Hague gives Redwood a 'slap in the face'

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The Independent Online
THE WELSH Secretary, William Hague, has delivered a slap in the face to his predecessor, John Redwood, by pointedly scrapping one of his pet projects.

The most junior member of the Cabinet has abruptly reversed his fellow right-winger's programme of dismembering wildlife and countryside conservation in the principality. This follows a campaign in the Independent on Sunday which exclusively revealed Mr Redwood's plans a year ago - and came under vigorous attack from Welsh Office ministers as a result.

Despite the Budget's severe spending cuts, Mr Hague has increased funding for the principality's official conservation watchdog, the Countryside Council For Wales (CCW) by 20 per cent. This more than restores a sharp 16 per cent cut forced through by Mr Redwood.

Later this month he will announce the creation of two new internationally protected wildlife areas shelved by Mr Redwood - Ennydd in Mid-Wales, home to red kites and other upland birds, and Pembrokeshire's Castle Martin cliffs, renowned for its choughs.

Mr Redwood - who publicly bracketed environmentalists with "European neo-Nazis" as enemies of democracy and freedom - made his attack on conservation one of the defining issues of his tenure of the Welsh Office. Cabinet colleagues responded that he was "batty" and "out of control".

His harsh cuts brought new work on such vital wildlife areas as National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest almost to a standstill, forcing the CCW to abandon government targets to clear the principality's 20,000 miles of footpaths by the year 2000. Both senior CCW and top Department of the Environment officials feared that the body would no longer be able to fulfil their statutory duties.

His plans, and their revelation in the Independent on Sunday, caused a furious row and top officials say that the Prime Minister sent Mr Hague to Wales, after Mr Redwood's failed leadership challenge, with specific instructions to sort it out. One of the new Welsh Secretary's first acts was to visit the CCW's headquarters in Bangor - Mr Redwood used to summon its leaders to his office.

Conservationists say that Mr Hague, much of whose own constituency is in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, has more feel for conservation than his predecessor, who represents home counties commuter land. One senior Whitehall official agreed: "You have a better chance of understanding the issues if you come from the Yorkshire Dales than if you come from Wokingham - or Mars!"

The CCW says that it is now back on track "almost as if Mr Redwood had never been".