Sustainability at the heart of Welsh policy

18th March 2011


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Environment minister Jane Davidson tells the environmentalist how Wales is pursuing a distinct policy agenda centred on sustainability.

Sustainable development (SD) is the focus of Welsh policymaking through the “One Wales: One Planet” scheme, which sets out the Welsh Assembly government’s (WAG) vision for Wales and, uniquely, establishes SD as the central principle for policy development and implementation.

But it is not the only exceptional feature of the Welsh government’s approach to tackling environmental problems. “Wales is first in a number of areas,” claims Jane Davidson, the country’s environment minister. “It is the first country in the world to be a ‘fair trade’ nation. We’re the first in the UK to set statutory recycling targets and take action on single-use carrier bags. And we’re the first to be developing a coastal path that goes right round our coastline.”

Development within environmental limits

Conferring legislative power on the WAG for important environmental issues is helping the assembly develop its own approach in the areas where it can now make legislation – waste, local environmental quality and pollution (see below). However, it is the SD principle that really enables Wales to tread its own path. One Wales: One Planet began in 2009 and acknowledges that embedding sustainable development in all policymaking is the only way the country can develop.

“We’re very much trying to operate a consistent agenda around the principles of SD in everything we do. It is the overarching strategic aim of all our policies and programmes, across all ministerial portfolios,” explains Davidson.

She uses the example of building to illustrate how the principle impacts on policy: “The SD principle affects every stage. In planning terms, for example, we’re operating one-planet development, low-impact development. I’m not sure there is another country in the world that has a planning policy for low-impact development. There is certainly not another one in the UK.”

The policy also sets targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions from new builds, the first being a reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions of 55% compared to the standard set by the Building Regulations 2006 in terms of energy efficiency. “We have taken this decision on the grounds of sustainability,” says Davidson. To help achieve the target in reality, Wales expects building regulations to be devolved to the WAG by the end of 2011.

Another example is waste. “We work from a resource-efficiency perspective because we have SD as our central organising principle, so we look at our impact on resources, on the planet,” says the minister. “Our policy is about living within our environmental limits. So, taking that decision leads you in a certain direction.” That direction includes achieving a 70% recycling target by 2025; zero waste to landfill by 2050; and operating the EU waste hierarchy.

The One Wales: One Planet scheme recognises the global threat of climate change and that the WAG must be at the forefront of tackling the causes and effects of these changes in Wales. It includes a specific commitment to reduce GHG emissions in Wales by 3% a year from 2011 in areas of devolved responsibilities.

Going it alone

Davidson’s ministerial remit covers the environment, energy, planning, housing, regeneration, water and marine access. She is also the lead within the cabinet on SD and climate change. Bringing all these issues together in one department has its benefits.

“[The portfolio is] massive but the connections are fantastic, because these are what affect people’s daily experience of the environment in which they live. In Wales, everyone I need to speak with on an issue I can get into one room,” Davidson says.

She established a board to oversee the programme for waste, which matches officials from WAG, such as treasurers, with officials from local authorities across Wales. “That’s where being a small country has its advantages: it is too big a portfolio for one minister in the UK government, but you can do it in Wales.”

Being a relatively small country – Wales has a population of less than three million – also makes it easier to involve stakeholders in developing strategy. Wales has its own separate Climate Change Commission. It brings together leaders and representatives from a range of sectors, including business, academia and local government in Wales to help develop new policies and create a consensus on climate-change action.

“There is nothing similar anywhere else in the UK,” comments Davidson, who until recently chaired the commission.

Work has also started in Wales on setting up its own environment body, possibly incorporating the Welsh arms of the Environment Agency (EA) and Forestry Commission, as well as the Countryside Council for Wales.

Davidson explains that all three bodies were established at different times for very different reasons, and there are some overlapping responsibilities. “We looked at it and found lots of areas where each of them requires both regulatory and conservation people, so have decided it might be better if we had a strong, independent environment organisation that dealt with all of this.”

However, with Welsh Assembly elections in May, there will be no firm decision made on the proposed new body until the new government takes power.

Working together

Although Wales is forging its own path in several areas, it continues to work closely with Whitehall departments and the other UK national governments on environmental matters. The WAG can transpose EU legislation in the areas that it has competence for, although it usually does so in conjunction with England, and sometimes across the whole of the UK.

“It’s not an agenda about being different, but one of effectiveness. Where it is best to transpose on a UK or England and Wales basis, we do. And there are a number of areas where if the EA is the main enforcement body it makes sense, at least at the moment, to transpose in both England and Wales because the agency operates in both countries,” Davidson says.

Although the WAG – currently a Labour–Plaid Cymru joint administration – is working with the new government in Westminster, it is critical of several decisions by Conservative–Liberal Democrat ministers, notably plans to withdraw funding from the SDC and the changes to the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency scheme.

And, while waste is a good example of how regional government, given the powers, can make a difference, there is frustration in areas that are not devolved. “Whereas we got everything devolved with waste, we don’t have the same power over energy issues,” says Davidson. “Responsibility in terms of planning etc for energy plants over 50MW on land and above 1MW at sea still lies with Westminster.”

That means, for example, that the WAG has no say in whether a new nuclear power station is built on Anglesey. Nevertheless, Wales has unique natural advantages in the generation of renewable energy, particularly from marine sources, and this is another area where Wales is aiming to make its own unique contribution to tackling climate change.

Bagging a legislative role

The National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Environment) Order 2010 (LCO) came into force on 11 February 2010 and means that the Welsh assembly government (WAG) now has the power to make legislation in relation to many environmental matters.

Previously, Welsh ministers had a broad range of executive powers relating to the environment, but the LCO means the WAG can develop legislation in three main areas: waste management, pollution and local environmental quality. It also ensures that the WAG can respond to environmental challenges as and when they arise, and based on Welsh priorities and needs.

One of the first major pieces of environmental legislation to emerge from the WAG since the LCO came into force is the Single Use Carrier Bags Charge (Wales) Regulations 2010. The Regulations introduce a charge (5p) on shoppers – from 1 October 2011 – for single-use carrier bags, making Wales the first country in the UK to introduce a charge as part of its efforts to dramatically reduce the volume of carrier bags given out to shoppers.

Wales’ environment minister Jane Davidson said the WAG decided to seek a legislative remedy to the problem of single-use carrier bags because the voluntary British Retail Consortium commitment had failed to reach its target to reduce the use of such bags by 50% by spring 2009 compared with 2006. “I always believe in starting with a voluntary approach and if that doesn’t work, you then look at appropriate legislation,” says Davidson.

She has, however, included a voluntary element: “Even though my powers extend to mandating how the charge is spent I’ve gone for a voluntary approach. So, retailers are mandated in terms of how much they charge, they are not mandated on where they spend the revenue. We are looking to retailers to fund good causes.”

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