Decision day looms for Lake Vyrnwy

John Evans considers the fate of two major estates in mid Wales

The demand for water in the cities of Victorian England led to two major engineering projects in Wales – Lake Vyrnwy, to supply Liverpool, and the Elan Valley dams, to supply Birmingham. At the time of water privatisation the estate around the Elan Valley was saved in perpetuity for the nation by the creation of the Elan Valley Trust. Now the Lake Vyrnwy estate has been put up for sale by its owner Severn Trent plc. A deal is likely in the next few weeks but the outcome could be very different.

Last July Severn Trent plc put the 23,315 acre Lake Vyrnwy Estate in Llanwddyn up for sale. The agents handling the sale declared it to be “the largest disposal of land in England or Wales in living memory”. Their guide price was £11 million, for a 125 year lease. The sale is in four lots:

  • Lot 1 includes 12,000 acres of land farmed jointly with RSPB Cymru.
  • Lot 2 is described as “a diverse portfolio of let farms and land”.
  • Lot 3 consists of 5000 acres of woodland managed by the Forestry Commission.
  • Lot 4 includes “31 residential and commercial properties let under a variety of tenancies”.

A commercial confidentiality gag has been imposed, but it is believed that three bidders are in contention. They are United Utilities (which only emerged yesterday), international businessman Rhys Jones, aged 41, from Bala, and a joint bid submitted by the RSPB Cymru, which already manages a nature reserve and farm on the estate, and Mid Wales Housing. It is believed Mr Jones has offered RSPB Cymru a nature reserve agreement for 125 years to ensure protection of wildlife. He has also declared he wishes to invest in the properties, especially the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel. None of the bidders are likely to want to buy all of the lots.

The Vyrnwy estate is part of Severn Trent’s “family silver” of the company, and the proposed asset-stripping has led to an outcry in conservation and other circles. Some have called on the Welsh Government to intervene. The Farmers Union of Wales have voiced the concerns of farm tenants on the estate that the sale could lead to major changes in their tenancies. Over the years, the number of people employed on the estate has dropped from over 70 to a mere handful, and the residents of Llanwddyn are worried about what effect the sale will have on their tenancies and the local community.

It is a shame that Severn Trent did not follow the lead of the former Welsh Water Authority in the late 1980s which ensured that another major area in mid Wales that needed long-term protection, the Elan Valley, escaped the risk of asset stripping.

In 1989, it was announced that the water industry in England and Wales would be ‘privatised’. The functions and assets of the Water Authorities would be transferred to new public companies, to be floated on the stock exchange in the autumn of that year. With great vision, John Elfed Jones, the Chairman of Welsh Water Authority, foresaw the risk of asset-stripping by those companies and the threat which that might pose to some of the most important upland landscapes in Wales. He hastily set about establishing a charitable trust which would manage the Elan estate for the public benefit.

The Welsh Water Elan Trust (generally known as The Elan Valley Trust) was formed in October 1989, with the charitable objectives of conservation, access education and recreation. This was done just before the new company Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water PLC was floated. Trustees were appointed by Welsh Water, the County Councils of Dyfed and Powys, the Development Board for Rural Wales and, later, by the Countryside Council for Wales. The Trust was granted a lease for 999 years, at a peppercorn rent, of the whole of the Elan estate, other than the visitor centre, reservoirs and commercial forestry, which remained under the control of the new company. The dam operations continued to be managed by Severn Trent PLC, and the visitor centre by Welsh Water.

The land leased to the Elan Valley Trust comprises some 43,000 acres of mainly unenclosed upland pasture. The 1892 Act had granted the public a right of access on foot over the unenclosed land for the purposes of “air, exercise and recreation”, pre-dating by more than a century the “right to roam” provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

The land includes 28 agricultural holdings, including 15 farmhouses which are occupied by shepherds, tenant farmers and their families. The Trust also owns 13 tenanted houses in Elan Village, three former farmhouses which are let as holiday accommodation, including a traditional longhouse which was fully restored in 2,000, and one farm cottage which is used as a camping bothy.

Most of the Elan estate lies within the Elenydd Site of Special Scientific Interest, and there are numerous other small SSSIs on the estate. The estate is part of the Elenydd Mallaen Special Protection Area designated under the European Wild Birds Directive. The blanket bog habitat is designated as a Special Area of Conservation under the European Habitats Directive.  The Elan Valley is designated by CADW and the Countryside Council for Wales as a Historic Landscape and some 2000 acres are a National Nature Reserve.  Thanks to the foresight of those who established the Elan Valley Trust in 1989, all these precious assets are safeguarded by the charity for the public benefit.

This could be in marked contrast to what now could happen at Lake Vyrnwy, depending on the outcome of the pending sale.

John Evans chairs the Elan Valley Trust. A public meeting on the sale is being held in Llanwddyn Community Centre next Monday evening.

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