Thursday 22 September 2016

Long Grass

A long way down the very long list of questions raised by the Brexit vote is what will happen to Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). SACs were created in response to the EU's Habitats Directive, designed to protect a list of habitat types and species across Europe. At one end of the spectrum on the list of Welsh SACs are Eryri/Snowdonia, Preseli and Cadair Idris, while at the other are many smaller and less visited places such as Rhos Llawr-Cwrt and Elenydd in Ceredigion.

Some of the Welsh SACs are in national parks, and most if not all are also designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, so expect to be told that it won't make any difference if we chuck SACs along with air pollution standards, employment rights, regulations to protect consumers (what precisely is in that sausage?) and a lot of other EU safeguards that stand in the way of big business on the promised post-Brexit bonfire of red tape.

We will be taking control and freeing ourselves from all those foreign shackles.

In one small corner of Wales, the Brexiteers are right: getting rid of SAC status won't make a scrap of difference to the fate of part of the Cernydd Carmel SAC (also a SSSI), because laws and regulations which are not enforced are just meaningless scraps of paper.

SACs are supposed to be the gold standard when it comes to protecting our countryside from development. SSSIs can be destroyed with official blessing if a local authority and Natural Resources Wales agree that the interests of development outweigh the conservation considerations.

That is what happened, for example, at Selar Farm near Glynneath, where a former SSSI was obliterated with official blessing by Celtic Energy. Other opencast sites operated by Celtic were supposed to be restored by the company when it finished mining, but funds to pay for the restoration were never paid in, or they were spirited away perfectly legally to British offshore tax havens. If most of those sites are to be restored as countryside, the taxpayer will have to find hundreds of millions of pounds to do it.

The interests of development, or perhaps the interests of Celtic Energy's shareholders, outweighed the interests of the SSSI, and the then council director of environment told councillors that there were plenty of other SSSIs anyway. One of his successors, Mr Will Watson, went a step further and became CEO of Celtic Energy.

In theory, getting rid of an SAC is a bit more tricky. It can be done, but needs to be sanctioned higher up the food chain, and it can only be done if there is no alternative to the proposed development.

But things are rather different in Carmarthenshire.

This blog last visited Cernydd Carmel in April 2016. To cut a long story short, the landowner trashed a chunk of the SAC, felling trees, removing vegetation and topsoil and engaging in a spot of quarrying for what may or may not have been commercial quarrying. He then built a road across the site for purposes which only make sense if you know that his main businesses are road haulage, scrap metal and quarrying.

Happily for our man, Mr Andrew Thomas, the council has always taken the view that he is a farmer, and so this road is an agricultural track as far as they are concerned.

Needless to say, all of this work on the supposedly heavily protected SAC was done without asking either the council or Natural Resources Wales. The council was told about it as work was in progress, but it forgot to tell NRW.

The council then politely invited Mr Thomas to submit a retrospective planning application, which he did in April 2015. The application was eventually validated by planning officers in October 2015.

NRW reluctantly became involved when members of the public and the then Assembly Member, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, made a fuss and started asking questions.

Discussions between the council, NRW and representatives of Mr Thomas began around May 2015, with the aim of agreeing a restoration plan for the land.

Restoration was a bit of a misnomer because almost from the beginning, the council and NRW decided that asking Mr Thomas to put things back as they were was not feasible. As for the road, they formed the view that digging it up would cause more damage. Moreover, NRW decided that prosecuting Mr Thomas would be too expensive.

Almost a year and a half after discussions began, no restoration plan has been implemented, and the planning application seems to be frozen in time.

No such delays were encountered over at nearby  Ffynnon Luan, another of Mr Thomas's holdings, where retrospective planning permission for land reprofiling and a road was granted rather more swiftly earlier this year. The only difference was that Ffynnon Luan is not on an SAC.

Perhaps they're all waiting for Brexit and the eventual abolition of SACs, at which point the SSSI status could be removed on the grounds of essential quarrying.

Meanwhile, Mr Thomas can carry on as though nothing had happened, which of course is manifestly the case, with the application stuck in the long grass in Spillman Street, although you won't find much long grass on the land itself.

You don't need to be Iolo Williams to realise that most municipal golf courses provide richer habitats than the sterile expanse of mown commercial rye grass at Blaenypant:

Picture taken around 14 August

So Mr Thomas won't be going to court, and he gets to keep his road/agricultural track on a "farm" which has no arable land or livestock, apart from horses, and the restoration plan seems set to gather dust down in the archives.


Anonymous said...

Carmarthen Council should be made to answer by way of a Public Inquiry why Mr. Thomas is classed 'a farmer' when he clearly is not, why he is allowed to irreparably damage SACs without consequence, why he was allowed to run two commercial business from his agriculture holding without planning, why there were no business rates paid to the council on either business, why did the council deny that these two businesses even existed for a decade? Clearly there are those that CCC either fear or favour.

Anonymous said...

How much longer can the Executive led Carmarthen Council be allowed to conduct business in such a way that is answerable to no one?It is apparent that regardless of the laws of this land let alone European Directives they conduct themselves as above the law. Time and again we hear of cases of a total lack of consistency especially where Planning is concerned.Peoples lives have been ruined by their conduct and continue to be.The Welsh Government seems very reluctant to interfere for what ever reason. The time has come when NOTHING less than a Public Inquiry be called for into the workings of this Council.Nothing less will do if faith is to be restored for the people of Carmarthenshire.Hardly a week passes without reports of deals done behind closed doors and some very suspect decisions being made often by the unelected

Anonymous said...

The call for a public inquiry is long overdue.The goings-on at Andrew Thomas's supposed "Farm"alone should be enough to set the ball rolling and there are quite a few people whose lives have been ruined by officers action on non-action as the case may be.It really is time to deal with the whole rotten bunch of them.Get going anyone affected and push this forward in any way you can.The welsh government must listen.

Anonymous said...

Yes how could you not agree there should be a Public Inquiry into Blaenpant's activities allowed by CCC. It is one thing for officers to ignore, turn a blind eye, call it what you will, that is shocking in itself, it's quite another when officers deliberate conceal the truth and wilfully lie to discredit the people whose lives are seriously affected by industrial operations which require planning. When officers completely ignore their Code of Conduct, for over a decade, with such devastation to other people's lives there has to be a PI. It is far too serious too ignore.