The Snowdonia Society is one of the leading campaigning groups calling for the conservation purpose of National Parks in Wales to be ring-fenced
In late March, the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff was forced to postpone a debate on opening up National Parks to developers thanks to a show of strength from Plaid Cymru... plus people power.
Campaigners from Save Our Rivers, the Snowdonia Society and the Betws Anglers* got wind that a key document forming the basis of discussion had been unavailable to the public and petitioned Plaid Cymru, which demanded the postponement.
There is a shift occurring in the stewardship of the UK's National Parks; a move towards legislating for greater freedom to plunder the Parks' natural resources for financial gain; conservation of natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage taking a back seat.
The postponed Welsh debate ‘Review of National Parks and AONBs' could result in stripping National Parks of key conservation safeguards, the Sandford and Silkin Principles.
In 1974, Lord Sandford a National Park committee chair talked of... "where irreconcilable conflicts exist between conservation and public enjoyment, then conservation interest should take priority"
In 1949, another pillar of National Park status was promulgated by Lewis Silkin Minister of Town and Country Planning: "Major developments should not take place in these designated areas, except in exceptional circumstances," with developments assessed by need, including national considerations, and the impact on local economy; the cost and scope for developing elsewhere; and any detrimental effect on the environment, and extent to which that could be moderated.
The contested and unpublished report which could steamroll these protections is the Future Landscapes Wales (FLW) programme, established by Carl Sargeant (former Labour Minister for Natural Resources) in response to the ‘Review of Designated Landscapes in Wales' led by Professor Terry Marsden.
The Marsden Report (2015) was detailed with close to 70 recommendations based on evidence gathered through public consultation. These recommendations didn't chime with Labour policy objectives. However, rather than responding to them, Carl Sargeant AM, convened the FLW process ‘to take forward the spirit of the recommendations in a collaborative process'.
The subsequent Future Landscapes Wales report - led by Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, who has made no secret of his antipathy to National Parks as a designation in Wales - caused a commotion when it was leaked in April because of the dearth of discussion on any conservation purposes of National Parks.
The report talks of a new purpose for National Parks and AONBs (Areas of Natural Beauty) to enable the natural resources of these areas ‘to be managed in ways which create enhanced social wellbeing and economic prosperity for all who live in, use or enjoy these special areas'.
Missing is any safeguard for natural beauty and biodiversity, with the clear risk that both may be either diluted or trashed. Equally the report offers no commitment to the role of National Park Authorities as planning authorities manage sustainability.
Labour currently holds 29 of the 60 Assembly seats, so passing the recommendations of the report is highly likely unless campaigners can lobby successfully for amendments to the FLW report, inclusion of the Sandford Principle chief among them, before its final publication.
They fear that otherwise the land faces exploitation: of major free flowing rivers for example. Over the last five years feed-in tariffs (renewable energy production subsidies) have driven a surge of new 'run-of-river' hydropower developments in Snowdonia.
The vast majority involve building new concrete weirs across otherwise pristine rivers, then diverting 50%-100% of the water down a plastic pipeline. At the bottom of the run the water goes through a turbine and back into the river. This leaves long sections of river depleted of the natural flow ‒ commonly a kilometre or more.
In general the schemes fail the Silkin Principle as they are trivial in terms of generating useful quantities of energy. Two hundred and fifty run-of-river hydro projects have been permitted by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) over the last five years with a combined capacity at 15MW ‒ equivalent to just two of the latest generation offshore wind turbines such as the 8MW units at the Burbo Bank wind farm extension.
When NRW inspected hydro schemes in Snowdonia in 2015 it found that more than 15% were deliberately abstracting more water than they were permitted, taking too much at critical times over the summer.
According to the Snowdonia Society, schemes near Llanberis broke multiple conditions of their planning permission, trashing the river corridor with machinery, felling mature trees without permission and causing a major pollution incident as large quantities of silt were washed out into fragile designated SSSI ecosystems.
The energy company RWE is at the forefront of more recent applications and the appointment of Jeremy Smith, Welsh Development Manager at RWE, to the Future Landscapes Wales working group has proved both controversial and troubling.
The recent applications are within designated sites either SSSIs or SACs (Special Areas of Conservation) which campaign groups are finding increasingly unacceptable.
Dan Yates of Save Our Rivers told the Ecologist: "This is something we feel extremely strongly about. This has all happened quite quickly, we assumed that the report would be published in full and there would be a period in which Assembly Members and the public would be able to read and discuss its contents. It all stinks of something being rushed through under the radar."
John Harold, Director Snowdonia Society, agreed that the situation was parlous, but was upbeat: "We hope the FLW report will now be redrafted to re-confirm conservation as the primary purpose of National Parks. Based on the response from Assembly Members so far we are confident that sense will prevail.
"We're sure Assembly Members will embrace National Parks as the crown jewels of Wales. Vast numbers of people ‒ both locals and visitors ‒ rely on access to high-quality landscapes for their physical and mental wellbeing and many make their living from outdoor activities in National Parks and AONBs."
This is the Snowdonia Society's clear focus in their 50th year of working to protect and enhance Snowdonia. It is one of the leading groups calling for the conservation purpose of National Parks in Wales to be ring-fenced so that rather than being just a name badge, useful for marketing purposes, National Parks actually offer practical protection for the special qualities for which they were originally designated.
UK National Parks have Category V classification according to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Protected Landscapes system. That category translates as a commitment to conservation purposes.
*The main groups fighting to save the National Parks' integrity are the AFNP Cymru (Alliance for National Parks Wales) consisting of Brecon Beacons National Park Society, the Friends of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the Snowdonia Society, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, BMC Wales and the National Association for AONBs in Wales. Several other groups are involved.
Jan Goodey is a regular contributor to the Ecologist