IN HER FIRST year home from Westminster, where she was a director at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) chief executive Clare Pillman has seen the worst that the weather can hurl at a country.
Her first summer back in Wales was the hottest on record and one of the driest. Intense storms this spring and last autumn raised river levels and brought coastal flooding to the southwest and north.
Interviewed weeks into her new job, she said her priorities leading Wales’ largest quango would be climate change, along with biodiversity loss and pressure on natural resources.
Reminded of that list now, ensconced at her office at NRW’s Cardiff headquarters, the chief executive smiles wryly at her own foresight. “We’ve certainly felt all the impacts of climate change,” she says. “People said wildfires don’t happen in the UK. Yes, they do. In October and March, we had intense, very heavy rainfall in a very short time; 91 per cent of average rainfall for March fell on Capel Curig in ten hours.
“When it comes to climate change, Wales is already feeling some incredibly challenging environmental impacts.
“I’ve lived around the River Dee all my life. The area is used to slow flood events – you know what is coming as water rises up the catchment, lying in the fields for weeks. Now, the water rises very quickly. Across Wales, these very stormy, heavy rains are becoming more frequent and the impact on communities is tough.”
To respond, Pillman is leading a three-pronged approach to flood risk, combining hard engineering, natural flood management and community engagement. But that’s just one part of NRW’s complex remit, to monitor – and prosecute for breaches of – water and land quality, regulate waste-processing and power and protect the Welsh landscape and wildlife.
Pillman has weathered a storm inside Wales’ equivalent to the Environment Agency, too. Budgets are under pressure. NRW funding comes from grant-in-aid, from charging for its regulatory services and from commercial income, see box. That grant-in-aid funding has been cut.
When The Environment visited in April, NRW was finalising Organisation Design, adapting to new legislation, while tightening its belt. Part of that is a legacy of NRW’s difficult birth, from the April 2013 merger of Environment Agency Wales, Forestry Commission Wales and the Countryside Council for Wales. Part stems from adjusting to cutbacks.
The new-look NRW is place-based, restructured into six geographical units plus marine. The shake-up has cut jobs and unsettled NRW’s remaining staff. Critics question how, with fewer resources, NRW can protect the Welsh landscape and habitats.
Pillman does not duck the question. Conservation has been hardest hit, she says, including the Vital Nature biodiversity initiative, with funding cut by nearly a third.
“We have had budget cuts, along with every part of the public sector... But we’re getting odd bits of money from Welsh government to support that. More money is always nice, but there are other pressures on the public purse.”
NRW presents its priority list and funding estimate to the Senedd to approve. The assembly allocates that money annually, pending proposals to switch to term-of-government budgets. “That would help with multi-year schemes that take time to get through,” Pillman says.
“We have implemented the provisions of 2016 Reservoirs Act and are applying to the Welsh government to fund that. We’re undergoing a huge amount of reservoir improvement and restoration. Moving to term-of-government budgets would help everyone – NRW, local authorities and landowners – to plan for big projects.”
Shifting to local projects and partnerships will offset funding cuts, she says. “Working at a place-based level with local authorities and others, you can pool resources to tackle problems together. That is a strength, at a time of financial austerity.”
Some species-specific campaigns – reintroducing water voles to the Gwent Levels wetland, protecting red squirrels in Clocaenog Forest in the northeast – have done well. But protecting the Welsh landscape and wildlife needs public support.
“People find biodiversity loss difficult to relate to, even when the statistics on losses of species and diversity are horrific,” Pillman says. “It’s difficult to connect people with statistics and solutions… There’s an issue about how we convey the urgent need for action in a way that’s real and compelling, that gives people the sense that if they choose a reusable flask, yes, they really are making a difference.
“In Wales, we face several opportunities and threats. We need landscape-scale initiatives. Doing things in small pockets of land is good, but it’s not good enough. We need interconnectedness, but doing things at landscape scale is expensive. We’ve been lucky to receive large amounts of money through the European Union’s Life programme. That’s enabled us to do some great landscape-scale projects and we’re applying for funding to support that.”
Examples of EU-backed projects include the Snowdonia National Park Authority-led Celtic Rain Forest project, a £9 million drive to change grazing patterns, strip out invasive species and protect wet and temperate oak forests that support fragile lichens and wildlife. European money is restoring raised bog on seven Welsh sites, including the Gwent Levels.
“Those really good examples of where, with funding support, you can do good things at scale,” Pillman says. “That funding is threatened with Brexit but we hope whatever new funding streams come, we can support these kinds of multi-partner, landscape-scale projects.”
Wales plans to launch two funds to replace EU land-based payments. At the time of writing, the Land-Management Fund consultation had drawn more than 12,000 responses to the proposed Economic Resilience Scheme and Public Goods Scheme, not all of them supportive.
Pillman does support the proposals, seeing an opportunity to help farmers and fund ecosystems services. “That could be a real gamechanger for biodiversity in Wales,” she says. “It enables us to work with farmers and other land managers to find ways to do things differently, increasing biodiversity and improving water, air and soil quality.
“Because all those things are linked, we can look at the multiple benefits that come from tree planting, natural flood alleviation and other schemes.”
Relationships have “not always been great” between NRW and Welsh farmers, she concedes. A new Wales Land-management Forum aims to unite government, NRW, farmers and NGOs to find new, better ways to work together, post-Brexit, managing flood risk and preventing slurry pollution.
“I’m determined to work with farmers to support and help them, during a time that could potentially be really tough,” she says. “Building relationships and trust is important to me. Farmers know their land. When we’re looking at flood-alleviation scheme, who should we talk to? They know how the water runs and where the concerns are, and the changes they’ve seen in their lifetimes.
“They can help us to work with them to reverse changes. It has to be more of a partnership.”
Working together to improve water quality top of her list. The latest figures show that 37 per cent of water bodies in Wales meet good Water Framework Directive (WFD) status. The figure is up from 34 per cent, but falls far short of WFD targets.
Wales faces the twin problems of agricultural run-off and seepage from old mine workings that leak heavy metals into water courses. Both contribute equally to water pollution in Wales.
Having to prosecute a farmer is a sign the agency has failed, Pillman says. “I would far rather tackle the root cause than end up in court. We have good, catchment-level projects around the River Teifi and in Anglesey, working with local farmers. We worked with farmers near Cemaes Bay to tackle short-term pollution to bathing waters.
“In these cases, slurry spills or animals standing in a stream making a mess can have an immediate impact on bathing water that hits the economy of a tourist town. It’s work like this, on catchment-level schemes, that maintains blue flags on every beach in Wales.”
After a decade of austerity, the government aims to reshape the Welsh landscape. In 2016, the Senedd approved a Nature Recovery Action Plan, requiring five-yearly progress updates. The new Planning Policy Wales (PPW) took effect last autumn. Published next spring, a new National Development Framework will target placemaking, guiding Wales’ economic and social development over the next two decades.
Four years ago, Wales passed the groundbreaking Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (WFGA), creating a commission to hold public bodies to account over the long-term impact of their decisions. In February, Future Generations commissioner Sophie Howe stepped in for local residents, challenging NRW’s decision to award an environmental permit to Barry Biomass plant.
The act increases pressure on Welsh public bodies to act sustainably. But Pillman sees the act as an opportunity as much as a challenge. “Underpinning the act is [the idea] that value is not just economic; it is also about social value, or value to health, wellbeing and increased biodiversity,” she says. “We have genuinely groundbreaking legislation, to underpin the way we talk about value.
“That recognises that when you push for just one part of the spectrum, you can compromise other elements of value. Economists and statisticians are looking at value systems and the environment. We need to use that information to advocate for the environment.
“NRW is a member of all 19 public-service boards in Wales. We sit at those tables with people saying we need to spend money on education, on health, on social care. Putting a value on the environment gives us the tools to argue for the environment as a key contributor, to health and wellbeing, to the economy and to resilient communities.”
“Whatever you think about Brexit, it has consumed more than 1,000 days of parliamentary time so far. And during that time, not much has happened. Look at the projections that we have ten years to sort out the environment. We’ve lost a thousand out of maybe 5,000 days. Are we focusing on the wrong thing? Will future generations turn round and ask us, what on earth were you doing, having a collective nervous breakdown when a much greater crisis was looming?”
“A one-size-fits-all, Cardiff-knows-best approach doesn’t work. What works in Pembrokeshire won’t work in the Vale of Clwyd or the South Wales valleys. It’s important to have a real sense of connection and engagement locally, with a really strong evidence base and focus on priorities. We need to make the most of our resources, so that we look at a flood scheme in terms of its multiple benefits; creating new habitats, providing access to recreation”
BOX: HOW NATURAL RESOURCES WALES IS FUNDED
The Welsh government provides grant-in-aid for NRW’s revenue and capital expenditure, split between flood-risk management and other functions. The capital grant-in-aid allocation, typically around £20 million, is driven mainly by NRW programme capital requirements.
According to a spokesman, NRW’s flood revenue grant-in-aid has increased in cash terms since 2013/2014 from £19 million to £19.75 million. “If our funding had kept pace with inflation, it would be around £21.8 million. Since 2013/2014, our other functions’ revenue grant-in-aid has decreased, in cash terms, from £71 million to £57.4 million. If our funding had kept pace with inflation, it would have been £81.5 million – that’s a real-term reduction of 30 per cent.”
NRW expects levels of charge income for 2019/2020 to remain similar to 2013 levels, projected at £38.5 million for the current financial year. “So we have absorbed inflationary increases of £6 million.”
Meanwhile, the agency aims to grow its commercial income. In 2013/2014, it made £13 million from selling timber. This year, it aims to earn nearly £37 million in commercial income, including £23 million from selling timber.
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