Environment body merger fears of wood industry in Wales

Commercial companies involved in forestry are warning of cuts in jobs and investment if the Welsh government merges three separate agencies.

Civil servants are preparing a business plan for a single body to replace the Environment Agency, Countryside Council and Forestry Commission in Wales.

Representatives of the wood industry claim they could suffer from a conflict of interest within any new agency.

But the draft plan says it would ensure better delivery and value for money.

Shared resources

For nine months civil servants have been preparing a business plan detailing how the Welsh government would amalgamate the three bodies.

Some of the arguments for the merger can be found on the Welsh government website, but the draft business plan hasn't been widely read.

In a copy obtained by BBC Wales, the plan states the benefits of a single environmental body (SEB) as giving:

  • better delivery on environmental issues
  • a single point of contact
  • shared resources and combined expertise
  • better value for money.

Senior staff in all three environment bodies declined to be interviewed by the BBC, but it's widely known that there's less opposition to the merger in the Countryside Council Wales (CCW) and Environment Agency Wales (EAW) than at the Forestry Commission in Wales (FCW).

But there are fears within the world of commercial forestry that an industry employing 10,000 people in Wales, contributing over £840m to the Welsh economy, could suffer.

Balance of priorities

David Burd, manager of the BSW timber mill near Newbridge-on-Wye, Powys, says his company could not commit to future investment and job creation if the industry's needs weren't prioritised.

"I am desperately concerned that if the amalgamation there will be a significant disruption to our long term supply of raw material," he said.

"The balance between forestry as a business and the use of forests for recreational facilities will change dramatically."

Confor, the federation promoting forestry and wood for 2,000 businesses, claims there could be a conflict of interest if it presses ahead to form the SEB.

The example it gives is that the FCW has a programme to develop a number of wind farms, but another arm of the future environment body would need to decide if those proposals are given the green light.

Confor's Wales manager Kath McNulty also questions why the business case for the merger is in place, before the new body's duties and responsibilities have been decided.

"We've got two parallel processes - the natural environment framework which will lead to legislation but not until 2015.

"Meanwhile they're talking about bringing together this new body that will be there to deliver this legislation which will take effect two years beforehand.

"It's a bit like putting the cart before the horse."

The Woodland Trust in Wales (Coed Cadw) has given a guarded welcome to the SEB proposal as offering the "possibility of greater public benefits from more integrated land management" and for those working in the sector "an opportunity to broaden their perspective and extend their influence."

But it said it was also concerned that the strengths of the current environmental bodies might not carried through to any new agency, which might also suffer from the disruption of work, and the potential loss of key staff and morale.

Union officials have also pointed out the challenges of merging organisations whose staff are subject to different pay and conditions.

'Greater effectiveness'

According to the Welsh government, having one single organisation to deal with all environment issues would be more efficient and create significant savings.

Environment Minister John Griffiths said: "We've got three organisations all doing an important job but I think if we could pool them together we would have greater integration, greater efficiency, and greater effectiveness," he said.

"It is the business case now that's very much driving this stage of the decision-making progress because obviously it has to stack up."

An interesting conundrum for the Welsh government to ponder as it considers plans to establish a single environment body is how it would deal with contradictory decisions within the same organisation.

In relation to the almost completed new gas-fired power station near Pembroke Dock, the CCW advised the Welsh government it could be legally challenged by the European Commission for allowing turbines at the RWE Npower plant to be cooled by water drawn from the Cleddau estuary.

But Environment Agency Wales issued RWE with an operating permit, despite concerns on its impact in an special area of conservation.

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