The landscape of Wales, together with its language and culture, goes a long way to defining our national brand. As Barack Obama was recently quoted as saying, during the NATO summit, “Wales is a place of extraordinary beauty”.
And, preserving the value of our environment and our heritage is vital if we are to continue to enjoy the benefits to our health and wellbeing.
But, let’s not forget that managing the land is also an important commercial activity, which is essential to continuing the supply of food and our wealth as a nation.
It’s in the hands of farmers and other landholders that we entrust much of the stewardship of rural Wales.
Glastir is the latest in a line of Welsh Government agri-environment schemes, which pays landholders to maintain, or enhance, the natural environment and to minimise the impact of farming practices that can damage the land and threaten biodiversity.
Agri-environment schemes like Glastir recognise the practical and economic reality that producing food efficiently, and as cheaply as possible, could have potentially harmful effects on the natural environment.
Glastir also reflects other challenges that the environment, and ultimately all of us, will face from climate change – such as the increased risk of flooding.
In tackling these headline problems, Glastir’s aims align with the Welsh Government’s Environment and Climate Change strategies and with European rural development policies.
We issued a report a few days ago which looked into whether the Glastir scheme incorporates lessons learnt from the Tir Gofal, and other agri-environment schemes and we found that it does. In particular, Glastir landholders on the previous Tir Gofal scheme benefited from an uninterrupted and fast track entry into Glastir, increasing the likelihood that environmental gains would continue.
The good prioritisation of Glastir Advanced applications also ensures that funds can give greater impact on targeted land and for certain animals and plants, and the Glastir Commons scheme stands out as a success in terms of much improved coverage for common land. There are also improved arrangements to monitor the compliance of landholders with funding requirements.
However, our report also found that the design of Glastir retains some of the flaws from previous schemes. Far fewer Tir Gofal holders joined Glastir than the Welsh Government expected and some told us that they were unsure if they would qualify for funding or felt that the administrative process was too complex.
We also found that some of the Welsh Government’s communications were inadequate and that they did not provide enough support for those applying for the scheme. The success of Glastir relies on high participation, and the Welsh Government was overoptimistic about the number of applications.
There also remains some risk, although less than in previous schemes, that landholders in Glastir won’t make enough changes to their farming practices – or that they might have made the desired changes even if they weren’t receiving grant funding through Glastir. Either way, this is a significant ‘value for money’ issue for the Welsh Government to address.
Our report also highlights that the Welsh Government needs a way to assess the overall progress and success of Glastir against its headline objectives, such as for climate change and for biodiversity.
So, we are left with a mixed picture. Certainly the Welsh Government has made some progress and we find Glastir better in many ways than Tir Gofal , but we also find that there are echoes of problems that we and others identified before this scheme was designed.
About the Author:
Andy Phillips is a manager in the Wales Audit Office national studies team with a particular specialisation in environmental issues. Before moving into auditing in 2002, Andy worked as an Environmental Health Officer in several Welsh local authorities and as an environmental protection specialist for Environment Agency Wales.