Natural Resources Wales: One for all

6th June 2014


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Edward Gabbitas

Last year Natural Resources Wales replaced three Welsh environment bodies. Lucie Ponting reports

Launching Natural Resources Wales (NRW) a year ago, its chief executive, Emyr Roberts, promised a “fresh approach and new direction”. The body, which brought together the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) and the Welsh arms of the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission, pledged to manage the country’s natural resources more sustainably and, through greater efficiency, generate benefits worth £158 million in its first 10 years.

Perhaps inevitably, NRW has spent much of its inaugural 12 months focusing on delivering the core business and regulatory activities of its legacy bodies and melding these to create a functional single entity.

At the same time, it has been developing some innovative projects that exemplify an ecosystems approach to environment management.

First year priorities

“One of our priorities – because the organisation was formed pretty quickly – was to ensure we continued to deliver,” explains Ceri Davies, NRW’s executive director for knowledge, strategy and planning. “People depend on us for things like flood defences and permitting, so it was key that we didn’t just stop and reflect. But we’re also ambitious and we recognise a unique opportunity to look at new ways of working.”

NRW employs about 1,900 people and, with an operating budget of £177 million, is the largest body sponsored by the Welsh government. In its first year of operation, NRW committed to:

  • protect people and homes from flooding, pollution and other environmental incidents;
  • maintain and improve the quality of the environment, including the promotion of nature conservation, access and recreation;
  • provide opportunities for people to learn about, use and benefit from Wales’s natural resources;
  • support the Welsh economy by using natural resources to support jobs and enterprise;
  • help businesses understand and work on their environmental, social and economic impacts when bringing forward proposals; and
  • help to make the environment and natural resources more resilient to climate change and other pressures.

What no one could factor in to the early plans, however, was the effect of last winter’s storms. “Flood defence maintenance is a key role for us,” says Davies. “We obviously didn’t have the same issues in terms of scale and impact as England, but we did experience significant flooding and dealt with it effectively.”

During the storms in January 2014 alone, staff issued more than 100 flood warnings to at least 28,000 properties. And despite the persistent threat, flood defences kept an estimated 74,000 homes safe.

Throughout the period, NRW operated much the same response systems as its legacy organisations. “In the first year, you’d anticipate that,” says Davies. But she adds that, because “the people on the duty roster operating those systems are now drawn from all the bodies, that gives us more resilience in terms of numbers we can call on and the new ideas they bring”. The unified body is also still working closely with the Environment Agency in England. “Clearly, people live in the areas on the boundary and the environment doesn’t respect boundaries,” adds Davies. Rainfall on the Welsh mountains also has a knock-on effect in English counties.

“We’re maintaining the service but we’re also using the expertise in the organisation to broaden our contacts,” she explains. The former CCW’s strong links with the agricultural community were particularly useful in keeping open the lines of communication during the flooding. And, since then, NRW has asked farming unions to keep informing it about areas of concern or where they think dredging is required.

“The dredging question isn’t as simple as it sounds,” says Davies. “It can be a very damaging activity, so we have to make good, informed decisions.” NRW is also liaising with local authorities, which manage the smaller streams and other watercourses, to find solutions that consider the “whole environment”.

Ecosystem confusion

Outside of delivering the core business, much of the work NRW was involved in during its first 12 months centred on developing its ecosystems approach. Described by the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity as “a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way”, the approach takes biodiversity action beyond a single species or habitat and recognises humans as an integral part of the system. The NRW says this way of dealing with biological diversity involves considering and regulating the environment in Wales as a whole, rather than dealing with individual aspects; it will help weigh up and set priorities for the competing demands on natural resources.

Davies explains that the need to develop an ecosystems approach was one reason for bringing together the three organisations under the NRW banner. “And we’re now working with the Welsh government, environmental organisations and businesses to define what it looks like in reality.”

Discussions about flooding have helped this process. “Rather than looking just at defences at the river bank or coast, we’ve moved on to asking how we use the environment upstream to hold water back,” says Davies. NRW has 7% of the land of Wales directly under its management as forestry, so it has been looking at what it can do to contain the water in the upland areas. “It’s obviously not the answer to all flooding,” explains Davies, “but perhaps it could level out some of the peaks.”

More broadly, public feedback suggests the ecosystems approach confuses many people. “Because of the terminology, people sometimes think it is only about the environment,” says Davies, “but it’s about the environment, economy and society, and all of those choices being made together.” The easiest way to address the confusion, she suggests, is to provide practical examples, so NRW has set up three trials around the Dyfi, Rhondda and Tawe rivers to develop the tools required. These trials link land and sea to examine issues from a “whole catchment” perspective, rather than looking separately at flooding risk, agricultural needs and water quality.

Another example of the approach in action is the way in which NRW dealt with a potential permitting issue in south-west Wales. A dairy and creamery, First Milk, wanted to expand but there were doubts about the ability of the catchment to absorb more discharge from the effluent system. “Working with the company, we involved the farmers who supply the milk,” Davies says. The farmers were persuaded to alter their agricultural practices so they presented less of a burden on the catchment, allowing the creamery to take in more raw materials from the farmers and produce more products, which added value to the economy.

In the round

The extraordinary storms during the 2013–14 winter were not the only first-year challenge for the new body; NRW also had to deal with the effect of Phytophthora ramorum infection in larch trees in the forests it manages for the Welsh government. So far, two million infected trees have been felled.

In keeping with NRW’s holistic ecosystems approach, the felling has been carefully managed. Davies says that NRW looked at the process “in the round”, considering associated environmental problems – such as water run-off and silt contaminating streams – as well as social and economic impacts. Trees that are felled are replaced with new species to make future woodlands more diverse and resilient.

“We needed to ensure NRW didn’t flood the market with larch and artificially depress prices, so we tried to manage work in a sustainable way and agree long-term contracts so businesses could gear up for the amount of timber processed,” says Davies.

NRW is one of the biggest providers of outdoor recreation in Wales, with 550km of mountain bike trails and 450km of walking trails, for example, so it also had to take into account how recreational facilities would be affected by the tree felling. A pioneering treatment to inject a herbicide to stop sporulation has proved helpful in slowing the spread of larch disease and allowing NRW to plan felling and minimise its impact.

The first 12 months also saw the introduction of a new approach to hydropower developments, a controversial policy area for the former Welsh arm of the Environment Agency. “We decided to look at what the environment can deal with, and direct developers to areas where they would have least impact, rather than waiting for applications to come in and then getting into difficulties over sensitive locations,” explains Davies.

Most recently, NRW has reviewed its internal salmon stocking policies. “Our hatcheries are the result of past activities,” says Davies. Historically, these were set up to replace the loss of a piece of habitat for fish migration. But evidence is growing that hatchery reared young salmon have a much lower survival rate than young wild fish and that introducing them into rivers can harm wild populations. The review brought together former Environment Agency staff who were responsible for the salmon stocking and ex-CCW people who are experts on the Habitats Directive and the impacts of hatchery reared salmon on wild populations. “We looked at our operations and questioned them from the ecosystems perspective,” Davies says. NRW is now consulting on plans to stop rearing salmon and instead shift resources into improving rivers that can sustain fish and are fit for the future.

Moving together

Beyond NRW’s practical “hands-on” work, one of its main first-year objectives was to develop a corporate plan. In developing this, NRW stood usual practice on its head. “Instead of writing a draft and then consulting on it, we started with a blank sheet of paper and organised stakeholder events all over Wales,” says Davies. “We explained our role and responsibilities – the things we have to do – but then asked ‘what do you think we should be doing as an organisation?’”

Davies admits she was slightly nervous this might produce a long list of demands. But her fears were not realised. “What came out of the discussions was that people were more interested in the way we work, and how we work with the organisations we regulate or work with collaboratively,” she says. “It was much more about how they wanted to work more closely with us and how we, as an organisation, needed to be less precious about providing everything ourselves.” Reflecting the feedback, the new plan, launched in April this year, focuses on the delivery of five “good” programmes (see panel, left) covering the pillars of sustainability.

An obvious challenge in bringing together three long-established organisations lay in confronting their entrenched views and traditional methods, while maintaining their expertise across many policy areas. When NRW was first mooted, there were also concerns that the interests of one or more of the legacy organisations might be sidelined or subsumed.

Davies says, however: “Even though a lot of our people are experts in their field and have been employed in certain roles for a long time, what we’ve found is that just bringing them together has led them to think about their own work in a different way and ask how they can help move things forward.”
Many of the first year’s achievements, she believes, have stemmed from teams drawn from all parts of the legacy bodies. “Dealing with the larch felling would have been an out-and-out Forestry Commission activity previously,” she says. “But we pulled together people with knowledge of the environment and the local economy, as well as people from the old agency with incident management experience.” She hopes the corporate plan, which focuses on one organisation with a single voice, will help to cement the new culture.

Future plans

Looking ahead, further development of the ecosystems approach will remain a priority for NRW. “We’ll continue to focus on understanding the natural resources we have in Wales and the pressures on these, as well as the opportunities and potential benefits of managing them well,” says Davies. “We’ll also be looking at all our business practices to ensure that NRW is regulating and advising in the simplest streamlined way; that we’re being clear and that we’re working collaboratively.”

Another challenge the organisation may face is criticism that it is too close to the Welsh government. But NRW chief executive Emyr Roberts recently told BBC Wales that although NRW is the principal adviser to the government on the environment and works closely with it on some things, on others it is independent. In particular, he highlighted NRW’s advice on planning and its permitting work – it issues more than 10,000 environmental permits a year.

Although the sheer extent of NRW’s remit could limit its ability to operate successfully across all areas, there is little doubt that the organisation is breaking new ground. As scientists, policymakers and the general public change the way they view the environment, other regions and countries may soon be looking to the Welsh model for new ideas.

“We believe we’re unique in terms of our breadth and mix of responsibilities,” says Davies. “Legislation in the past has served us well in terms of specific concerns, such as air or water quality, but the issues we’re facing now, in dealing with things like climate change, are much more complex and integrated. You can’t just fix it by looking at it from a single perspective; you can only do it by saying ‘how do we look at the whole system to enable us to become more resilient?’”

Five ‘good’ work programmes

The 2014–17 corporate plan from Natural Resources Wales outlines the following five work programmes:

  • Good knowledge – gaining wisdom and understanding of natural resources in Wales and how we affect them; using evidence and applying learning from experience so that we make good decisions.
  • Good environment – ecosystems are resilient and secured for the future, wildlife and landscapes are enhanced, and the use of Welsh natural resources is carefully managed.
  • Good for people – ensure people are safe and enjoy and benefit from Wales’s natural resources and understand their relevance in their day to day lives.
  • Good for business – a “location of choice” for business and enterprise, and a place where best practice environment management is adopted and encouraged.
  • Good organisation – well led and well managed, with suitably skilled and experienced staff and effective underpinning systems and processes; transparency in its decision making and continuously improving its service to customers and partners, benchmarking itself against the best.


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