Failure to Restore Lost Protected Landscape
Emails released by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) under a Freedom of Information request reveal that, despite good intentions, once a protected site has been destroyed it is pretty much impossible to achieve its restoration.
The emails suggest that Huw Williams, team leader with NRW, based in Llandeilo, spent much of 2015 trying to ensure that damage to the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation (SAC) was reversed. Cernydd Carmel, stretching from Gorslas towards Llandybie in Carmarthenshire, along a band of limestone, is protected because of rare features including its raised bogs, scree forests, wet heaths, dry heaths, caves and Britain’s only recorded turlough, a seasonal lake on limestone. SACs are of European importance and are supposed to receive the highest level of environmental protection.
Landowner Mr Andrew Thomas, of Blaenpant, Maesybont, had excavated and moved earth and constructed a roadway in the SAC. When the series of released emails ended, on November 16th, the restoration plan was still not agreed. Mr Thomas had engaged consultants JCR Planning of Llanelli to represent him, and JCR’s representative[i] – the name on the email was redacted to comply with data protection law — wrote on that day:
“The purpose of the Restoration Report is to indicate the means of grazing the enclosure and use of the track over the next 10 year period, with a focus on restoring vegetation. It was not intended to address the issues of contours and past excavations from a ground re-profiling sense within that document.”
So, the damage caused by excavations was not to be repaired.
Why so? It seems to be due to negotiations between Mr Thomas’s agents JCR Planning, NRW, and Carmarthenshire County Council, taking place between May and August 2015, about Enforcement Notices issued for the site. On May 8th, Huw Williams emailed a person or persons (names redacted), plus NRW’s development planning adviser Bonnie Palmer and senior environmental officer David Ellar, saying “NRW has a number of concerns regarding this application [to obtain planning permission for the track built across part of the SAC]. We would appreciate the opportunity to meet to discuss the case prior to potentially meeting with the applicant and his agents.”
A site meeting took place on June 5th, seemingly between Carmarthenshire County Council’s minerals and waste planning manager and JCR Planning. It was at this site meeting that it was apparently agreed between the persons present that it would be unrealistic to reinstate the site to its original – protected – state, but that an alternative plan must be prepared, and that if it would not be possible to have this ready by June 25th, JCR Planning, on behalf of their client Mr Thomas, should ask for more time.
The county’s minerals and waste planning manager had “no issue with that”, as long as “progress is being made”.
Progress was slow. On August 19th, someone at Carmarthenshire County Council emailed JCR Planning, Huw Williams at NRW, and two people in the county council, to say that, while it had been agreed it would be unrealistic to restore the land to its original state, a restoration scheme was required, but this scheme “was not submitted in compliance with the timeframe specified on the Enforcement Notice.”. Nevertheless, “an extension of time to submit the scheme beyond an additional 28 days would have been agreed….if it was requested in writing – which I do not appear to have. There is also a letter written by the Minerals and Waste Manager which confirms, and I quote, ‘If an alternative scheme is not submitted within 28 days the only option to you to comply with the requirements of the Enforcement Notice will be to restore the land to its former profile and condition before a revised date for compliance I have set at 31st August 2015’.”
The email continues: “I appreciate that restoring the land is not the route which will be taken, therefore, in the absence of the minerals and waste manager who is on annual leave at this time, all I can do is once again reiterate that the time given to comply with the Enforcement Notice is OVERDUE and the following information needs to be submitted as soon as possible:
“Any alternative restoration scheme submitted shall include details of revised final contours and revised restoration details which shall include details of soil replacement profiles, soil handling, cultivation, planting and seeding as well as proposals for the construction and maintenance of tracks.” [original emphasis]
Within 20 minutes, JCR Planning emailed back to recipients including Huw Williams at NRW as well as persons with redacted names, with a copy to an anonymous person at ecological consultants Amber Consultancy. The purpose of the email seems to be to play for more time:
“Clearly, there are complicated ecological issues to be overcome on this site”, wrote JCR Planning, “and my clear understanding is that neither the NRW nor your Ecology colleagues did not [sic] advocate any future ground reprofiling, cultivation, seeding or planting to the grazing enclosure, or works to the existing track other than agricultural type fencing. Our draft Report seeks to establish such parameters. Hopefully if agreed, with or without revisions and amendments, the Management Report can form the basis of the current planning application for the track. How therefore can we submit a restoration scheme for the pasture to comply with an Enforcement Notice, when this was not the conclusion, or the agreed route to be taken, following the recent site meetings?? Can you please clarify matters?” [my emphasis]
The next day, an email from someone (name redacted) at the county council to someone at JCR Planning, to Huw Williams at NRW, and two other people at the county council, reiterated that the first Enforcement Notice, E/ENF/07043, related to the unauthorised roadway. Mr Thomas had been instructed to submit a planning application “to regularise the development”, and this had been done.
The second Enforcement Notice, E/ENF/07016, applied to “unauthorised excavations and the use of materials that is not considered reasonable for the purposes of agriculture”. Mr Thomas had been ordered, on March 3rd 2015, to “cease the excavation and removal of material from the land for purposes which are not reasonably necessary for the purposes of agriculture”, and also to “reinstate the land to its former condition” or “in accordance with an alternative restoration scheme (which must be submitted for the approval of the Local Planning Authority within 28 days of this Notice taking effect)….”.
The option of an alternative restoration plan had to “include details of revised final contours and revised restoration details which shall include details of soil replacement profiles, soil handling, cultivation, planting and seeding as well as proposals for the construction and maintenance of tracks”.
Although the restoration plan should have been submitted by March 31st, during November arguments about it were still continuing, even though the aim of ‘restoration’ had been abandoned, and replaced by a watered-down idea to manage the remaining vegetation.
If an area of landscape is so special that it is designated of European importance, as this site is, how come it is so simple to both damage it severely, and avoid any compulsion to reinstate it?
The answer lies, it seems, in having the financial clout to employ expert consultants to argue persuasively on your behalf.
[i] JCR’s planning directors are Jason Evans, Richard Banks and Craig Jones, who are all qualified planners and members of the Royal Town Planning Institute