Massive Russian support for liberalising Welsh countryside access?

by Glyn Roberts, FUW President

We know that disinformation through social media campaigns and computer hacking were used in 2016 by the Russians to influence the US Presidential elections, but why would they have any interest in increasing access to the Welsh countryside?

The truth is we don’t know whether they would – and apparently nor does the Welsh Government: They claim not to have undertaken any assessment of where consultation responses to the 2017 Taking forward Wales’ sustainable management of natural resources consultation came from – a consultation which covered a diverse range of issues and included proposals to allow mountain bikes on all public footpaths, people to camp and play games wherever they want on open access land, and canoeists to access waterways used for fishing.

In April this year, hannah Blythyn, Deputy Minister for housing & Local Government, told the Welsh Assembly that “over 16,000 responses were received to the proposals on access alone, reflecting the passion many of us in Wales have for the countryside and outdoor recreation.”

This would suggest that most or all of the 16,000 responses came from Wales, but given that online campaigns were run by organisations representing ramblers, cyclists and canoeists from across the UK and further afield, many suspect that a large proportion of the responses came from people outside Wales to whom Welsh politicians are not answerable.

The Countryside Alliance recently revealed that 88 per cent of signatories of a petition supporting a ban of pheasant shooting on land managed by Natural Resources Wales came from outside Wales, and that the figure was 69 per cent for responses to a Natural Resources Wales consultation on shooting on Welsh Government land.

And as long as a decade ago the responses to a Welsh Government TB consultation showed a majority of Welsh respondents supported badger culling, while most from outside Wales – which made up the lion’s share of the responses, due to significant campaigning by animal rights organisations – did not.

In response to an FUW request for a breakdown of where responses to the 2017 consultation on access and other issues came from, the Welsh Government has claimed not to have undertaken such an analysis and refused to provide the data, saying it would cost too much – yet the Deputy Minister is content to claim the responses reflect “the passion…in Wales.”

We have also made a similar request to find out where consultation responses to last year’s Brexit and our Land consultation came from, and the initial response has been the same – there’s apparently been no analysis, and nor do they intend to undertake one (we do know, however, that both the New Zealand and Australian governments responded to the proposals, which should set alarm bells ringing). Consultations are not referendums, and nor should they be treated as such, but they are there to help inform Welsh Government decisions.

In an age when a consultation response can be sent by the click of a button by someone on the other side of the globe, and around four out of five responses to other consultations and petitions have been shown to come from people from outside Wales and even outside the UK, the Welsh Government’s refusal is a disgrace: They may not be hiding Russian interference, but they are definitely covering up Welsh democracy.

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