In case anyone is wondering why I agreed to give the first of what are to be the annual Countryside Council for Wales lectures (and I have to say that this is a question which has crossed my own mind once or twice in recent days!), I accepted for two reasons. Firstly, because I greatly admire the work and achievements of the Countryside Council, and secondly because there are now so many threads to what has become known as 'the environment' that it makes sense for there to be an annual attempt to pull at least some of those threads together, in a Welsh context.
The brief I was given was to 'raise the sights of Welsh society in the hope that the notion of where the Welsh countryside sits in a European and global context might be fully appreciated'. Some hope, you might say, ladies and gentlemen. But resisting the temptation to answer this particular exam question with the answer 'somewhat to the west and somewhat to the north respectively', and then rest my case, I shall now do my best to raise all our sights.
There is, afterall, much to encourage us in the process of raising our sights. The remarkable 'Gwalia' collection of photographs, which I have just seen for the first time, demonstrates vividly that whatever the difficulties that hem you in, or threaten for the future, the Welsh countryside remains a place of decided character, charm, and beauty. Just as important, its people retain a resourcefulness and independence of spirit that continue to impress all those looking in from the outside - including the decision-makers!
I do not intend to belittle those difficulties, but nor do I intend to dwell on them today. They are already the focus of (some might say) disproportionate media attention, and if there is one thing that I could do to help influence the character of the Countryside Council for Wales Annual Environmental Lecture, it would be to exhort all those who follow to identify and reinforce the positive rather than relying on yet another re-run of the difficulties.
Now, unlikely as it may sound to some, I don't think it is unreasonable to look to the Welsh countryside as a crucible of new ideas and solutions. It is my firm belief that the best ideas are often local ideas and the best solutions are local solutions. The low-key, bottom-up approach may not be the most spectacular, nor provide material for glitzy press releases, but in my experience it does tend to work best in the long run. Indeed many people now recognise it to be essential for what is increasingly being called 'sustainable development' - even though it is notoriously difficult to agree on any one definition of what precisely that means.
In Wales, with 71 per cent of farm holdings now owner-occupied, there is a strong sense of individualism tempered by a practical realisation of the role of the community in getting things done. Welsh communities have always seemed to me to be particularly well placed to act as guardians of traditional values - which is perhaps why so many have managed to maintain a dynamic Welsh culture - without losing sight of the challenges of the future.
All this is well-known to most of you but, if anyone is in any doubt, the proof lies in the number of new and highly effective schemes already up and running in rural Wales. Indeed, I believe these now provide a sufficiently secure foundation on which to develop the even more ambitious visions for rural Wales which seem to be emerging from so many of the organisations represented in the audience here today.
One of the most important and enduring lessons of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was that progress in achieving sustainable development is simply impossible without the fullest possible integration of both policy and agencies, so it is heartening to see organisations from so many different sectors (agriculture, environment, countryside, development, tourism, forestry, transport, education, and so on) all under one roof here today.
But integration is more difficult than simply getting everyone on to the same guest list or even writing down one's objectives.
It requires real changes in thinking and values, new systems of decision-making to allow a cross-sectoral approach, and acknowledgement that the environment now matters as much as the conventional imperatives posed by economics and politics. All in all, it is an exhausting and frequently frustrating business and by any standards, there is still a long way to go!
Integrating policies towards the environment and the economy is almost certainly the most crucial step to take. As a first step, we need to ask policy-makers whether they are taking the latest insights of conventional economics into full account.
Cost internalisation, for instance, is now an almost universally accepted objective: by economists, in their concern to 'get prices right'; by politicians, in their acceptance of the 'polluter pays' principle; and by interested business people, as even the most cursory reading of the Business Council for Sustainable Development's recent (excellent) book 'Changing Course' reveals.
Sadly, the continuing failure to internalise environmental costs is evident all over the world and in practically every relevant area of policy. This is particularly true in the contentious area of subsidies. Too often such structures are precisely the wrong way round, in environmental terms. This is an international problem, as no less an authority than the World Bank made clear in a recent World Development Report, which stated that economically perverse subsidies to environmentally damaging activities remain one of the principal obstacles to sustainable development. Conversely, environmentally benign activities can surely merit subsidy because of the costs they either avoid or internalise.
Slow and sometimes frustrating though it may be, progress towards the integration of environmental and agricultural policies is now well-established and almost universally accepted. History will relate that as the imperative of food production declined in importance throughout the Eighties, so the public's enthusiasm for protecting and enhancing the countryside steadily increased. That in turn led to a plethora of one-off, add-on schemes culminating in the 1992 agri-environment measures of the European Union.
This trend is of particular importance in Wales where the environment has always featured prominently in agricultural policy. Afterall, one-quarter of Wales is designated as a National Park or an Area of Outstanding or Natural Beauty, added to which there are 49 National Nature Reserves, 870 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, eight Special Protection Areas, six Ramsar Sites, one Biogenetic Reserve, one Biosphere Reserve, and one World Heritage Designation. All this is surrounded by coastline of which 42 per cent is designated as Heritage Coast.
By the time you've included the five Environmentally-Sensitive Areas, the two proposed Environmentally-Sensitive Areas, and all of the land categorised as Less Favoured Areas (which amounts to 81 per cent of agricultural land), there are mighty few parts of Wales that aren't covered by one designation or another! It is hardly surprising that the bits left out often wonder whether they couldn't have been fitted in somewhere!
With or without such designations, Wales is indisputably special in this regard - as evidenced both by the millions of visitors who come to enjoy such natural splendour year after year, and by the explosion of different schemes designed to facilitate the integration of environment and agriculture in all these different areas.
The days when such environmental support measures amounted to nothing more than paying inadequate compensation to farmers for profits foregone in not 'improving' their land (whatever that may have meant) have long gone. It is now well understood that farmers produce much more than food, and this has been explicitly acknowledged through the CCW's own Tir Cymen scheme, launched nearly 18 months ago and now available in three districts, covering up to 9 per cent of Welsh land.
Using whole farm management agreements, and taking into account all the resources on an individual farm - wildlife, landscape and archaeology - this scheme is based on the rationale that the protection and enhancement of these resources creates social and economic benefits for which the farmer deserves to be rewarded. And that's the rationale which could be the saving grace, not just of the individual farmers but of the very countryside itself.
Encouraged by the success of this initiative, I understand that the Countryside Council for Wales, together with its partners at the Welsh Office, Forest Authority and ADAS, has been pioneering a new approach to integration - in proposing what I suppose must now be referred to as a 'one-stop agri-environment shop'! This will enable farmers to deal with just one responsible officer who can lead them through the maze of organisations involved. Moreover, such a scheme, building on existing schemes here in Wales, could enable a great many more farmers to participate, which is something that many people, all over the country, have been seeking ever since the launch of the ESA scheme. I am even reliably informed by those who make a living studying the runes of the European Union's arcane regulatory process that a single all-Wales scheme would comply with the relevant Articles. The benefits of such a scheme are self-evident, whether your concerns are for administrative cost-effectiveness, improving public access or simply doing a better environmental job.
For me, however, the attraction of such a proposal (albeit on a larger scale than is currently envisaged) lies as much in its economic potential as its environmental credentials, in that it could help to stabilise farm incomes (thus securing for many what has become an extremely precarious way of life), and would help to protect the rural goose that lays the golden eggs of tourism. Perhaps most importantly, it would help to stimulate local and regional marketing opportunities for organic, environment-friendly or plain and simple good Welsh produce. I do believe there is tremendous potential for producing and promoting highly marketable 'added-value' Welsh products. I know that organisations like Welsh Food Promotions are making real progress in this direction, capitalising on all that is best about the Welsh countryside.
Of course, the costs and benefits of such a scheme would have to be carefully evaluated, but by the time its various multiplier effects have been calculated, and full account taken of the many environmental and social disbenefits that it will help to avoid, there simply has to be a case for encouraging at least a test of the viability of such a potentially crucial approach.
Such a strategy would be of enormous benefit to all those concerned about the regeneration of rural Wales, but of particular benefit to smaller farms. For it is surely worth repeating that the maintenance of the natural assets of Wales depends in large part on farmers - and in particular on the network of small and medium-sized family farms that still holds Wales together.
Whatever our vision for the future of rural Wales might be, I would argue strongly that the smaller farm needs to be at the very heart of it. This, of course, is by no means generally agreed, perhaps because there are few organisations in the UK lobbying specifically on behalf of such farmers, though the SAFE Alliance is an honourable exception.
Indeed some organisations which one might expect to be natural allies of the smaller farmers turn out to be indifferent, if not positively hostile, to their interests - and I have to say this includes some of the leading conservation bodies in this country.
I do find this attitude extremely hard to understand. It is certainly not clear that smaller farms are necessarily better for the environment, and the relationship between farm size and particular environmental benefits needs to be explored much more closely. (I was, incidentally, astonished to discover just how little research has actually been done in this area).
But there are many direct and indirect benefits on which I would have thought a wide consensus might already be possible.
For instance, smaller farms tend to show fewer of the characteristics associated with soil deterioration and erosion. They also tend to have smaller average field sizes, with more hedgerows for a given area, as well as a higher proportion of both permanent grassland and deciduous woodland.
It has to be said, of course, that such features of conservation interest may remain on a small farm only because the farmer has lacked the resources to remove them. And it is also true - as someone is sure to point out, if I don't - that uptake of conservation schemes is lower on small farms. But this may well be because the hard-pressed small farmer cannot devote the necessary time and energy to filling in the forms ...
Our natural tendency to compartmentalise makes it all too easy, when talking about agriculture, to forget the part that tourism plays in the overall balance sheet for Wales, but it already accounts for one in five of the jobs in rural Wales. We certainly don't often think of farming as playing a crucial role in the tourist industry, but all those tourists do not (with the greatest respect) come to Wales for the weather!
They come, for the most part, to see the incomparable Welsh countryside; its mountains, rivers and lakes intersected with a mosaic of small farms, woods and hedges shaped and maintained by countless generations of small farmers, pursuing the more traditional forms of agriculture.
But the clearest benefit of small farms must be that they provide more employment per acre than their larger counterparts. It is now widely recognised that a 'critical mass' of people is needed to sustain the cultural, social and local economic aspects of rural life. This is much more likely to occur in a landscape of small rather than large farms. In rural Wales, the proportion of the workforce directly employed in agriculture is still around 15 per cent (and as high as 20 per cent in many areas in Dyfed and Powys), which is much higher than in many other parts of the UK.
And that's why I find myself wholly out of sympathy with those who argue that agriculture is no longer central to rural development. Of course it's true that such development can take place without farmers, and that investment in infrastructure and services is of enormous importance. But talk of rural development that is somehow detached from a sense of continuing community; of development that is not embedded in a vibrant and living culture, seems to me to be both trite and dangerously superficial.
What's more, if some environmentalists aren't really worried about the fate of small farmers one way or the other, I do wonder who they think will actually maintain the land in such a way as to maximise the conservation benefits they now seek? As anyone who has tried it will know, those benefits do not emerge by themselves; they require great skill, a deep understanding of the land (invariably obtained by acquiring it from your father's experience), and a readiness to put up with back-breaking work - often for scant material reward. It is hard to imagine such benefits being delivered on any significant scale by anyone other than the farmers.
This should make it a matter of grave concern to everyone who cares about the Welsh environment that a recent report commissioned by the Development Board for Rural Wales forecasts the loss of 2,000 full-time 'on farm' jobs before the end of the century. It may be that part of the answer is to encourage the creation of part-time off-farm jobs to complement part-time farming. This approach is anathema to some, but it works better than is generally acknowledged in the crofting areas of Scotland. It does, however, require the local rural economy to be stimulated to create the necessary part-time jobs.
I have chosen today to concentrate mainly on the potential for integrating agriculture and environment. But I believe there is at least as much potential for integrating the work of each and every agency in Wales in the pre-eminent challenge of achieving a more sustainable pattern of local and regional economic development.
This is not (as some people might suggest) a challenge for tomorrow - to be left until we are indisputably out of recession. On the contrary, it is a challenge for today - and may well prove to be one of the more effective methods at our disposal for combating recessionary pressures.
Such an aspiration has been lucidly spelled out by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales in its visionary report entitled 'Wales 2012'. It is good to see a few people with the courage to suggest a future that isn't simply an extension of the present with a few green knobs on!
But I am sure CPRW and all environmentalists must now welcome the extent to which the pursuit of sustainable development is moving so rapidly out of the realms of theory into at least the rudiments of practice.
This is certainly reflected in the activities of the Development Board for Rural Wales, and I was particularly pleased to see that the Board is encouraging companies to assess their environmental impacts and then develop policies accordingly. (Incidentally, this is something which I have been requiring all new applicants for my Warrant of Appointment to do and the results have been most encouraging.) The Development Board is also able to offer advice and help, through the Arena Network, to those smaller companies who may lack the necessary expertise or resources.
At this point I should, perhaps, declare an interest because the Arena Network is an initiative of Business in the Community (of which I just happen to be President). Having done that I can go on and thank those who provide the funding (!) - the Welsh Office, Welsh Water and all those Training and Enterprise Councils in Wales.
I was also pleased to see that one or two companies are maintaining this country's reputation for industrial innovation by developing products for the growing markets in 'green technology'. Kerry Ultrasonics in Newtown, for instance, were awarded a well-deserved Queen's Environmental Award for their water-based cleaning system which replaces CFC solvents. So far they have sold more than 100 machines, all over the world.
However, I couldn't help noticing that in the Development Board's otherwise admirable Annual Report 'the environment' (although given a higher priority than hitherto) is still treated as a separate issue, one amongst many, rather than a defining discipline that helps all the Board's activities, be they in terms of helping to get new businesses started, attracting inward investment, or supporting new tourist ventures.
It is perhaps only at Annual Environmental Lectures that I can get away with talking somewhat portentously about 'defining disciplines'! But faced with so many eminent representatives of local government here in Wales, I'd like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work being undertaken by the Local Government Management Board and its Local Agenda 21 Steering Committee. For most people, Agenda 21 remains one of the most verbose and rarefied products of the 1992 Earth Summit, seemingly of little direct relevance to individuals or local communities.
But without a great song and dance, and in financial circumstances that are often far from propitious, many local authorities throughout the United Kingdom are simply getting on with the job of translating Agenda 21 into a language in practice that makes it relevant and even useful to individuals and communities alike. That is no mean feat, and it is important because sustainability is perhaps the ultimate 'bottom up' discipline. It really does have to start at a local level, albeit in response to encouragement from above.
The fruits of such cooperation are already appearing. The Local Government Management Board's response to the Department of the Environment's 'UK Strategy for Sustainable Development' Consultation Paper is a model of its kind, offering up the kind of partnership between national and local government on which progress towards sustainable development must entirely depend.
But there is always a danger, particularly at gatherings such as this, of assuming that the kind of delivery agents that you all represent should simply get on with delivering, without worrying too much about the views of those on whose behalf those deliveries are to be made!
It seems appropriate to dwell for a moment on the relationship between 'community' and the whole theory of sustainable development. Though there is no shortage of uplifting references to the importance of 'involving the community' in new policies for sustainable rural development in Wales, this is clearly easier said than it is done. Indeed, there is still a tendency to concentrate economic and social policies more on the exploitation of natural resources than on the development of human resources.
In pointing out that the solutions to many rural problems might best be found in the local community, rather than imposed from without, I am certainly not seeking to belittle the wealth of expertise represented by yourselves and your organisations.
But after many years of mixed results from policies in rural areas, many people have been led to conclude that such expertise can still hinder rather than accelerate progress, and that the defence of narrowly-defined 'territories of expertise' too often causes problems.
I make no apology for favouring the community perspective because successful communities are based on the kind of relationships that are often invisible to the otherwise expert eye. Those social relationships need not just to be understood, but to be actively engaged in the development process. This is why I am so intrigued by the European Union's LEADER programme, and in particular by the South Pembrokeshire Partnership for Action with Rural Communities - one of four LEADER projects supported by the Welsh Development Agency here in Wales.
I am also aware of an initiative called 'Planning for Real' in the Brecon Beacons National Park which is involving local communities in development plans for their own villages. For those who aren't quite sure exactly what 'capacity-building in rural communities' is all about, they need look no further than these projects.
Whatever else it is, it's certainly not a fast track process! Indeed, some may fret at the lengthy consultations carried out on a village by village basis. Or at the establishment of Community Associations as the building blocks of an integrated development strategy. Or at the detailed community appraisals devised by the Rural Survey Research Unit at the University of Wales. Furthermore, some might be extremely nervous at the emergence of Local Action Plans, devised by the local people themselves to meet their own needs and determine their own priorities.
Such fretting and nervousness is understandable, but I happen to believe it is misplaced. Of course there is a need for such pilot programmes to be carefully evaluated, but I understand that at the last count more than a thousand people were actively and regularly working with the South Pembrokeshire Partnership for Action for the direct benefit of their communities. If, as I believe to be the case, economic development has to be embedded in local communities if it is to be durable, and pervaded by local culture if it is to be meaningful, then there is much to be said for the methods utilised by these LEADER programmes.
I happen to believe that many communities in rural areas are among the last bastions of truly civilised values and have a cultural distinctiveness which we should treasure. This is particularly true of those rural communities in Wales, especially farming communities, which are the strongholds of the Welsh language. Indeed, Saunders Lewis, the well-known dramatist and poet, likened Wales to a vineyard which needs careful nurturing so that it can be bequeathed to succeeding generations.
'Gwinllan a roddwyd i'n gofal yw
Cymru fy ngwlad
I'w thraddodi i'm plant
Ac i blant fy mhlant
Yn dreftadaeth dragwyddol.'
('A vineyard entrusted to us
Is Wales, my country,
To be handed down to my children
And to my children's children
A heritage for ever.')
Having a proper sense of pride in one's own cultural heritage and a sense of belonging to a discrete community are surely vital ingredients in terms of the viability and, ultimately, the sustainability of human societies. And don't let anyone persuade you that these ingredients are old-fashioned and irrelevant. Throw them away, or let them wither and die through lack of nourishment, and we shall have hacked at the very roots of the vineyard, and of that Welshness which makes me proud to be the bearer of my own title.
Ladies and gentlemen, I said when I started this lecture that I would try and pull some of the environmental strands together, in a Welsh context. I have concentrated on just two of those strands; the potential for a single agri-environment package to assist all farmers, but particularly small farmers, throughout Wales, and the benefits of a community-led approach, across sectoral boundaries, to rural development. Neither of these suggestions is particularly new, but I do believe they are both eminently attainable in Wales. By achieving them, I believe we would be well on the way towards sustaining our landscapes and rural communities as a truly 'living countryside'.