Independent minds - devolution in action

8th July 2013


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IEMA

Peter Brown looks at the increasingly individual approaches being taken to environment policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Since 1997, the process of devolution has seen an ever greater range of powers pass from the central UK government to the parliaments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Environment policy is one area that has generally been widely delegated since the original settlements, and while the devolved administrations necessarily share many environmental objectives with the UK, in recent years they have started to develop more distinctive policies that are designed to reflect their specific national circumstances.

The Scottish and Welsh governments and the Northern Ireland executive are bound by the same European legislation as the UK on a range of environment matters, including tackling climate change, improving air and water quality, protecting nature and biodiversity, and managing waste and natural resources. Within those frameworks there is still ample room, however, for setting national priorities and targets.

Scotland, for example, has set itself more stretching climate change goals than Westminster has for the whole of the UK, while the Welsh government has enshrined sustainable development in its constitution. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the executive is pursuing a strategy that focuses on resource efficiency rather than simply managing resources and waste.

As a devolved matter, the environment is also a politically useful arena in which the different administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh can express their unique policy priorities.

With the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition in Westminster, a Labour government in Wales, a pro-independence Scottish National Party in power in Scotland and the multi-party Northern Ireland executive, it seems contrasting opinions over environmental policy between the different administrations are only likely to increase over time.


Scotland

The Scottish government has pursued a progressive environment agenda in recent years that in many ways exceeds the ambition shown by Westminster.

According to Paul Wheelhouse, Scottish minister for environment and climate change, the devolved administration’s smaller size means it can be more agile in introducing innovative legislation.

“The scale of Scotland allows us to work more closely in partnership with our delivery partners and our environmental stakeholders,” he explains.

Renewable aspirations

Nowhere is the difference between Scotland’s and the UK’s approaches to environment policy more clearly illustrated than in energy strategy. Scotland has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to renewable energy, setting the goal of meeting 100% of its electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020. Progress towards that target has been steady, with 38.7% of the country’s electricity generated by renewables in 2012.

UK energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey, on the other hand, recently rejected proposals from the European Commission to raise the EU target for renewable energy generation post-2020. The coalition government instead plans to build at least 20 new gas-fired power stations over the next decade.

Climate change is another area where the Scottish government is keen to present itself as a leader, not just in the UK but globally. The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 has won widespread plaudits for its ambitious target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 42% by 2020, against a 1990 baseline.

The Act also goes further than any UK legislation by imposing statutory climate change duties on public bodies and requiring the Edinburgh-based administration to set legally-binding annual emissions reductions targets.

Scotland’s performance against these challenging targets has so far been mixed, but there is evidence to support the government’s claim of being a world leader in tackling emissions: between 1990 and 2011, it cut emissions by 29.6%, the largest reduction of the pre-enlargement EU-15.

And, with figures showing that in 2011 its annual reduction target was narrowly missed for the second successive year, Wheelhouse insists that Scotland is well on track to meet its 2020 goal.

Financial support

Beyond the headline emissions targets, two government-backed programmes, the climate challenge fund (CCF) and the climate justice fund (CJF), are both among the first schemes of their kind in the world.

The CCF supports local communities to reduce their carbon footprints and £37.7 million has been awarded to nearly 400 projects under the scheme since 2008.

The CJF, meanwhile, aims to help some of the world’s poorest countries mitigate the effects of climate change. In the first round of funding, £3 million was awarded to clean water projects in Malawi and Zambia.

“We want to try and ensure that those countries that have done the least to cause climate change are helped by those of us in the developed world that have largely caused the problem,” says Wheelhouse.

In waste policy, too, Scotland’s ambition outstrips UK-wide targets. The Zero waste Scotland plan aims for recycling rates of 70% and for just 5% of waste to be sent to landfill by 2025. Scotland also plans to phase out biodegradable waste going to landfill by 2020.

The Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill, introduced to the Scottish parliament in April, represents another major point of difference with UK policy. If passed, the Bill will do away with the UK landfill tax which, crucially, only applies to legal activities.

A new Scottish tax would include strong deterrents to illegal dumping and would also see the creation of a communities fund to support environmental work in the areas around landfill sites.

Lacking a voice

While control over environment policy is fully devolved, Wheelhouse admits that Scotland’s status as part of the UK can sometimes frustrate the administration’s ability to promote its progressive policies on the international stage.

“I saw the Wallonian minister representing Belgium and being one of the EU’s lead negotiators at the Doha summit on climate change, but unfortunately the devolved UK administrations don’t even have the chance to speak at these meetings,” he says.

“We believe Scotland has a very progressive, ambitious agenda on the environment and climate change and we would like to be able to add our voice to those of others around the table to try and push for a higher level of ambition for the benefit of all.”

The Scottish government can also point to areas where it feels its environmental policies are hamstrung by Westminster. One is the allocation of rural development funding under pillar two of the EU common agricultural policy. With no voice at European negotiations, the devolved governments must rely on UK ministers to state their case.

“We’ve got ambitions around promoting biodiversity; peatland and habitat restoration; and species reinsertions, but these have been handicapped by the very unhelpful stance taken by the UK government,” Wheelhouse says.

With the SNP pursuing independence – there will be referendum in September 2014 – Wheelhouse believes that self-rule could result in Scotland going further than the UK in promoting the benefits of transitioning towards a green economy. “The UK is one of the more ambitious governments in the EU on climate change,” he acknowledges, “but we’re more ambitious than they are.”


Wales

The Welsh government’s distinctive approach to environment policy is rooted in the fact that Wales is the only UK administration to have the principle of sustainable development written into its constitution.

Alun Davies, minister for natural resources and food, says this principle informs all legislation generated through the Welsh assembly.

“Sustainable development means what is good for the economy, what is good for the environment, what is good for the community of Wales,” he explains.

“It’s one of the founding principles on which the rest of our approach is built, so the environment for us isn’t just a matter for the environment minister or the environment department; it’s a matter for the government as a whole.”

The UK government, by contrast, drew widespread criticism from environment campaigners after shutting down its own sustainable development commission in 2011.

Davies says that there is no danger of a similar turn away from sustainable development in Wales: “We are very comfortable with having an approach, which is based on our ambitions not only for this generation, but also of ensuring that future generations are not disadvantaged by decisions we take today.”

Complete control

Nonetheless, the terms of the devolution settlement for Wales mean that the Welsh government does not have complete control over all areas of environment policy. Energy, in particular, has been a source of public disagreement with Westminster in recent years, with Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones recently restating his request that consenting powers over energy projects and related infrastructure be fully devolved.

The Welsh government argues that the current situation, with some energy decisions taken by Westminster and some by Cardiff, adds unnecessary complexity to the energy landscape and deters investors, hampering the country’s ability to move forwards with its plans to transition to a low-carbon economy.

“There’s a very jagged edge to the devolutionary settlement. It’s a particularly poor settlement in terms of energy,” says Davies. “We’ve indicated to successive Westminster governments the need for a more straightforward settlement and they’ve turned a deaf ear to that. The UK government is happy to operate a very complex and difficult system and we’re disappointed about that.”

Davies is frustrated that a conservative approach from Westminster on renewable energy and other areas is holding back Welsh aspirations to push a low-carbon agenda, as set out in the Energy Wales document published in March. However, he is determined to increase Wales’s energy self-sufficiency.

“One of the things I’m excited about is the work we’re doing around expanding renewables, particularly small-scale community renewable generation,” he says. “I think we’ve got great opportunities here to push ahead on an agenda that powers local communities and enables everyone to play a part in changing the nature of our economy and the nature of our country.

“That means investing in a renewable revolution in Wales over the coming years whereby we will be able to generate far more of our energy ourselves. I don’t just mean relying on big offshore wind farms, but having a real mix of energy sources.” Further announcements on renewable energy are promised for later in the year.

No more waste

In 2010, the Welsh government published its zero waste strategy, setting out how Wales will become a zero waste “one planet” nation by 2050. It is the most aggressive waste target of any UK administration. Early steps towards that goal include the introduction in 2011 of the first single-use carrier bag levy in the UK.

Davies also claims that strong recycling rates across Wales – more than 52% of waste was recycled in half of Welsh councils between October and December 2012 – prove there is widespread support for the Cardiff government’s aspirations on waste.

Innovative policies around climate change include the Arbed investment programme, which aims to introduce energy-efficiency measures to deprived communities in regeneration areas in Wales, using local companies to fight the combined social and economic challenges of emissions reductions and fuel poverty.

The scheme was a UK first when it launched in 2009. Another is the sustainable travel initiative, known as personalised travel planning, which was launched in 2011 and is the biggest project of its kind in the UK.

One-stop shop regulation

In environment management, Wales has recently taken the bold step of combining the functions of three bodies – the Welsh arms of the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, plus the Countryside Council for Wales – into a single organisation, called Natural Resources Wales.

The streamlining demonstrates the Welsh government’s intention to adopt an integrated approach to environment regulation, management and protection, in keeping with its aspiration to embed the principles of sustainable development in all policy areas.

Davies hopes that the new body will enable more efficient decision making around environment matters in Wales and, echoing the thoughts of his counterpart in Scotland, believes that Wales’s size means it has an opportunity to move more quickly than Westminster in responding to environment policy challenges.

“We need to be agile in our thinking and in our delivery, and that means removing duplication where it exists and ensuring that we have the facility to develop new and intelligent policy approaches,” says Davies.


Northern Ireland

Devolution in Northern Ireland has followed a more complex path than in either Scotland or Wales, with several suspensions of the Northern Ireland assembly since 1998. However, political stability has increased in recent years and the last assembly term, which ended in 2011, was the first to run its full course.

In environment policy, one distinctive aspect of the Northern Irish landscape is the fact that, uniquely in the UK, there is no independent environmental regulator: the Northern Ireland Environment Agency sits within the department of the environment.

There have been calls for an independent regulator since the 1990s, when a series of official reports criticised Northern Ireland’s environmental performance in areas such as water pollution and conservation.

Successive Northern Ireland assemblies have rejected such calls, although in 2011 the minister for environment, Alex Attwood, announced plans to revisit the issue. While the discussion appears to have stalled once more and the future of environmental regulation in Northern Ireland remains uncertain, the executive is moving ahead with its own policies in several areas.

Sea change

The Northern Ireland Marine Bill is a major piece of legislation currently being scrutinised by the Stormont assembly. Described as a turning point in the protection of Northern Ireland’s marine environment, the Bill includes provisions for the selection and management of marine conservation zones and the creation of a national marine plan to improve strategic planning and safeguard biodiversity.

“Northern Ireland’s seas are home to some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife and habitats, and have the potential to power our nation through wind and wave energy and create thousands of new jobs,” says Attwood.

Waste is one issue where Northern Ireland has sought to go beyond the UK government’s targets, leading to the publication of a far-reaching revised waste management strategy earlier this year. Its title, Delivering resource efficiency, reflects a shift in emphasis from the previous strategy, which was focused on resource management. The department of environment says the revised strategy is aimed at using resources in the most effective way, while minimising the impact of their use on the environment.

Among the strategy’s key proposals is a new household waste recycling target for 2020, which demands that local authorities recycle at least 60% of such waste, exceeding the EU target of 50%. The document also raises the possibility of the devolution of landfill tax, as is happening in Scotland.

Like Wales, Northern Ireland has introduced a 5p levy on single-use carrier bags. The stated target of the scheme, which was introduced in April 2013, is to reduce the number of bags issued annually by at least 80%, and there are plans to increase the levy to 10p from 2014 and extend it to multi-use bags.

Charging for carrier bags is designed to bring real and sustained benefits to our natural environment, including reducing carbon emissions, air pollution, water pollution and litter, states the environment department.

On climate change, there are growing calls for Northern Ireland to pass its own legislation to shore up its emissions reduction target of 35% on 1990 levels by 2025. Emissions in 2011 were 17% below 1990 levels, the lowest fall of any UK administration, with both England and Scotland achieving reductions of around 30% over the same period.

The Northern Ireland executive is keen to emphasise the difficulties of accurately calculating emissions reductions for each country in the UK, and it can point to a more positive recent trend, with emissions falling by more than 5% between 2010 and 2011.

Attwood supports the drafting of a Northern Ireland Climate Change Bill. A pre-consultation on the value of such a Bill concluded in May, and sought views on whether legislation or a voluntary approach to emissions reduction was the best course for Northern Ireland.

“I believe experience has shown that specific regional climate change legislation plays a part in delivering real sustainable change and I firmly believe that is the way to go,” says Attwood.

Legislation under consideration includes measures that have proved effective in other parts of the UK, such as statutory targets to reduce emissions, a local climate change committee and imposing reporting duties on public bodies in Northern Ireland.

Unique position

The issues raised by the lack of local climate change laws can also be seen in the complexity of UK energy policy as it relates to Northern Ireland. As part of the single electricity market (SEM) arrangement with the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland occupies a unique position in the UK.

A clear example of this was the UK government’s recent decision not to apply the carbon price floor (CPF) in Northern Ireland. The CPF is part of the UK’s electricity market reform programme and aims to stimulate investment in low-carbon electricity generation. However, the UK has acknowledged that such a tax in Northern Ireland would put electricity generators in the country at a disadvantage in relation to their competitors in the SEM.

However, the executive is planning the extensive use of renewables. A consultation on a proposed Offshore Renewable Energy Bill closed in April and sought ideas on how to establish a more sustainable energy system and ensure much more of Northern Ireland’s energy comes from renewable sources.

Under the executive’s plans for a strategic energy framework, offshore renewable energy will contribute 40% of electricity and, 10% heating across Northern Ireland by 2020.


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