Yes vote offers way forward for green ambitions

Gordon James charts some of the frustrations accompanying the present restrictions on the National Assembly’s legislative powers

At its birth, the National Assembly for Wales quickly flexed its fledgling muscles to show that it was able, not just to steer a different course to Westminster on an issue, but to directly influence UK policy. Friends of the Earth Cymru’s GM-Free Wales campaign won instant cross-party support in 1999, and by 2004 enabled Wales’ Agriculture Minister, Carwyn Jones, to turn down a request to add a GM maize variety to the list of seeds accepted for sale in the UK. A week later, Bayer CropScience withdrew plans for the commercialisation of its GM crop in the UK as it had failed, as required by EU legislation, to gain the support of the regional governments.

This success not only demonstrated the Assembly’s intention to pursue a greener route than Westminster, but also encouraged the self-confidence needed to achieve it. But powers in other areas are more limited than this one-off victory implied, and have caused a significant break on Wales’ environmental ambitions.

The mind-numbingly laborious Legislative Competence Order (LCO) process has ensured that politicians and campaigners in Wales are only able to squeeze miniscule powers out of Westminster. And these small gains take years to go through the system. The Sustrans Cymru attempt to have an LCO to encourage local authorities to improve facilities for walkers and cyclists is still ongoing, having begun its journey in 2007. Similarly, the devolution of Building Regulations, a long sought after power and key One Wales commitment, will now finally be achieved on 31 December 2011.

Early on, attempts were made to overcome the lack of devolved powers in most aspects of energy policy by the subtle tweaking of economic and planning policies. For instance, the Assembly’s Economic Development Committee produced reports that sought to steer Wales ambitiously in the direction of becoming “a global showcase for clean energy developments”.

The 2005 ‘Planning for Renewable Energy TAN 8’ played a central role in attempting to deliver the Welsh Government’s target of generating 10 per cent of Wales’ electricity from renewables, mainly onshore wind, by 2010. This fell short of delivery of onshore wind by almost 80 per cent.

In a devolved energy policy area – the funding of energy efficiency schemes – the government in Wales has been more successful. It has stolen a march on its English counterpart by its more ambitious funding and implementation of programmes, such as the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme and Arbed, which are expected to inject around £1 billion into energy saving over the next decade.

In a number of other policy areas, Wales’ green ambitions eclipse those of its neighbour. The following objectives all reflect Wales’ greater commitment to the environment:

  • 70 per cent waste recycling by 2025.
  • Cutting greenhouse gas emissions in areas of devolved power by 40 per cent by 2020.
  • Being self sufficient in electricity from renewable sources by 2025.
  • Remaining GM free
  • Ensuring that all new buildings are zero carbon from 2013 (compared with 2016 in England).

However, a closer examination of these ambitions exposes a worrying dependence on Westminster in many areas.

Almost before the ink was dry on the Welsh Government’s 2010 Energy Policy Statement, it suffered a severe blow. The Westminster Government announced it was putting on hold all tidal developments in the Severn estuary, which were meant to make a significant contribution to Wales’ renewables target. Instead, the London Government opted to support nuclear power, which was absent from the Welsh policy.

The Welsh Government’s much vaunted Climate Change Strategy disappointed in that only around a third of its 3 per cent a year cut in greenhouse gas emissions would be delivered directly from Welsh policies. The One Wales agreement had promised that the full 3 per cent would be achieved in areas of devolved competence.

The National Assembly has already served too long an apprenticeship. Acquiring full law-making powers in areas of devolved competence next March is an essential step forward in enabling Wales to become a leader in delivering meaningful environmental progress, and benefiting from the huge opportunities of the green economy.

It should also be seen as an important stepping stone to acquiring responsibility for all energy policies.

In a recent paper the architect of Friends of the Earth’s GM Free Cymru policy, environmental barrister Peter Roderick has proposed innovative ways of securing a healthy environment (WWF, Taking the Longer View). One suggestion is that governments, including here in Wales, could use law-making powers to introduce an Environmental Bill of Rights. This would establish the substantive human right to live in a healthy environment and to have it protected for the benefit of present and future generations. As this would be a right, as opposed to a duty, it would enable those alleging violation of a right to go to court to enforce it.

Assuming a Yes vote tomorrow, what an opportunity this would present for our small nation to use its newly won powers to gain real progress for its environment and people.

Gordon James is Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru

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