Gareth Clubb condemns the Environment Agency’s disregard of the rights of Welsh speakers who wish to respond to its consultations in their native language
The name Århus might not mean very much to most people in Wales. But over the coming weeks and months it’s going to become a lot more familiar to people with environmental interests.
The Århus Convention requires Parties to the Convention to “guarantee the rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters”. The UK ratified the Convention in 2005, so a casual observer would perhaps think that by now the process of ensuring access to environmental information has become normalised – and indeed, enshrined in legislation.
And the casual observer would be right. The Convention has been implemented in the UK through environmental impact and information regulations, and so on. But your rights apply only if you seek that information in the English language.
The Infrastructure Planning Commission, which examines and determines planning applications for large infrastructure projects in England and Wales, published more than 100 application documents for a large incinerator near Merthyr Tudful, including a Health Impact Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment. Not one word of Welsh was contained in any of those documents. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised – after all, the Commission’s website itself contains not one word of Welsh.
The Environment Agency recently consulted on the application by EDF Energy for environmental permits for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. I’ve written about the problems this proposal would cause for Wales here. Following representations from Friends of the Earth Cymru the Agency belatedly provided bilingual information – forcing a 10-week extension to the consultation. But the application material from EDF Energy was English-only, despite the Agency having conceded that the proposed development is of significant interest to the people of Wales.
We repeatedly expressed concern about this lack of Welsh-language material, referring time and again to Article 6 of the Convention, which expressly includes “the application on which a decision will be taken”. Agency officials confirmed at a meeting in December that not only was the Agency happy to allow application materials for large energy infrastructure of relevance to Wales to be in English only, but that in this case it had not even asked the developer to provide Welsh language material.
I spoke to Chris Mills, Director of the Agency’s Welsh ‘region’, to see whether or not the Agency could be persuaded that in future all Århus-relevant applications could be provided in Welsh. I’m sure Chris’ representations to the Chief Executive would have been cogent, logical and persuasive. They would have covered:
- The political situation, including the strong drive to making a bilingual Wales a reality.
- The legislative situation, including the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 which gives the Welsh language official status in Wales.
- The requirements of the Århus Convention itself.
- The moral argument for treating the people of Wales in a mature and respectful manner.
- The financial situation, which is that any additional costs would be borne entirely by the developer and not by the Agency (and should be thought of as part of the normal course of doing business in relation to a bilingual country).
- The reputational damage that the Agency would suffer if they were to be seen to be acting in direct contravention of an international environmental Convention.
It was with great disappointment therefore that I received the news that despite Chris’ best efforts, the Chief Executive of the Agency, Paul Leinster CBE, had decided that in his opinion the Århus Convention on environmental rights does not apply to the people of Wales through the Welsh language.
And so it is that Friends of the Earth Cymru has today submitted an official complaint against both the UK Government and the Environment Agency to the Compliance Committee of the Århus Convention.
Regrettably, the Agency is not alone in its negligence. Agencies that should know better are literally lining up to be hauled before the Compliance Committee. The IPC is now publishing application material for Hinkley Point, but in English only. I have asked the Chief Executive, John Saunders OBE, to confirm that “the IPC has no intention of requiring application materials for any development affecting Wales to be produced in the Welsh language”, and I fully expect him to make that confirmation. And the Department for Energy and Climate Change and its predecessors the Department of Trade and Industry and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) are past masters at ignoring the need for Welsh language consultation.
I should declare a personal interest in all this. I brought a complaint before the Compliance Committee in 2010. I felt that for DBERR to provide Welsh language consultation materials in relation to its new nuclear programme more than 3½ months after the consultation deadline had closed was a breach of the Convention. The Compliance Committee thought differently:
“…the Committee found that while the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of citizenship, nationality or domicile was explicit in article 3, paragraph 9, of the Convention, the provision was silent on matters of discrimination on the basis of language. While the lack of availability of documentation in a particular language might under certain circumstances present an impediment to correct implementation of the Convention, nothing in the present communication suggested that such circumstances pertained”.
Having suffered personal disenfranchisement at the hands of government over my choice of language, I know how it feels to be refused access to consultation. So I hope that the present complaint will provide the Compliance Committee with stronger evidence that a lack of documentation in a particular language presents an impediment to correct implementation of the Convention.
For years the people of Wales have been denied the environmental rights that are duly theirs according to international Convention. Through Friends of the Earth Cymru’s pursuit of its aim of securing environmental justice for all, I hope that we will see proper legal implementation of Århus rights in every applicable case in Wales. And given that Wales has been blessed with two languages, those rights must apply equally across both.