of Merger: The Welsh Experience (1995) that for effective protection of the environment what is needed is a ‘national authority having the full support and trust of its parent government’.
Relations with the Welsh Assembly and then the Welsh Government ebbed and flowed. Ian Mercer and his staff invented a visionary agri-environment scheme Tir Cymen, which was piloted in three areas; in 1998 it evolved into Tir Gofal which was Wales-wide. The scheme had its problems, many of the farmers receiving money did not have their paths in good order as the Ramblers constantly pointed out. However, through managing the project, CCW staff learnt about agriculture and the realities of the farming economy. But the Welsh Office Agricultural Department and its successors were jealous. The Welsh Government claimed Tir Gofal as its own in 2006, and this subsequently became the present-day Glastir, run by the government.
Despite our early fears about wildlife taking priority over access, CCW has worked hard on the access front. It undertook a path-condition survey in the 1990s. It completed the access mapping under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 expeditiously and uncontroversially, partly because, regrettably, it omitted the ffridd from access mapping: this is inbye land which has all the appearance of rough land and has customary access. CCW has recently carried out the decadal review of access (shelved in England). And it has achieved the Wales Coast Path, which is a triumph (thought there is still much room for improvement to make it truly coastal).
The CCW chairman has organised a chairman’s walk every year during the Eisteddfod (I wrote about the latest one here), which is a pleasant opportunity to meet a wide range of Welsh colleagues, discuss the issues and see some projects. I sincerely hope that the chairman of NRW will continue that tradition.
I shall remember CCW with much fondness and am sad that already some staff have been lost in the merger, most notably its superb chief executive Roger Thomas. In February CCW published a book, a record of its 22 years: A Natural Step? I echo the words of Roger in his foreword: ‘the unsung heroes of CCW are the staff who, whether through scientific and technical expertise or skills in the essential administrative functions that are the life-blood of any organisation, have made things happen’.
NRW is huge. It has 2,000 staff and a budget of £177 million. With its urgent and overwhelming duties for flood protection and forests, I fear that recreation, access and landscape could get drowned, despite the good intentions of Peter Matthews and the chief executive, Emyr Roberts.
We shall have to work hard to ensure that the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, commons, open country and public paths get the attention, staffing and funding they deserve. For they are crucially important to Wales’s future.