Wildlife quango faces cuts shake-up plan

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The Independent Online
John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales, is considering radical plans for shaking up nature conservation in Wales and of drastically slimming down his countryside and wildlife protection quango, the Countryside Council for Wales.

One option is to offer the management of some or all of Wales's 52 national nature reserves to wildlife conservation organisations and charities.

Another is to give local councils the leading role in monitoring and safeguarding the 1,600 government-designated sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) in Wales, singled out because of their special fauna and flora or geological structures. These SSSIs cover nearly one-tenth of the principality and the finest of them are also national nature reserves.

Tomorrow Mr Redwood meets with top officials from the Countryside Council to discuss these and other options. It is facing large cuts in its £20m a year budget and may lose one-third of its staff.

According to a confidential council memorandum, obtained by the Independent on Sunday, several of the council's objectives in conserving nature and clearing obstructed footpaths will not be met because of the cuts.

Mr Redwood's root and branch review of the council, confirmed by the Welsh Office yesterday, fulfils the fears of conservation bodies. They have come to believe that he looks on the protection of natural beauty and species as an expensive luxury in whichthe state should be as little involved as possible.

He made a speech last year in which he said decisions on conservation versus development that created jobs should be left to the local communities involved as often as possible.

Mr Redwood has backed major road widening in Snowdonia National Park and an M4 by-pass south of Newport which would severely damage wetland SSSIs on the Gwent Levels.

But his views are receiving some support among some Welsh local councils and business people. They believe that with its low population density, poor rural areas and pockets of high, long-term unemployment, Wales should not miss development opportunitiesfor the sake of wildlife and scenery.