Summit to Sea: a guest post by Jon Coles

PLEASE APPRECIATE THAT I GET SENT MORE INFORMATION AND LEADS THAN I CAN USE. I TRY TO RESPOND TO EVERYONE WHO CONTACTS ME BUT I CANNOT POSSIBLY USE EVERY BIT OF INFORMATION I’M SENT. DIOLCH YN FAWR

This post is by Jon Coles, the Herald‘s Chief Writer, who has written about farming and rural affairs every week since the papers’ launch.

A CONTROVERSIAL project in Mid Wales faces opposition from local farmers and lost the support of a key local partner.

Summit to Sea’s website says: “The project will bring together one continuous, nature-rich area, stretching from the Pumlumon massif – the highest area in mid-Wales – down through wooded valleys to the Dyfi Estuary and out into Cardigan Bay. Within five years it will comprise at least 10,000 hectares of land and 28,400 hectares of sea.”

Pumlumon. Click to enlarge

The project is seen as a pilot for similar projects being eyed in rural areas of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and partly reflects the Welsh Government’s controversial plans for favouring nebulous ‘public goods’ over food production.

‘NO TO REWILDING’

Drive towards Machynlleth from Talybont and signs in the roadside verges show opposition to the project growing the further north you go. Most say: ‘No to Rewilding’. There are few signs of any overt support.

A meeting of 150 local farmers in Talybont earlier this year rejected the project.
Just outside Machynlleth a particularly large sign rejecting rewilding underlines the farmers’ opposition.

Machynlleth. Click to enlarge

Once a market town for the livestock and wool trade, Machynlleth is now a prosperous exclave of bohemian incomers and boutique shopping in mid-Wales. The town’s centre supports a large Aga showroom, an old-fashioned cobbler making hand-made shoes, a variety of artisanal boutiques, antique shops, and no banks.

It is there that the ideas underpinning rewilding in the UK were, if not born, then first brought to the wider public’s attention.

George Monbiot is a trenchant critic of modern farming and has opined at length on what he claims is the adverse impact of sheep farming on the Welsh upland landscape. Mr Monbiot formerly resided near Machynlleth before returning to live in his native Oxfordshire some years ago.

Machynlleth, looking down Maengwyn Street to the A487 and the clock tower. Click to enlarge

In his book Feral, a seminal text for the rewilding movement in the UK, George Monbiot says: “Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.”

Rewilding Britain is the principal partner for the Summit to Sea project.
The chief executive of Rewilding Britain is Rebecca Wrigley. Ms Wrigley is the partner of journalist and author George Monbiot.

The application for grant support for Summit to the Sea has a return address which is the couple’s home in Oxford.

REWILDING

To its critics, rewilding is a fad supported by metropolitan eco-warriors with nothing better to do with their time than dream of romantic rural idylls that never existed. Its supporters regard it as a means of restoring diversity and improving natural habitats.

Rewilding is so divisive a topic that even those sympathetic to its aims express caution about where it might lead and where the quest for creating an ‘authentic’ habitat stops.

A rewilding exercise in the Netherlands, at Oostvaardersplassen near Amsterdam, was so badly misjudged and went so catastrophically wrong that 3,000 horses, deer and cattle did not survive the winter of 2017. Starving animals were shot by Dutch officials to ease overpopulation and prevent the destruction of the forested habitats on which many of the species depend.

Oostvaardersplassen. Click to enlarge

Some argue that rewilding is the creation of ecosystems where human influences and control over vast areas of land are removed, and species such as large predators create self-regulating environments devoid of human interactions.

Others argue that rewilding is merely a new and exciting approach to conservation.
Rural Wales is, however, a working environment. Its landscape is intimately entwined with humans’ interactions with it, as users and exploiters of the land and conservers of it. While reintroducing apex predators like wolves and lynx is unlikely, significant concern exists that ‘rewilders’ oppose farming as being itself ‘a bad thing’.

SUMMIT TO SEA ‘NOT ABOUT REWILDING’

In spite of Rewilding Britain’s status as the Summit to Sea project’s lead partner, a spokesperson for the latter denied that the project’s primary purpose was rewilding.
They told us: “Summit to Sea was never meant to be a large-scale rewilding project, but instead is a wider initiative to bring positive change to both Mid Wales’ environment and economy. Exactly how the project looks will be shaped entirely by the community.

“Over the coming weeks, a recently appointed Community Engagement Officer will host one-to-one meetings and drop-in sessions with those who’d like to be involved to hear their visions for the area’s future. This could involve anything from working with communities to develop nature-based businesses that are socially and economically beneficial, to working with farmers to develop ideas for land management”.

However, the project has caused alarm that ‘rewilding’ is the first step towards the outside appropriation of Welsh land to rid the area of farming and create a playground for English and urban visitors.

Speaking in 2018, Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) President Glyn Roberts said: “A key driving force behind such pressures and policies is the belief that farming is somehow inherently bad, with negative messages drip-fed through the media by charities until they are accepted as universal truths – often conveniently drawing attention away from disastrous policies advocated by charities and introduced by successive Governments.”

LACK OF LOCAL ENGAGEMENT

Criticism that Summit to Sea has failed to reach out to local farmers and engage with local culture sensitively reached a head towards the end of the summer. Ecodyfi, a not for profit Development Trust which aims to deliver sustainable community regeneration in the Dyfi Valley, withdrew its support from Summit to Sea earlier this year.

Speaking to the media in September, Ecodyfi manager Andy Rowland said: “We have increasingly been disturbed by the change of attitude to the project in the farming-connected community on which we largely depend.

“The project reflects the partners’ focus on the environment and pays much less attention to the cultural/linguistic/social and economic aspects of sustainable development, which are fundamental to the whole community.

“We feel that in present circumstances Ecodyfi can best help the creation of a more resilient and sustainable future by being outside the project rather than by staying within it.”

Nick Fenwick, FUW. Click to enlarge

Responding, Nick Fenwick, Head of Policy at the FUW said: “We welcome the fact that Ecodyfi has recognised the damage done to their relationship with the local community through their involvement with Rewilding Britain.

“Their acknowledgement that the project does not pay sufficient attention to the ‘cultural, linguistic, social and economic aspects of sustainable development which are fundamental to the whole community’ is also welcome.”

FARMERS ‘MISUNDERSTAND’ PROJECT

Speaking at the time of Ecodyfi’s announcement, the Chief Executive of Summit to Sea said farmers had ‘misunderstood’ the scheme.

Melanie Newton also told the BBC: “It’s not about rewilding, it’s actually about looking at landscape sustainability and how that sits with traditional farming practices and how they can all support each other – they can sit side by side.”

Melanie Newton, Summit to Sea CEO. Click to enlarge

We asked Summit to Sea whether it thought to say that farmers misunderstood the project insulted the intelligence of those upon whose support it relied to deliver its scheme.

A spokesperson told us: “There has been a lot of information in circulation during the last year or so, some of which has been false or misconstrued. We also recognise that in some cases, communication on our part hasn’t been as clear as we would have liked.

“Feedback from community members so far has been vital in terms of how the project is shaped and adapted, and we are now working hard to strengthen our lines of communication with local people so that we can continue to develop a project which benefits both wildlife and people.”

Nick Fenwick of the FUW was not mollified by that explanation. He told us: “Farmers have certainly not ‘misunderstood’ the project: Far from it, they have recognised it for what it truly is, and know perfectly well that the claim that ‘It’s not about rewilding’ is laughable.

“The project is instigated and run by Rewilding Britain, an organisation which advocates the rewilding of a quarter of Great Britain. Their website acknowledges that the organisation was inspired by George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’, which advocates the replacement of traditional farming with wilding in the very area selected for the Summit to Sea project.”

LOCAL SUPPORT?

We finally asked Summit to Sea to identify substantial locally-based or Welsh-based farming groups which supports its objectives.

Summit to Sea referred to the eight project partners engaged in the project and responded: “There are eight project partners who are keen to meet with groups including FUW and NFU Cymru to discuss how all organisations can move forward together to help create an environmental and economically prosperous future for everyone.”

Those partners, apart from Rewilding Britain, are Marine Conservation Society (MCS), Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust (MWT), PLAS Marine Special Area of Conservation, RSPB, Coetir Anian (a style of the Wales Wild Land Foundation CIO, which promotes rewilding), Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and WWF.

♦ end ♦

Jac chips in . . . An excellent piece by Jon Coles (I would expect no less) that exposes the many contradictions, and worse, in this project.

I became aware of Summit to Sea last year and it featured in The Green Menace (28 August). I wrote, “One shadowy re-wilding project about which I and others are having difficulty getting information is ‘Summit to Shore’”. A later piece was The Welsh Clearances in October, with a further mention here at the end of that month.

I may have got the name wrong to begin with, but this was not surprising seeing as there was so little information in the public domain, and no local consultations. Or let me qualify that by saying that no contact had been made with those whose land was being eyed up for takeover.

Gradually, more information seeped out, but it wasn’t encouraging. Just listen to Natalie Buttriss, the Director of Wales for the Woodland Trust, a partner in the Summit to Sea rewilding project, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Farming Today’ programme last October.

When dealing with surly natives Ms Buttriss clearly favours the, ‘You can like it or lump it’ approach.

And yet, despite being furtive wee creatures in the area affected, those behind Summit to Sea are not shy of publicity. Below we see Buttriss presenting a petition (for more trees) to London’s management team in Corruption Bay, represented by Plasmarl boy, Mike Hedges AM.

Let me think . . . did the ‘Welsh Government’ agree to a photo-op for the petitions against the ‘Ring of Steel’, or the ‘Prince of Wales’ Bridge, both of which gained a hell of a lot more signatures? Click to enlarge

Monbiot and his friends know little about the land they want to seize, but they know how to get things done. For Labour’s buffoons down Cardiff docks are like putty in the hands of members of the English middle classes.

After suitable kneading, the men (and women) of clay promised to withdraw funding from farmers after Brexit with the intention of thereby making land available for Monbiot and his gang.

Summit to Sea reminds us how vulnerable Cardiff Bay is to pressure from special interest groups, usually from outside of Wales and often acting against the Welsh national interest.

This colonialist variant of devolution is why we have a third sector profiting from the deprivation and hopelessness it encourages, and why the ‘Welsh Government’ refuses to consider a register of lobbyists.

Let’s end back in Holland, at Oostvaardersplassen. (And try saying that after a bottle of Malbec!) As the Guardian put it: “For protesters, Oostvaardersplassen is a secretive experiment devised by distrusted elites”.

Just add ‘alien’ and it applies perfectly to Summit to Sea. But why stop there! Wales itself is run by ‘distrusted alien elites’. Thank God more of you are waking up to that fact.

 

Far Away, Few Votes, Who Cares!

I went to a Christmas Fayre on Saturday afternoon. While there I was approached by a former tribune who still involves himself with local affairs. He recounted a recent meeting he’d had with Edwina Hart AM, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport. He was mightily impressed with Redwina. I bit my tongue. (For you know me, boys and girls, diplomacy is my middle name.) Anyway, to cut to the chase, as they say, the subject they had discussed was a new crossing of the Dyfi on the A487 at Machynlleth. To explain . . .

The A487 runs from Bangor to Haverfordwest, though for a short stretch after Porthmadog it becomes the A470, before rediscovering itself at the Cross Foxes, close to Dolgellau. After parting company the A470 then runs on to Llanidloes, Builth, Brecon, Merthyr and Cardiff. The A487 sticks to the west coast linking Machynlleth, Aberystwyth, Aberaeron, Cardigan, Fishguard, St, David’s and, finally, Haverfordwest. One might think the A470 would be the busier road but it’s often empty of traffic – especially in the ‘Green Desert’ – until it reaches Merthyr. (Though more than once I’ve been on the A470 south of Merthyr in the middle of the day in very light traffic.)

Despite this, the A470 receives far more funding for road improvements than the A487, with this justified by arguing that it is ‘the main north-south artery’. It’s not; it’s the main road from the north to Cardiff, which is not the same thing. The A487 is busier than the A470, for two main reasons. First, it has a much higher population density along its length than the A470. Second, the A487 is the main route from the north west, Aber’ and other places – via Lampeter – to the Swansea Bay conurbation. These are uncomfortable facts for a Cardiff-obsessed ‘Welsh’ Government. But the problems of the A487 will not go away, and in this neck of the woods, as the former councillor reminded me, the big and enduring problem is Dyfi Bridge.

Coming from the north, the only way of reaching Machynlleth by road is over an antiquated stone bridge in the wrong place and just not up to the standard demanded by modern transport. (Obviously, heading north out of the town means using the same bridge.) With the result that, even on good days, there can be problems . . . but there are fewer and fewer good days. Being so narrow, big trucks have great difficulty negotiating Pont Dyfi, often resulting in other traffic having to back up, with all sorts of chaos resulting. Predictably, the bridge is regularly hit and damaged by trucks. At present, there are traffic lights operating following the latest incident.

There is no viable detour – certainly not for heavy traffic – yet the road is vital for people in south Meirionnydd to reach their local hospital in Aberystwyth, or just to go shopping. Apart from the problem with the bridge there is also an issue with flooding on the road between the bridge and Machynlleth itself and, on the other side of the town, at Derwenlas. These problems may now have been remedied . . . though I stress may. Time – plus a combination of a high tide and heavy rain – will tell. So it has been obvious for many years that a new bridge is needed, and perhaps a more far-reaching solution that also provides Mach’ with a by-pass. To inspect the problem first-hand, and get a few pics, I took myself off to Machynlleth this morning. There are five photos in all, click on the ‘I’ to get a brief description.

[flagallery gid=4 w=550 h=700 skin=green_style_jn align=center]

 

On my return I got to wondering if the ‘Welsh’ Government had plans to improve the situation, so I went to that body’s webWelsh Government roadssite, where I found the following information (right, click to enlarge), and nothing more recent. The ‘Welsh’ Government (more likely, the civil servants who take too many decisions in Wales) is prioritising three – I repeat, THREE, east-west links – and one north-south route. Suspecting that the north-south link referred to Roads, specificmight be the A470 I dug a little deeper into the website. My suspicions were confirmed. (Click on panel, left.)

In the works listed to start by 2011 the only one on the A487 is the Porthmadog by-pass, now completed. It’s probably no coincidence that this improvement is located at a point just before the A487 becomes the A470, so in many ways it’s an improvement for the A470 as much as for the A487. The only improvement in the pipeline on the A487 is the stretch from Bontnewydd to Caernarfon. (With which no one could argue.) The other road mentioned here is the A483, the old Manchester-Swansea trunk road.

Given the pressing need for a new bridge over the Dyfi why is the ‘Welsh’ Government refusing to do anything? My suggestion is that there are three principal reasons:

  • The A487 is a north-south road which means that – unlike east-west routes – it offers limited benefits to English companies exploiting the colonial nature of the ‘Welsh’ economy.
  • There are no Labour seats along the entire length of the A487 at either Westminster or in the Welsh Assembly, and little chance of Labour winning any. (This also explains the refusal to re-open the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth rail link.)
  • Any improvements to the A487 at Machynlleth would be of no discernible benefit to Cardiff.

So yet again we see how certain parts of Wales are ignored by the Cardiff Assembly, and why. For a party as tribal, vindictive and anti-Welsh as Labour this neglect of the whole western side of the country is entirely predictable. What’s not so easy to explain is why those MPs and AMs representing the constituencies along the A487, and especially those representing the areas immediately affected by the Dyfi bridge bottleneck, aren’t doing more to press the Labour Party into acting like a government for the whole of Wales.

Which in a curious, roundabout way, reminds me that many years ago political analyst Denis Balsom suggested a tripartite political division of Wales along lines of cultural identity. These were ‘Cymru Cymraeg’ (the Welsh-speaking areas – remember them?), ‘Welsh Wales’ (the Valleys and Swansea Bay), and ‘British Wales’ (the north east, south east and Pembrokeshire). Maybe it’s time we updated this tripartite interpretation taking contemporary realities into account. More specifically, how Labour runs Wales and decides priorities.

I would suggest that Labour also sees Wales in three parts, according to voting habits, and treats each area accordingly in everything from funding on infrastructure to health care, broadband provision, etc., etc. These categories are:

1/ Areas that can be taken for granted, and therefore ignored (the Valleys, Swansea Bay and the urban north east).

2/ Areas that don’t vote Labour – so they can be ‘punished’ (the rural areas of central, western and northern Wales plus perhaps Monmouthshire).

3/ Areas Labour needs to keep ‘rewarding’ in order to hang on to power in the Assembly (basically, a few seats in, and close to, Cardiff).

Which means that unless we see a major shift in voting patterns Labour only needs to worry about six or seven (out of 40) seats to stay in power for ever and a day. This division of Wales certainly explains a lot, but is it a fair or proper way to run a country?