Independent inquiry into Natural Resources Wales ruled out

(Title Image: Natural Resources Wales)

Yesterday, AMs debated the Public Accounts Committee report into the accounts of the environmental body, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), which has had its accounts qualified by the Wales Audit Office for three years in a row.

Groundhog Day

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth), said it was regrettable that AMs were discussing this in a manner reminiscent of Groundhog Day. There was particular concern over the awarding of timber contracts:

“….we were left bewildered that the decision….to follow a process outside of the procurement rules was taken against the backdrop of a scathing Auditor General report that raised concerns about that process. Indeed, I recall members of the committee citing this as the crime that was committed twice, such was the concern on the committee at that time. This suggested to the committee that there has been a cultural failure within NRW in relation to governance procedures and that a serious overhaul was needed.”
Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM

The Chair welcomed the decision of the new Chief Executive, Clare Pillman, to order a full independent review and that review by Grant Thornton was recently published. That review made further uncomfortable reading and contained many lessons NRW needs to heed.

One unanswered question remained: “Where has the Welsh Government been throughout this process?” If bodies are going to be created from mergers in the future then there has to be a proper merger of working cultures as well.

“There has been a consequent and widespread loss of faith in NRW. Ten timber firms recently sent a joint letter to the Welsh Government saying that they had no confidence in NRW’s ability to manage forestry. They claimed 12,000 jobs in the rural economy and £100 million of new investment over the next five years were at risk.”
– Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East)

Fundamental questions over NRW’s role

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) said the committee’s report raised two fundamental issues the scope of NRW’sresponsibilites and NRW’s capacity to deliver those responsibilities. Can a regulatory body play a business/commercial role at the same time? Was there a need for an independent inquiry? The latter suggestion was later supported by Caroline Jones AM (Ind, South Wales West)

Llyr added that NRW can’t be entirely blamed for the position it finds itself in when its budget has been cut by 35% in real terms since it was established, while the responsibilities it shoulders have increased with the passing of the Future Generations Act.

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) thought the merger that created NRW was the right idea and allowed joined-up thinking on issues like climate change. The important thing to reflect on was the governance arrangements, but by and large, the frontline staff at NRW were doing a good job – particularly on flood prevention.

“This underperformance in this (forestry) sector comes at a time when timber prices are at a 30-year high. Why? Partly because, of course, of the demand from biomass, and so everybody in the sector in Wales – which is why the Minister has received this letter from the 10 companies in question – is saying, ‘Look, we could build this industry up; it’s a huge resource for Wales,’ and yet we are massively underperforming.”
– Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr)

Grasping the issues

Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said the Welsh Government were fully prepared to grasp the issues raised in the report but ruled out an independent inquiry.

“There is more we need to do to ensure NRW is in a position to fulfil its vital role to the high standards that Welsh Government and the people of Wales expect. I don’t think an independent inquiry would be of benefit at the present time. They’ve just gone, obviously, through an independent review. We need to look at what’s come out of that in the first instance.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths

The board of NRW has been changed and the Minister was satisfied the new leadership were “taking a strong lead” on timber – something she told AMs the forestry industry has reacted positively to as well.

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