Wales needs level playing field on energy policy

Dafydd Elis Thomas says the Welsh Government should be given equivalent powers to Scotland and Northern Ireland on renewables and planning

Achieving the nirvana of affordable, sustainable energy which meets the demands of the modern world is fiendishly difficult. But Wales is hampered in this task because it does not have the same levers available to it as other parts of the country.

The UK Government’s belief that powers regarding nationally strategic infrastructure projects should ultimately lie with the Secretary of State is most concerning, and one wonders whether it would take a similar approach with the other devolved nations.”

 In June 2012 the National Assembly’s Environment and Sustainability Committee, which I chair, published its report on Energy policy and Planning in Wales. The importance of getting the response to the threat posed by climate change right in Wales is one of the preeminent challenges faced by the people of Wales and their representatives.

If the Welsh Government gets it right, then Wales stands to make substantial environmental and economic gains. If it gets it wrong, then the consequences could be severe.

Some sixteen months on, we have seen the devastating impact that extreme and unseasonable weather can have, particularly in terms of the devastation wrought by the late spring snows this year.

We have also seen the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report. The science behind the case for man’s contribution to climate change is overwhelming, and the challenges clearer. We must not tarry in taking action to respond.

And yet what about Wales? What difference has been made in the sixteen months since we published our report? A central question, that remains to be answered, is that of devolving further powers to Wales for deciding larger scale energy generation projects and the subsidy rates for renewable generation (known as Renewable Obligation Certificates and Feed-in Tariffs).

When we reported in June 2012, we were still awaiting the Welsh Government’s case for further powers to be devolved, and we called on the First Minister to make this case. That case has now been made, and we are concerned that the UK Government has again rejected the Welsh Government’s calls for these powers. Further, our concern is heightened by the UK Government’s suggestion that it may be transferring some powers away from Welsh local authorities to the UK Secretary of State.

If decisions are to be made with the best possible understanding of the social, economic and environmental factors associated with them then they must be taken as locally as is appropriate.

We have seen the difficulties caused by a system that is at once local and London-based, in the protracted wind farm public inquiry process that is on going in Powys. This strengthens the need for decision to be made in Wales.

We must also remember that these are powers currently held by Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland in particular, is seen as leader in renewable energy generation. We in Wales have an opportunity to lead too, but we will require the tools to deliver this if we are to fulfil our potential as a leader in low carbon energy production.

My Committee also examined the feasibility of energy generation through unconventional gas noting the UK Government’s belief that shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs. We concluded that the development of another carbon intensive energy industry at this time is not appropriate and cannot be reconciled with EU and UK commitments to reduce emissions.

However, given the UK Government’s position and the fact that licences for exploration already exist for parts of Wales, the Committee considered it to be even more important that the Welsh Government should follow the example in England and issue some detailed planning guidance for dealing with planning applications for the exploration and exploitation of unconventional gas.

We have not heard any convincing evidence to suggest a change to the view that the development of another carbon intensive energy industry at this time is appropriate to EU and UK commitments to reduce emissions. We also still have some concerns that the safety issues relating to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have not yet been adequately addressed and believe it is important that Natural Resources Wales urgently clarifies its position.

Local authorities now face difficult planning decisions and we renew our call for the Welsh Government to support our local authorities in this difficult task by issuing additional planning guidance. This is a call supported by local authorities, Natural Resources Wales and prominent NGOs such Friends of the Earth Cymru.

The challenge we face from climate change is real and increasing. We must act now. Further powers would help enhance our response in Wales, but utilising the powers we have can make a significant difference. We must be bold if we are to be successful.

In the coming months, the Welsh Government will set out how it wishes to use the powers available to the National Assembly to create new laws around the environment, planning and sustainable development. I, and the committee I Chair, have an important role in their development. These laws have the potential to change the game in Wales – to put us on the front foot in addressing the social, economic and environmental challenges that face us. But to do this, they must be bold and bravely delivered – for if they lack in ambition they will fail to deliver the level of change that is needed.

Colleagues of all party colours on my committee stand ready to play our part in meeting the challenges faced by our nation. The Welsh Government has the opportunity to make significant changes to energy policy and planning in Wales – for the long term good. The next few months will show us how ambitious the Welsh Government is in its plans for tackling the challenges posed by climate change and in taking the opportunities that meeting this challenge presents.


Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas is Assembly Member for the Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Chair of the Environment and Sustainability Committee in the National Assembly.

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