Sunday, April 13, 2014

What happened to the Clear Green Water?

By Nick Davies

Throughout the history of devolved Welsh government, a distinctive theme of Welsh Labour and, therefore, of Welsh government policy has been a commitment to sustainability. This commitment was pursued most energetically by the former minister Jane Davidson under whom, between 2007 and 2011, sustainability had its own cabinet portfolio.

Since then as the gap between rhetoric and reality has grown ever wider, there appears to be a real risk of that commitment being misunderstood as simply ‘the environment’ – something to be bolted on, rather than baked in.  Without a real understanding of what it is, sustainability looks in danger, in the present grim period, of  being  repeatedly trumped  by a  perceived need to create jobs at any cost and therefore effectively abandoned as an effective driver of policy.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 imposed on Welsh government ministers a duty to make a scheme setting out how they proposed to promote sustainable development. ‘One Wales, One Planet’ was the result. This had as its aim a sustainable Wales using only its fair share of the earth’s resources; sustainable development was the overarching strategic aim, cutting across all policies, programmes and ministerial portfolios. Sustainable development was to be the central organising principle of the Welsh government and of the public sector throughout Wales.

At the start of the 4th Assembly, speaking on the Welsh Government’s flagship Sustainable Development Bill which sought to put the scheme into effect. Carwyn Jones pronounced that sustainability was at the heart of the Welsh government’s agenda for Wales and of his government’s legislative programme. In 2013, he announced that an independent body would be created to provide guidance, expertise and advice to ensure that sustainable development would become, as intended, the central organising principle.

Since 1999 has been possible to criticise the gap between aspiration and achievement, the lack of mainstreaming, the apparent reluctance (or inability, given the weak and unstable devolution settlement) of the Welsh Government to intervene effectively, in defence of its own professed political principles as against Westminster or local authorities – issues such as Ffos y Ffran, the open-cast mine near Merthyr Tydfil, spring readily to mind. However, what was present was a greater understanding, certainly than in Westminster, of what sustainability means and a commitment to genuinely sustainable policies, a commitment which won high praise in environmental and ecological circles well used to governments falling short of promises and expectations.

However, according to the previously well-disposed Jonathan Porritt, writing in The Guardian: ‘despite the laudable aims behind Wales’s sustainability bill there is now a serious risk that it could be watered down by nervous civil servants and lawyers who are under pressure from backward looking elements in government, industry and the public sector’. While still happy to contrast favourably Wales’ record with that of Westminster (he cites the coalition government’s abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission) he strikes a note of caution, stating that carbon emissions are still too high, progress on renewal energy held up by a ‘slow planning system’ and progress at government level being ‘patchy’; in particular, sustainable ideas need to be taken more seriously in relation to economic development. Most fundamentally, according to Porritt, under the proposals for the bill, then out for consultation, the duty to be imposed on ministers was not sufficiently onerous and the meaning of sustainability was not sufficiently defined.

Anne Meikle of WWF Cymru  has also highlighted  the gulf developing  between the Welsh government’s own narrative and what the proposed legislation actually says, pointing out that the white paper requires only that ‘consideration (my emphasis) of the effect on  the social, economic and environmental well-being of Wales will be a fundamental requirement of the duty so that decisions are informed by the likely effects on each and the integration between them’  Presumably, having ‘considered’ something, the duty is then done.

In a retrograde step, the 2013 reshuffle saw the end of the Sustainability portfolio, John Griffiths moving to Culture and Sport, taking part of his responsibilities with him. (Alun Davies has the ‘other half’ of the Sustainability portfolio, ‘Natural Resources and Food’). An illustration of how this has involved a loss of focus on sustainability was that department’s ‘adoption’ of the Active Travel Bill. This bill’s purpose is to require local authorities to promote walking and cycling at the expense of the car, in other words to promote sustainable travel.   Therefore the focus of the bill was is on utility journeys, not with sport and recreation. To conflate the two appears to miss the point of the legislation

Welsh housing minister Carl Sargeant’s announcement of a watering down of plans for better insulated, more fuel efficient homes amounts to a climbdown in the face of pressure from the building industry, as WWF Cymru have pointed out. It means higher energy bills, where there are already unacceptable levels of fuel poverty, and a delay in dealing with Wales’ carbon emissions.  In 2012 the Welsh government claimed that in keeping with its commitment to sustainability, from 2013 it would use its new powers over building regulations to achieve an improvement in energy efficiency of 55% over 2006 levels and 40% over 2010 levels. When building firms complained about the cost of building homes in Wales, the government’s initial response was that it was an opportunity for them to gain a competitive advantage in new home-building techniques. However, the climbdown was not long in coming. The new regulations will result in a reduction of only 8% from 2010 levels, and then with a commitment to do so only from 2021. Irony of ironies, the Westminster government is committed to matching Welsh standards by 2014 and building zero carbon homes by 2016!  Cameron’s claims that his would be the ‘greenest government ever’ are treated with deserved ridicule, yet Westminster appears to be ahead, at least in this respect, of the ‘sustainable’ Welsh government.

As planning minister, Carl Sargeant also oversaw, in October 2013, the granting of planning permission to a ‘factory’ dairy farm in mid-Wales, in the face of contrary advice from a range of environmental and animal welfare organisations. Notwithstanding the effect on the environment, animal welfare and tourism and the presence of a school next door, the minister decided that these considerations were outweighed by the benefit of a mere ten new jobs.

Finally, there is the running sore of the M4 relief road in which the Welsh government is exposing itself to potential legal action by running a ‘consultation’, which appears to be confined to different versions of the same thing, namely a relief road running across the Gwent levels, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, excluding a possible South East Wales metro system, or a less environmentally destructive (and cheaper) road project involving the former Llanwern steelworks.

Surely if the Welsh government were to sign up to the cargo-cult of motorway building, at the expense of, a Site of Special Scientific Interest; sustainable, integrated public transport; or even a cheaper road option, it will be dragging Wales back into the dark days of 1970/80s UK transport policies and effectively forfeiting any right to have its sustainability claims taken seriously.

It is not difficult to see what is going on here. The Welsh economy is receiving such a battering as a result of the financial crisis and the Westminster government’s determination to make  anyone but the bankers  pay for it,  that ministers have adopted a default position of ‘if there’s jobs promised, do it’. Once on this slippery slope,  Carwyn Jones, albeit ‘on the hoof’ and without speaking for the Welsh government or Welsh Labour, ‘volunteered’ Wales to host the UK’s nuclear–armed submarine fleet at Milford Haven in the event of Scottish independence, presumably on the basis of  it creating ‘jobs’. Why anyone would decide to move themselves or their families to somewhere which was likely to be the epicentre of a nuclear holocaust appears not to have been fully investigated.

Despite the commitment, sustainability is not, on this evidence, what informs decision-making nor does it appear to inform any wider economic strategy.

It is up to socialists and environmentalists in Wales to demand that the Welsh government sticks to its own avowed principles so that economic renewal in Wales is not based on the outdated and discredited false dichotomy of ‘jobs v. the environment’ (sic), is based on the development of renewal energy and sustainable transport and does not harm the interests of future generations.

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