by Mo Metcalf Fisher

Cardiff Bay has been rocked by revelations that two senior Welsh Government ministers reportedly attended an informal dinner with the owner of the Green Man Festival as controversy raged about the decision to spend £4.25m of public money on buying a farm for the festival, WalesOnline reports.

The dinner with festival owner Fiona Stewart took place at the home of lobbyist Cathy Owens, the managing director of Deryn Consulting and a former Labour special adviser, who has made a declaration identifying the Green Man Festival as one of her company’s clients.

Critics claim that because of a loophole in the Welsh Government’s Ministerial Code under which “informal” meetings do not have to be declared, Climate Change Minister Julie James and Education Minister Jeremy Miles were not obliged to declare their attendance at the dinner.

But now, after being alerted to the event by the Western Mail, First Minister Mark Drakeford has ordered an inquiry.

Rural campaigners have demanded “total and complete transparency” about how decisions on land purchases between the Welsh Government and private companies are made, following the reports.   

A spokesman for the First Minister said: “While ministers attended this social event in a personal capacity, the First Minister has asked the Permanent Secretary to look into the circumstances surrounding their attendance.

“The First Minister has also asked the Permanent Secretary to consider if any amendments need to be made to the Ministerial Code to ensure all interaction with lobbyists is appropriately recorded.”

The dinner at Ms Owens’ home in Cardiff attended by Ms James, Mr Miles and Ms Stewart took place on May 23, after Gilestone Farm had been bought but before the detailed business case had been delivered by Green Man.

The acquisition of the 97ha farm is one of several, in a growing line of agricultural land purchases made by the Welsh Government, agencies or corporate companies to further tree-planting or carbon off-setting schemes.

The Countryside Alliance, which has spearheaded the campaign against the Welsh Government buying up productive Welsh farmland- arguing that it should be used to grow and produce food instead- said that it would be following developments closely.

The group recently ran a petition after a Freedom of Information request it submitted revealed the Welsh Government had spent a staggering £6million buying land with taxpayers' money.

Rachel Evans, Director of Countryside Alliance Wales said: "Rural Wales and indeed every Welsh taxpayer deserves total and complete transparency about how their money is being spent.  The issue of buying up Welsh agricultural land needed for food production, usually to plant trees, is fast becoming one of the most contentious issues facing our countryside today. We want to know exactly how these deals between the Welsh Government and private land owners come about and await the findings of this incredibly significant inquiry".

Green Man is said to have submitted an “outline business plan” in October last year and notified the Welsh Government of the potential upcoming sale of Gilestone Farm in February.

Opposition parties have also voiced their concerns about the purchase by the Welsh Government of Gilestone Farm, near Talybont-on-Usk, about seven miles from the festival site on the Glan Usk estate near Crickhowell.

Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd, said: “Many people trying to get into the agriculture business will look on with dismay as the Welsh Government buys up a productive farm which most farmers could only dream of.”

Plaid Cymru’s agriculture spokesman, Mabon ap Gwynfor, said: “It seems that a business plan is being created retrospectively to fit the purchase of the land. This is completely at odds with what others have to do when applying for government assistance.”

Both Ms Stewart and Ms Owens were contacted for statements explaining what was discussed in relation to the festival and Gilestone Farm at the dinner. Ms Stewart did not wish to comment and Ms Owens did not respond.

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