Despite boasting assets of £279m RSPB demanded £316k from Welsh taxpayer after Vyrnwy nature decline
There are a few things that you can say for certain about the RSPB. They are a secretive organisation when it matters, they are very good at being rich and appearing poor, they are adept at making close and mutually beneficial relationships with politicians and civil servants. They are also better at getting their hands on scarce public resources than most other conservation bodies and certainly far better than farmers and landowners.
Some of this they speak or even boast about in public, some they prefer to keep under the radar, along with most of the information that might help work out how they are performing in what you might think is their core business, ensuring the landscapes they manage are conserved and producing more birds.
Only occasionally do we get a glimpse of reality, usually when they emerge from cover to try to access yet more public money. But even then, you need to be lucky, for some reason, these exchanges of a well-structured application form for a few hundred thousand pounds, are apparently best done without the glare of publicity.
Many of you will remember that one such occasion was when RSPB wanted £3.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for their Lake Vyrnwy reserve, a heavily designated ex-grouse moor that they have managed for over thirty years. In their application, which they assumed would never see the light of any day outside the HLF offices they said:
“Without the serious interventions RSPB is proposing in this bid, in the next few years curlew, black grouse and merlin will cease to appear as a breeding species in this area of Wales. It is likely that the same fate would fall red grouse and hen harrier within the next decade”.
But, as you may also recall, when they took the management of the reserve on, there were, according to them, 'a large number of curlews'. Red grouse, merlin and hen harriers were not hovering on the edge of extinction.
Since then RSPB persuaded the naturalist Iolo Williams to appeal for extra funds in a video, during which, without any apparent sense of irony, he bemoaned the way the place had deteriorated over the last 30 years. That would be the thirty years that the organisation he was raising money for had been managing the place.
Now new information has come to light from the Welsh government. Regular readers may remember the amazing story that the Welsh taxpayer had funded the refurbishment of the RSPB monopoly commercial outlet at the South Stack beauty spot on the Isle of Anglesey.
The refurbishment of the toilets, cafe and car park had been subsidised by the Welsh taxpayer by about a quarter of a million pounds. Well if you believed that, we can only apologise. The actual bill now stands at £347,795. Over a third of a million. But the Welsh government drives a hard bargain; people who use the taxpayer funded car parks to look at the view, which in the bad old days was free, now have to pay the RSPB. So well done the Welsh government.
They have also given RSPB £318,042.98 from the Sustainability Management Fund. When asked what they had provided the money for they said the following
“RSPB Cymru manages a number of Natura 2000 sites across Wales encompassing an
ecologically diverse range of species and habitats of international importance. As landowners they, alongside the relevant statutory agency, have a responsibility to maintain these renowned habitats in favourable condition for generations to come. The RSPB sites covered by this application all have SAC or SPA designations or are directly part of a suite of sites that are interconnected as such”.
They also stated that: “This project filled funding gaps that exist on each site”.
For good measure our old friend, the money tree that is South Stack, gets another mention and even more money. “The project offered protection and enhancement of heathland and associated key reliant species at the key coastal sites of South Stack and Ramsey Island”.
What can we gather from this? Apart, that is, from the extraordinary fact that, if you want money from the Welsh government, just mention South Stack and it appears as if by magic, even if it’s only for the key conservation interventions of more tarmac and parking ticket machines.
Well, it seems that somewhere along the way some confusion has clouded their minds. It is not clear how they came to believe that the RSPB could not afford to meet what they say is RSPB's responsibility to maintain their own land. Why do they happily tell the world that every single one of these vital sites would not be managed properly unless the Welsh taxpayers gave them nearly a third of a million pounds that 'filled funding gaps that exist on each site'.
How can it be? These are skilled and experienced civil servants advising the minister. Did they form these opinions for themselves? That is hardly believable. Someone must have told them that the RSPB needed the money because they, the RSPB, could not afford to pay for the work and they needed a sub from the Welsh taxpayer. It seems likely that this was not some ill-informed passer-by who popped into their office. The only credible source for the idea that the RSPB could not afford to maintain land they acquired because of its world class conservation status is the RSPB themselves.
But is this true. Can we, can anyone who can do basic maths, accept that the RSPB could not afford to spend £316,000 its own money on maintaining its own land? Their last accounts, that's published accounts, available for the world to see, including the Welsh government, stated that they had made a surplus (a profit in other words) of £15,000,000 and they had assets of £278,900,000 and free cash of £68,400,000.
Think about those numbers for a minute. They are so big that it takes a moment to grasp the scale of the RSPB's wealth. Yet, they can apparently tell the Welsh government with a straight face that they need, what to them is the small change of £300K, or they won't be able to afford to meet their land management responsibilities.
They have funding gaps in their reserve budgets. How can you have funding gaps in the most important budgets you have when you are making a profit of £15 million and are sitting on £68 million immediately available cash? It's simple. You create them. You under fund the front-line work and create funding gaps where there is no need. Well, there is a need or rather a desire. If you fully funded the work that needs to be done on your own land to meet your own responsibilities, you would not be able to justify your need to extract taxpayer’s money from gullible civil servants and politicians, to fill 'funding gaps'. The funding gaps that you have created.
Sadly, the Welsh government has previous in the area of incompetent cash handouts and were subject to an excoriating report from the Auditor General for Wales in 2020. Do read it if you get the chance, but here is one criticism, that the Welsh government 'made individual grant awards without demonstrating enough consideration for value for money'. Ring any bells?
Frankly, it is difficult to see why the Welsh taxpayer should subsidise anything that the RSPB wants to do in Wales. They gamed the system successfully for years and have achieved what exactly?
So, we come back to Lake Vyrnwy, 30 years of RSPB, no curlew, one black grouse, red grouse, merlin and hen harrier on the brink, peregrines disappearing, Strange, there must be a funding gap. Well, if there isn’t, we can soon create one.