Quarry town Blaenau Ffestiniog aims to join Snowdonia national park

Council hopes campaign to change boundary will bring tourism boost

Nestling beneath craggy slopes of grey slate tips, Blaenau Ffestiniog does not boast the conventional beauty of the mountains and lakes that surround it.

Yet for more than half a century it has rankled with some residents that when Snowdonia national park was created, the town was excluded although it lies ­slap-bang in the centre of the protected area.

Now, the town council is fighting for the boundary that turns the place into an island within the national park to be scrapped, saying that it will boost tourism.

It argues that Blaenau's culture and history ought to be treasured alongside the acknowledged glories of north Wales such as ­Snowdon and the arguably prettier settlements of Betws-y-Coed and Beddgelert.

Gwilym Euros Roberts, a councillor and one of the leaders of the campaign, said: "Blaenau Ffestiniog is evolving. There are good things ­happening here. The town centre is being regenerated and an outdoor activities centre is being built. I think it's time for us to become part of the park."

Bob Cole, a fellow councillor and ­restaurant owner, said being part of the park would lead to more publicity and could make the town eligible for more grants. He said that up to 150,000 visitors a year arrived in Blaenau on the Ffestiniog railway but a survey found that, on average, they spent only 22p in the town.

"We've got to make people stay here a bit longer. I call Blaenau the heart of the park but we are not part of it," he said. "We have got one of the best ­secondary schools in Wales but the youngsters with talent tend to leave for university and not return. This is an ageing ­industrial town.

"We've got to create more and make sure there is ­something here for those youngsters. Being part of the park would help."

The council accepts that not all of the town's 4,500 residents want to be part of the national park. Some fear that gaining planning permission for developments would be more difficult and worry it could mean the end of the ­remaining slate quarrying.

But Aneurin Phillips, the chief executive of the national park, supports the town's ambition, saying there is "much to admire" about Blaenau.

In a report put before the park authorityyesterday, Philips said: "Blaenau ­occupies a unique upland setting right in the heart of the national park. The town and the surrounding area offer recreational activities and cultural experiences.

"A strong case can be made out that its rich built and cultural heritage should be treasured and that national park status would be advantageous. Blaenau can legitimately lay claim to be of national significance worthy of being included in the Snowdonia national park."

Later the park authority voted to back "in principle" the idea of Blaenau Ffestiniog becoming part of the park.

Phillips said the quarrying landscape was the primary reason why the town was left out of the park. Despite the support of the chief ­executive, the town's bid still faces hurdles.

The Countryside Council for Wales is responsible for considering which areas meet the criteria for inclusion and it can only ­designate land as national park if the natural beauty and ­opportunities for open-air recreation are sufficient.

Phillips said natural beauty was about more than "just beautiful scenery" and included wildlife and cultural heritage.

The final decision will rest with the Welsh Assembly and Phillips said boundary reviews were "long drawn-out affairs taking several years".

The park authorities are keen to emphasise that Snowdonia is not just about wonderful landscapes. Covering 823 square miles and home to more than 26,000 people, the park describes itself as a "living working area". It is an area steeped in culture and local history and more than half of its population speaks the Welsh language.

For many years Blaenau has been a centre for slate, the basis of Snowdonia's wealth. In the late 19th century, the area produced about a third of Welsh output and was known as the "city of slates".

Blaenau town council said that if the plan to alter the boundary was supported by the Countryside Council for Wales and the Welsh Assembly it would hold a referendum to find out if the townspeople do want to finally become part of the national park.

Roberts said: "A full assessment will be made to see if Blaenau reaches the criteria for national park status – this could take a few years apparently.

"Once that assessment has been undertaken and if the response is ­positive, the town council will then call a referendum locally so that the final decision on this matter, be it in favour or against, will be with local residents."


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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