The character and the wildlife potential of the Mid Wales landscape remains uncertain and deeply contested in the Brexit era…
A week after the EU Referendum, I moved back to rural Wales after some 30 years roughly split between Middle England and Inner London. In that time, the Welsh economy fared less well than other parts of the UK despite being one of the biggest per capita recipients of EU funding.1 Nevertheless, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales voted for Brexit along with England. However, the national vote masks support for continued EU membership amongst the Welsh farming community and in Welsh-speaking counties such as Ceredigion, the most Europhile area in the UK according to a YouGov survey last year. Yet neighbouring – and more Anglicised – rural Powys voted ‘out’. My own position on Brexit is similarly split, and from this vantage I shall address two key issues associated with exiting the EU for the environment of Central Wales.
What future for the “Green Desert”?
Central Wales comprises Ceredigion and North Powys. The area represents the centre of Welsh land-based industry, and it is undoubtedly for this reason that spatial designations which would increase environmental protection have long been resisted by vested interests. There was, for instance, a failed attempt to establish a Cambrian National Park. Information about this and other designation issues can be found on the Cambrian Mountains Society website.2 In the context of Brexit, I would propose that the question of environmental governance in Central Wales urgently needs to be revisited by the Welsh Assembly. Increasing pressures from the commercial forestry, renewable energy, water and agricultural sectors suggest the area is now very much in danger of becoming the wrong kind of Welsh “Green Desert”.3
The natural beauty and darker sides of Elenydd, as it is known in Welsh, have recently been evoked in the much acclaimed BBC rural noir series Hinterland. A current disagreement involving two nature conservation charities, including the Woodland Trust, and the local branch of the National Union of Farmers over the purchase and proposed re-wilding of a hill farm in North Powys – also the setting for an episode of Hinterland – reflects deeply held and conflicted views about future land management.4 This type of conflict is precisely why a clear vision for the area, with a balanced set of aspirations for the short and longer terms and clear delivery mechanisms, is required. Such a strategy can only be delivered through a stakeholder partnership led by government in Wales for which additional UK state funding would almost certainly be required.
Natural resources and nature conservation
Closely linked to the question of environmental governance is that of agency and the role of Natural Resources Wales, an organisation set up in 2013 following a series of mergers to save money, in particular.5 At times, NRW’s nature conservation role has since been heavily criticised: for instance, by the Welsh naturalist, BBC presenter and Powys resident Iolo Williams.6 Across the border, conservation groups such as the RSPB strongly opposed the merger of Natural England and the Environment Agency because “the need to protect wildlife and landscapes” is seen as distinct from the need “to protect the public from natural disasters such as flooding….” .7 Again, in the context of Brexit, the case for a properly resourced public nature conservation champion needs to be revisited by the Welsh government.
Brexit poses a set of structural, financial and transitional challenges for the UK and its constituent nations, whether the issues are economic or environmental. Various reports from governments in Westminster and Cardiff, including the House of Environmental Audit Committee’s recent work on The Future of Natural Environment after the EU Referendum, indicate these challenges and responses to them have been strategically thought through.8 The most important thing is how strategies are implemented and what actually happens on the ground. Finally, the fate of the now famous Brimmon Oak of Powys may offer a lesson. The oak won the “UK Tree of the Year” award in 2016 and was runner-up for “European Tree of the Year” in 2017: a reminder perhaps that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose“.9
The author has been thinking globally and acting locally on a range of environmental issues since the late 1970s. She has spent much of the past 30 years engaged in the prevention and promotion of (in)appropriate and (un)sustainable development.
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