National park designation ‘has not prevented environmental degradation’ in Brecon Beacons

Four former board members of the authority that oversees Brecon Beacons National Park (BBNPA) have criticised how it is run, alleging that local interests “trump” Wales-wide issues and have led to environmental degradation, reports say.

According to a document obtained by BBC Wales under freedom of information legislation, the Welsh government appointees said that the designation of the area as a national park “has not prevented stark indicators of environmental degradation”, and alleged that in discussions local interests "trump" Wales-wide issues as the BBNPA is dominated by councillors.

These insights were presented in a written document after the BBC made an FOI request that revealed two of the four former board members sharing insights in the document left following a decision by Welsh Government climate change minister Julie James this summer.

Former board member James Marsden was reappointed in April 2020, for a period of four years, however his post was terminated early this summer. Minutes from the meeting, where Marsden disputed the decision, showed that the working relationship between him and other members had broken down, according to the BBC. He is reported as saying he felt local council members did not want to see changes, and "resented him shining a light on difficult issues from an evidence perspective".

The decision follows two critical Audit Wales reports. In 2021, auditors found "Weaknesses in leadership and governance" hampered work designed to improve the park's environment. In March 2022 a new report found some officers at the park “frequently feel overwhelmed by queries and challenges from some members".

"Several [officers] also noted that they were fearful of engaging with these members and dreaded attending committees or working groups," it said, but did not specify who was responsible for this behaviour.

The report also highlighted that there were board members who “perceive officers to be collectively and deliberately working against them” and although the auditor found no evidence of this, it did highlight that decision making was “increasingly becoming protracted” with reports often delayed which it suggested “may be helping to shape this perception”.

Climate minister Julie James also chose not to renew ex-Woodland Trust chief Sue Holden’s term as board member. Board members Chris Coppock and Liz Davies quit earlier in the year.

According to BBC Wales sources, the former members were described as “champions” for certain key subjects, such as climate change and sustainable development and “outspoken” on those issues “and some found that uncomfortable - some local authority members, and some officers”.

The four former NNBA board members collectively wrote in the document seen by BBC Wales, that the Beacons is in “no better condition than wider landscapes across the UK”. The group cited 2020 figures showing 35% of its sites of special scientific interest and 56% of special areas of conservation are in an “unfavourable” condition, and that 88% of the river Usk and 67% of the river Wye fail to meet phosphate levels.

These high phosphate levels saw Natural Resources Wales tightening its nutrient levels for the area in 2020, particularly the Wye, with all new developments impacting the special area of conservation (SAC) only be supported if developers can demonstrate phosphate neutrality.

The members said that without a change to board make-up, which has a majority of council nominees over ministerial appointees, “local vested interests will always trump the national interest”, and accused councillors of resisting “policies which propose changes in land management practices consistent with the core purposes and duty of a national protected landscape”.

These tensions are by no means new. The BBC reported in May that BBNPA was experiencing “significant governance problems”, with staff at the beacons and working under “intolerable pressure”.

In April, ENDS reported on a paper by the British Ecological Society (BES) that called for major reform in national parks, revealing that protected areas only have “negligible” benefits to wildlife. At the time, Dr Paul Sinnadurai of the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority and Cardiff University who authored the report, said that protected areas have “suffered from not having enough resources and having to make too many compromises”. This has left them in a position where they are not doing enough to support nature, he added.

A Welsh Government spokesperson told ENDS: “Tackling the nature emergency, including within our National Parks, is a key priority for us.

“Just this week, we published ambitious plans on how we will achieve this and these included recommendations that our National Parks play a greater role in this vital work.

“In addition to providing direct assistance to Brecon Beacons National Park Authority address issues raised in the Audit Wales report on governance at the authority, we are actively seeking to improve governance across all our National Parks including through the sponsorship of a new strategic post focused on inclusion, diversity and governance matters.”

The Welsh Government report published this week referenced takes a “deep dive” into biodiversity, the findings prompting the Welsh Government this week to triple peatland restoration targets in the nation and establish an independent expert working group which will monitor Wales’ progress. A key recommendation of the report was to unlock the potential of designated landscapes such as National Parks so they deliver more for nature.