`Batty' Redwood wants to privatise Snowdon

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The Independent Online
Secret plans to privatise Snowdon, and more than 50 other prime nature reserves in Wales, have been drawn up under pressure from the right-wing Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood.

Confidential documents obtained by the Independent on Sunday reveal that the privatisation plans are part of a wholesale dismemberment of nature and countryside conservation in the Principality. Wildlife sites are to be left to degrade, protection of endangered species and habitats is to be cut, and a government-backed programme to clear Wales's 20,000 miles of footpaths by the end of the decade is to be abandoned.

Mr Redwood - who is privately described as "batty" and "out of control" by Cabinet colleagues - has summoned his official watchdog, the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), to meet him on Tuesday to discuss the plans. The CCW - which has successfully opposed Mr Redwood over several major development schemes - is to be emasculated, losing important powers, much of its budget and one-third of its staff. Conservationists fear that similar cuts may follow in Scotland and England.

The documents, which include a memorandum written last Monday by Ian Mercer, the CCW's chief executive, detailing the cuts, give the lie to government assurances. Lord Lucas, a Welsh Office spokesman, told the Lords last Tuesday: "The CCW is confident that it can perform all its functions despite the reduction in its resources."

The enforced privatisation plans realise an ambition first laid out, to huge public outcry, seven years ago by the late Nicholas Ridley, then environment secretary, and scrapped by his successor, Chris Patten. Private bodies are to be approached to run the 52 Welsh National Nature Reserves, which include most of Snowdon and its summit, and to take over their staff.

The state will still own the land, as there would have to be new legislation to enable it to be sold off, but conservationists are appalled by the plans. The documents also reveal that: Local authorities may be asked to take over the monitoring and safeguarding of most of the 1,600 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) which cover nearly a tenth of Wales.

The CCW will only be able to make "very limited" new agreements with landowners to look after SSSIs on their land.

There is now "no possibility" of completing a programme, endorsed by the Government's 1990 Environment White Paper, to get Wales's footpaths and bridleways into working order by 2000. At present, in five cases out of six, walkers are unable to complete a two-mile stroll without meeting an illegal obstruction.

Wales will only be able to achieve "partial" observance of 59 targets for preserving wildlife announced by the Prime Minister exactly a year ago.

A top Department of the Environment official said last week: "John Redwood has declared UDI and is being very aggressively anti-environment."