Sustainable development kicked into Welsh long grass

Llyr Huws Gruffydd says the environment is the real loser in the reshuffle

Carwyn Jones’ decision to re-jig his cabinet last week has been described as more of a reorganisation than a reshuffle. It may well have been a damp squib in terms of ins and outs, but there is one key change that seems to have gone unnoticed. Looking beyond the personalities involved, the way portfolios and departments have been reconfigured seems much more significant – and I fear it doesn’t make great reading for the wider environmental agenda in Wales.

The underlying significance of this reshuffle is the break-up of what was the Environment and Sustainable Development portfolio into three:

  1. Part of the former Environment portfolio including climate change, flood prevention and the establishment of Natural Resources Wales goes to the Minister for Natural Resources and Food.
  2. The “central organising principle” of Sustainable Development goes to the Minister for Communities.
  3. The Planning remit is hived off to the Housing Minister and rather bizarrely National Parks ends up with the Minister for Culture and Sport.

It’s fair to say that John Griffiths’ former portfolio was too broad. However, the Government has been telling us for two years about the critical interconnectedness of the environment, sustainable development and the planning system in Wales. They claimed that having one Minister responsible for the Environment Bill, Sustainable Development Bill and Planning Bill would ensure joined-up and effective legislation.

My draft press statement welcoming Alun Davies’s new appointment as Minister for Natural Resources and Food and seeking early discussions about the proposed Sustainable Development and Planning Bills had to be scrapped when I realised he wouldn’t be responsible for either of them!

In a recent written statement the former Environment and Sustainable Development Minister, John Griffiths, told us the Government would ensure that the development of its approach to natural resource planning would go hand in hand with its focus on the improvement of the planning system in Wales. But now the Minister for Natural Resources is no longer responsible for planning.

But it’s moving the lead on sustainable development from Environment to Communities that raises the most interesting questions in my mind.

The whole drive for sustainable development to become a central organising principle of Welsh Government has so far been powered by an aspiration for more sustainable use of our natural resources. It’s the environmental lobby that has led the charge and provided the political thrust to keep this agenda moving. In my view it has made perfect sense for its delivery to be a key plank of the work of the Environment and Sustainable Development Minister. There has been little impetus thus far from either the Economic or Communities Ministers, with only the odd interjection when questions were asked about whether environmental, social or economic considerations should gain priority if push came to shove.

So why has Carwyn Jones chosen to pass the baton to the Communities Minister? I hope it’s a genuine effort to liberate sustainable development from its environmental chains and make it a truly cross-government agenda encompassing social and economic wellbeing. On the other hand it could be a cynical ploy to kick the whole agenda into the long grass and divert our gaze from the Government’s apparent difficulties in enshrining the whole concept into meaningful legislation. I fear though that it could also have just been bolted on to a portfolio that needed something added to it.

Whichever it is, handing “overarching responsibility” for anything is always ominous in my book.

The Government’s Sustaining a Living Wales Green Paper said it considered embedding sustainable development and achieving an ecosystems approach as aspirations which complement each other and which share common underlying values. But now one is led by Huw Lewis and the other by Alun Davies.

We also find that the Minister for nature conservation is no longer responsible for National Parks (despite being given their designation because of their environmental significance). National Parks remain in John Griffiths’ in-tray but become a strange addition to his new responsibilities for Culture and Sport.

Are we really looking at a situation where one Minister is now responsible for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other environmental designations, whilst another Minister takes over National Parks? You could argue that putting National Parks and planning together might have made sense. However, planning has gone to yet another Minister – Carl Sargeant.

At a time when the Welsh Government has been extoling the virtues of bringing together the key environmental drivers and seeking coherence and consistency in environmental delivery (for example through Natural Resources Wales) it’s ironic that Carwyn Jones’ Cabinet reorganisation seems to do exactly the opposite.

The former Environment and Sustainable Development portfolio with its broad and weighty remit should have been a powerhouse to affect a deep and thorough greening of Welsh Government policy. The headlines might talk of a demoted individual. In reality the reshuffle leaves a rather disaggregated and dishevelled look to the Government’s environmental credentials.

Llyr Huws Gruffydd is Plaid Cymru AM for North Wales.

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