Redwood 'misled Commons' over plans to cut conservation in Wales

Environment/ minister under fire
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JOHN REDWOOD, the right-wing Welsh Secretary misled the House of Commons over plans to dismember wildlife and countryside protection in the Principality, according to a paper being circulated privately by a recently retired top official.

The charge - by Professor Gareth Wyn Jones, until last month Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Scientist of the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), the Principality's official watchdog - follows plans for deep cuts in conservation announced by Mr Redwood last weekend. The plans were exclusively forecast by Independent on Sunday in January, provoking vigorous attacks on the newspaper by Welsh ministers.

Mr Redwood - who last year bracketed environmentalists with "European neo-Nazis" and "totalitarians in China" as enemies of democracy and capitalism - released details of the plans on the Saturday morning of the VE weekend, when they could be expected to attract the least possible public attention.

He is planning to stop the CCW funding country parks and buying threatened landscapes or wildlife sites to save them from destruction, to restrict its programme of clearing footpaths, and to reduce its influence in stopping damaging development through the planning system. He has already cut the budget of the watchdog - which has successfully opposed him over several major developments - by a sixth, and wants to reduce its staff by a third over the next two years.

Conservationists and senior Department of the Environment officials believe that the cuts will prevent the CCW carrying out its statutory obligations - and this is at the root of the charge that Mr Redwood has misled the House of Commons.

The allegation - which is strongly denied by the Welsh Office will be pressed home by Mr Ron Davies, the shadow Welsh Secretary, in Parliament over the next few weeks. It will severely embarrass Mr Redwood, who has already been described as "batty" and "out of control" by cabinet colleagues.

It arises from an exchange between Mr Davies and Mr Redwood on 2 March, when the Welsh Secretary said that his opposite number "should accept that I met the whole board of the Countryside Council for Wales. I granted the CCW the amount that the board said that it needed to meet its obligations, and the board members clearly stated that the CCW could meet all its statutory obligations."

But in a paper in the hands of the Independent on Sunday, Prof Wyn Jones says that these assertions were "incorrect". He says that Mr Redwood was told at the meeting - which was held at the Welsh Office in London on 24 January - that the funding was not adequate for the CCW to fulfil its "duties and functions" and adds that it has "consistently requested additional money to meet obligations" and had "written to the Secretary of State stating that it may not be able to meet its obligations".

The paper adds: "The Secretary of State's actions have consistently undermined the capacity of the body, charged in Wales by statute with the conservation of wildlife and landscape and with the promoting of their interpretation and enjoyment, to carry out its functions and obligations."

Speaking from Vienna - where he was lecturing - late last week, Prof Wyn Jones said: "There is no question but that he was misleading the House." Mr Merfyn Williams - who was present at the meeting as a member of CCW's board (but has since resigned from it ) agrees that Mr Redwood's was "a misleading statement". And Mr Davies adds: "I believe that Mr Redwood deliberately misled me on the floor of the House."

The Welsh Office strongly denies this, but it does not deny that, before he stood up in the House of Commons, Mr Redwood had received a letter from the CCW requesting more money so that it could carry out its statutory duties.

Mr Redwood's plan suggests that local authorities may take over some of the functions of the CCW, but both the Assembly of Welsh Counties and the Council of Welsh Districts - the two bodies representing councils in the Principality - say that they would be reluctant to do so unless the Welsh Secretary gave them extra funds.

Mr Michael Perry, Secretary of the Assembly, said that it could cost more for the local authorities to take on the tasks. He added: "The CCW has done a very good job and if we take over parts of it, we have got to be sure that we can do it at least as well."

Mr Merfyn Williams, who is now Director of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, said last week that he was "appalled" by the plans, but that Mr Redwood had made them less severe than originally planned "as a result of the campaign conducted by the Independent on Sunday".

A senior Department of the Environment official added: "Mr Redwood has proved the Independent on Sunday right. He is sacrificing the environment while pretending to be in favour of it."

Earlier this year Mr Redwood said: "I want to refute this idea that the minister is not 'green'. I am trying to develop green policies that work."