Remember that happy time for ministers in the Assembly Government when public spending kept going up and the biggest problem with European Aid money was how to spend it fast enough? Well the ghosts of that happy time are now being exorcised by the Auditor General for Wales.
The Ghostbuster General has been checking out a haunted forest in her latest report. Cydcoed (Woods Together) spent £18 million during a seven year project that ran from 2001 to 2008. It is still proudly described by Forestry Commission Wales (FCW) as ‘one of the most successful Objective One programmes that ran in Wales … it used woodlands to provide new jobs and opportunities, promote healthy recreation, education and conservation’. It boasts that ‘more than 160 community groups across some of the poorest areas of Wales benefited’.
But what is a community group? That was a question not to be asked. The Auditor reports that ‘in no documentation did FCW clarify what it considered a “community group” … as it deliberately wanted to attract a broad range of applicants’. Today’s report is all about the group that got the most money. £502,000 was paid to Calon yn Tyfu (Growing Heart) in 2006. It’s a not for profit workers co-operative that used the money to buy the Ffynone and Cilgwyn woodlands near Abercych, where Pembrokeshire meets Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire.
However the local community, in the shape of Manordeifi community council, was not impressed. In a petition to the Assembly asking for an independent inquiry, the council described Calon yn Tyfu as ‘a private forestry contracting and firewood company, registered as a cooperative with only three members, two of whom are domestic partners (and thus effectively hold the majority) … already they have installed a permanent network of wide forest roads and clear-felled a large area right up to the riverbanks, destroying native trees and damaging wildlife habitat, against environmental best-practice guidelines’.
The council complained of a ‘complete lack of public transparency and community consultation’ about what was happening to ‘the beautiful, tranquil and historic Ffynone and Cilgwyn Woodlands, with their river system, waterfall and lake, [that] have long been enjoyed by local people and visitors alike, for walking, riding, cycling, picnicking and nature appreciation’.
Calon yn Tyfu say they are engaged on a project that will take a generation or longer to achieve. ‘The woodlands were previously part of the estate of Ffynone mansion and at times must have been a sight to behold, being predominantly native woodland … unfortunately in the late 1950s the estate was broken up. The site was cleared and planted with conifers as a plantation … it is now our intention to restore the site to its former glory’.
After pondering the petition, Assembly Members decided to refer the whole business to the Auditor General, Gillian Body. In her report she is very clear that no rules were broken, though Forestry Commission Wales was under pressure to spend the European Objective One money. The Auditor saw one FCW memo that read ‘many projects are falling behind in their progress … if slippage continues, we risk having the overall amount of grant reduced’.
However, she records that FCW officers have strongly rejected any suggestion that the application was purposely processed in haste or without due consideration. Nevertheless she notes that a standard contract was used that did not guarantee public enjoyment of the woodlands after 20 years. When Calon yn Tyfu’s long term project is complete, the land could be sold at a profit. But Ms Body reports that Calon yn Tyfu have made a commitment to dedicate the site under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which should allow public access to the woodland in perpetuity.
So no ghosts in the woods? Of course there are! Abercych is a place of Welsh legend, where the Mabinogi tells how Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, hunted stags and his son Pryderi herded pigs. Pryder means worry, though today’s Welsh leaders employ the Auditor General to worry on their behalf.