The Valleys Regional Park

Parc Rhanbarthol y Cymoedd

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WECAN - work package 4

Stimulating the social economy

The WECAN partners are acutely aware that communities need to be actively involved in order to sustain and derive the benefits of the natural environment

Communities need to be engaged and encouraged to be more involved in their natural environment and helped to establish initiatives for setting up new enterprises where appropriate. A key aim of WECAN was to gain a greater understanding of how to more effectively engage and involve communities in their natural environment. Initiatives such as voluntary ‘Rangers’ or professional ‘Ecogardes’ were explored, implemented and evaluated.

VRP initiatives

The basis for this work package on which VRP led for the WECAN partnership was that communities need to be engaged and encouraged to be more involved in their natural environment and helped to establish initiatives for setting up new enterprises where appropriate.

Initially, the WECAN project officers worked with partners in two focus areas (primarily the Ebbw Fach valley and upper Afan/Llynfi/Garw valleys) to evaluate current business and community enterprise activities based on the natural environment to identify opportunities for support and development. As a result, the WECAN project was commissioned to carry out the community engagement phases for the HoV and Western Valleys woodland plans in the Ebbw Fach valley and upper Afan/Llynfi valleys respectively.

One of the aims of the Government’s Woodland for Wales strategy is that “more communities are involved in the decision making and management of woodlands so that woodlands deliver greater benefits at a community level”. It is further recognised that support of local communities and regeneration is a key commitment of the FCW, which manages a significant proportion of land within the VRP area.  Such an approach was adopted by the Ebbw Fach Priority Woodlands Consultation led by VRP WECAN. The consultation aimed for “a co-ordinated, long-term vision and programme of work to unlock the woodlands regeneration potential”

As part of the ‘Ebbw Fach Priority Woodlands Consultation’, VRP approached landowners, third sector enterprises, community representatives of various initiatives, local authorities and housing associations. They were asked how the local environment might be improved and developed as an asset for local residents and tourists. High priority woodland sites were identified and ‘green spoke’ opportunities illuminated. The aim was to achieve an “all-encompassing and long-term vision where stakeholders working together in a shared direction” (EF Consultation). Individual sites of woodland were considered a single site in view of their geographical proximity and connectivity.

This participatory approach highlighted the opportunities for the involvement of the local Communities First partnerships and social enterprises such as ‘Tillery Action for Youth’ (TAFY) in developing and implementing the woodland plan. TAFY also administers the ‘Tools 4 UR Future’ programme with the borough authorities, offering vocational training opportunities. The approach taken encouraged local community involvement in design, planning and management and encouraged the development of benchmarking ‘exemplar projects’.

The community engagement and enterprise development work for the woodland plans formed the basis of holistic green infrastructure plans for each of the WECAN focus areas, which can be used as exemplars for other areas.

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A constituent of those plans will be the potential for renewable energy generation. WECAN commissioned two studies. The first was a strategic pan-valleys investigation of the high-head sites that provide opportunities for micro-hydro energy production. The other was a more focused local study on the potential for micro-hydro power at five specific water courses in the Blaenafon area in order to sustain the activities, including the rangers’ scheme, of the Forgotten Landscapes Project, where VRP had  already supported a substantial micro hydro installation through the VRP ERDF project.

The prospect to create jobs and apprenticeships, as well as volunteering opportunities, through an environmental rangers/guardians programme across the VRP area was investigated through an extensive scoping study and this can be taken forward. We also looked at the opportunities through commissioning SoSavi for sustainable timber housing with the scope of creating community Green Jobs - this work is now being progressed by a Welsh Government led working group.

The final element of work package 4 was looking at new ways of engaging communities in the natural environment.

Within this, the WECAN project supported a range of community-based events and festivals, most notably the three successful Valleys Discovery Festivals. The first with a focus on the valleys heritage in science and technology based on the environment was held in May 2011 had over 40 associated events culminating in a large final focus event at Cyfarthfa Park in Merthyr Tydfil. The second was held in November 2012 in conjunction with Dark Sky Wales concentrated on holding events at or near to proposed Community Dark Sky Discovery sites across the valleys to designate probably the world’s first network of community Dark Sky Discovery Sites. The final one took place in November 2013 in conjunction with the South Wales Outdoor Activities Provider Group at Dare Valley Country Park, Aberdare. In total, well over 10,000 people took part in these successful events highlighting a successful approach to engaging communities in their natural environment.

The other component of this work was the devising the Discover The Valleys project - for details, visit