in Wales we recently took part in the UK assessment which showed a
much better situation with a mere 30% of our ecosystems damaged!
That’s the wake-up call, now we need action and the Living
Wales(1) programme may yet save us from ourselves. But
what is it?
To get a layman’s overview I have spoken with
a number of people, one of those being Shaun Russell, Director of
the Wales Environment Research Hub:
"In simple terms Living Wales is a way of
looking more deeply into all aspects of the
environment and long term. How we can maximise
benefits for people in terms of jobs, livelihood and
Living Wales embraces an
‘ecosystems approach’ which is a way of looking at what nature
provides for us with examples being: water quality, water storage,
flood control, carbon storage, biodiversity of plants and animals
and so on. The essence of the approach is not to look at one or two
aspects in isolation but to look at the big picture, at a basket of
Reversing a perverse
An example in Wales where we have not looked
at the big picture would be encouraging farmers to dig ditches and
drain the uplands to create more pasture for grazing sheep. The
consequences were the drying of the peat, reduction in
biodiversity, loss of carbon into the atmosphere, flooding and
discolouration of water costing water companies a lot of money to
treat. Even the farmers were complaining about sheep perishing in
huge ditches from which they could not escape. With hindsight we
realise this was wrong and are now blocking those ditches to re-wet
the uplands; reversing a perverse subsidy.
The ecosystems approach is not something we
have invented in Wales but an approach developed through parties to
the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and adopted across the
world by 190 countries. The approach is based on a set of twelve
complementary and interlinked principles of which the first three
1) the objectives of management of land, water
and living resources are a matter of societal choices;
2) management should be decentralized to the
lowest appropriate level;
3) ecosystem managers should consider the
effects (actual or potential) of their activities on adjacent and
What are ecosystems?
Article 2 of the Convention defines an
"… a dynamic complex of plant, animal
and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment
interacting as a functional unit."
Standing outside Plas Tan y Bwlch I asked
Shaun what ecosystems could be seen in the Vale of Ffestiniog:
"Ecosystems is a posh word for habitats
and here we have the full set: montane (mountains, moorland and
heathland), arable farmland, semi-natural grassland in y ffridd,
woodland, wetlands including the river itself, salt marshes leading
to marine habitat and of course urban – towns and villages. All
habitats provide benefits and services."
Wales is at the forefront of converting the
approach into action with the launch of its green paper, just a
step along the way leading to a white paper and an environment bill
"Wales might be a small country, a drop in
the ocean of a seven billion population, but by leading the way we
hope to influence people around the world."
Testimony to this is the delegation from Wales
which has been invited this spring to the Indian state of
Maharashtra, with its population of 120 million, to advise on how
to conduct an ecosystems assessment.
Planning is key
Planning guidelines and regulations are the
principal mechanisms for driving change with a sustainable
development bill and a planning bill in the legislative pipeline. I
spoke with people involved in the planning process. One said 75% of
his time he finds himself saying no, but he hopes this paradigm
will change with Living Wales, enabling and
encouraging the right sorts of development in the right place
rather than him having to be the environmental policeman.
"So often development plans (buildings,
roads, power stations etc.) are presented with environment aspects
left to the end. If environment can be built in from the start,
there will be less need for U turns at the last minute or costly
alterations. Show stoppers can be identified early on before it’s
At present developers might need to get
approval from several organisations and this is something that
should be streamlined or made simpler with the creation of the
Single Body(2). This unified body, together with the ecosystems
approach, should help avoid anomalies such as Pembroke Power
Station. Building plans were approved and work started in 2009. In
November 2011 the Environment Agency granted an environment permit.
On the same day the Countryside Council for Wales was pointing out
on national TV that releasing 3.5 million cubic metres per day of
hot (8° C warmer) water into a marine Special Area of Conservation
was bound to affect the ecology and therefore be in breach of
European law. Having spent a billion pounds it was a bit late to
consider moving the power station!
Under Living Wales would we
have agreed to the gas terminal at Milford Haven and the pipeline
that went through the Brecon Beacons? Would the HS2 high-speed
railway between London and the Midlands be in accordance with the
Living Wales is intended to be at the heart of
development thinking, getting an appropriate balance between
environmental and socio-economic factors. Embracing the principles
should guide us to work with nature rather than against it.
It all sounds great and whilst most people
seem enthusiastic there are concerns. Some environmentalists fear
that our shrinking conservation budgets and management focus will
switch to the new at the expense of the old e.g. away from the 74
National Nature Reserves. Industrialists might fear tightening
controls and higher costs whilst many farmers see it as yet more
environment legislation on top of their primary role to produce
food. People living behind man-made sea defences might worry what
‘working with nature’ could mean to their predicament.
The Sustaining a Living Wales
green paper sets out the proposals with the consultation
running until 31st May 2012. It seeks views and ideas on
our level of appetite for ‘radical’ change. The 38 page
document is well presented with a structured set of questions at
the back in case you need a prompt. There is also an offer on the
government website to attend meetings and events to hear your views
and provide updates - the email address is LivingWales@Wales.gsi.gov.uk
To access all relevant documents visit
but be warned that ‘Living Wales’ was the name of
a previous consultation whereas the current one is
‘Sustaining a Living Wales’.
Huw Jenkins is the marketing
manager for Natur Cymru and a community reporter for Radio
Wales. He gives talks to groups and societies across north and mid
Wales in return for them buying subscriptions to Natur Cymru.
1. 'Living Wales' is the name
of the government programme overseeing the green paper and the
creation of the Single Body (see below). 'Sustaining a Living
Wales' supersedes the term 'Natural Environment Framework'
2. The Single Body, previously referred to as the Single
Environment Body, will be a completely new body that will have
responsibility for much of the work that is currently done by
Countryside Council for Wales, Environment Agency Wales and
Forestry Commission Wales. The new Single Body should be in place
by April 2013.
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