The news that Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has been commissioned by the Welsh Government to evaluate the case for the creation of a new National Park in North East Wales rekindles an old debate and raises many questions. NRW will be starting a period of stakeholder and public consultation later this year. Members with land and businesses in the area should ensure their vital views are heard, and be ready to back them up with evidence and data where possible.
The narrow area, 390km² in size, from Prestatyn, running south between Denbigh and Mold, broadens roughly into a foot shape, from a point east of Corwen to Llangollen. This would make Wales smallest National Park – nearly half the area of the Pembrokeshire Coastal National Park, and dwarfed by neighbouring Eryri (Snowdonia), (2,142km²). It includes the Clwydian massif, the Berwyn range and the Dee valley – and features ancient, medieval and modern historical sites including the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct World Heritage site. The landscape fits the original beauty and accessibility to nearby urban communities criteria which were established nearly a century ago when the concept of National Parks was mooted as a post-war reconstruction social benefit.
History isn’t really on the side of this proposal.
The Clwydian Range became an AoNB in 1985. This excluded the Berwyn Mountains and Dee Valley, owing to local opposition to a proposed Special Site of Scientific Conservation (SSSI). However, the National Park was on the table again following the AoNB’s 25th anniversary in 2010. Interestingly the proposal was dismissed by the then Welsh Government Environment Minister, Jane Davidson. She declared that if it were to be followed-through, the other four Welsh AoNBs (Anglesey, Gower, Wye Valley and the Llyn Peninsular) would have to be offered the same process. The proposal had been criticised that important parts of the local economy would be disadvantaged and important powers would be taken away from the relevant local authorities. Moreover, important stakeholders asserted that AoNB status had been reluctantly accepted in a consensus compromise on the basis that National Park designation was dropped.
But, here we are again. As a long-existing debate, the pros and cons are well rehearsed. From their inception, the National Parks generated some degree of friction between established landowners and those seeking greater public access. Today, we can add to the debate the needs of wider business interests, and new social priorities around net-zero and conservation.
Pros and cons
Most landowners continue to oppose the proposal, but CLA members could be on all sides of the debate according to their circumstances and the nature of their business. Proponents argue the Park will protect the local landscape by restricting development. It would facilitate applications for funding for environmental and heritage projects, encourage tourism – levelling-up, or reducing pressure on Eryri, and support the designation of individual sites within the park area. Some argue that AoNBs are overshadowed and undernourished next to the National Parks: that the alleged elitist distinction between the two designations is unnecessary and must go.
Opponents point to the inevitability of more intense regulation for agriculture – the backbone of the economy here, restriction on planning development, risk of over-tourism and the lack of infrastructure to manage it. They point to the impracticalities of its small size and shape and the inevitable inequitability for businesses in neighbouring areas, and the high cost of running a National Park authority. One cause for opposition has become increasingly intense. This is the likely increase in house-prices, influx of second-home owners, and the likely shortage of “affordable” homes for local people – the National Park proposal exacerbates a problem the Welsh Government is committed to tackle.
What are National Parks are really for?
Today society needs to sort out what we really want our National Parks to deliver. This raises important questions about how NRW will go about its evaluation and what its criteria, benchmarks and yardsticks will be. Those looking for increased public access: think again. The Welsh Government has become aware of the health and safety risk, danger of - and to - livestock, cost to the environment, cost of multi-use/ability access, and the resulting cost of maintenance and waste clearing. The National Parks themselves have been making these points arguing (closely aligned with the CLA) that improved access to existing public rights of way is the only way forward given the resources and public behaviour. Members taking part in the consultation should still offer feedback on the issues arising from access.
Very recently, the rebranding of Bannau Brecheiniog was pitched for it to become a “force multiplier” in the net-zero by 2035 mission, and to restore bio-diversity. This would make them a beacon (pun intended) for sustainability. If this is to be the principle role of a National Park, NRW should be asking themselves if the creation of a new National Park is the best solution. Direct engagement with landowners about the carbon sequestration powers of grassland, crops, hedges and woodland – in a raft of environmental and conservation activities, managed by a thriving agricultural community, on a much wider level – is really more likely to reach the target than small trophy areas with the full panoply of logos, committees and a bureaucratic structure.
Finally, government shouldn’t forget the National Parks’ important economic function. The 2016 Future Landscapes: Delivering for Wales Report offered so much promise for their future development. The Future Landscapes Working Group, chaired by Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, examined the recommendations of the Marsden Report, which offered 69 recommendations to improve how the National Parks and AONBs deliver for a wide range of objectives. These had been under review since 2013. Our response to the conclusions remains true to this day: that our designated landscapes should be a driving force for post-Brexit green growth, delivering socio-economic benefit alongside conservation of landscape, natural resources and biodiversity. This should be an area where Ministers take the lead, following the principles laid-out in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act – and in the last government’s Prosperity for All Economic Action Plan. We said, “Conservation and economic development are not mutually exclusive. They must work together if we are to achieve what is possible in both agendas.”
As NRW begins its evaluation of the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley National Park proposal, we must reflect on the nature of the agency and its approach to the job. NRW’s Project Information Page on the subject explains that NRW is “an independent organisation, so (we) can make independent recommendations based on the evidence gathered and the citizens of Wales, taking account of all legislation.” Many landowners and businesspeople in the area will be puzzled by this description by an organisation, which is managed by the Welsh Government – just as they may ask if the experience and conclusions of the last consultation process will have any bearing.