David Clubb explores what the three candidates of the Welsh Labour leadership campaign have to say about energy and the environment
In case you weren’t aware, Carwyn Jones, the long-standing First Minister of Wales, is standing down and the campaign to elect his successor is well underway.
I’m politically impartial but I have a strong interest in who becomes leader of the Labour Party in Wales, not least because it will have a potentially large impact on how I do my job — and on the prospects for my members here.
So I thought it was worth taking a canter through the public pronouncements of the three candidates (in alphabetical order) to see what they say about energy and the environment.
Eluned is a politician with a career spanning decades, including spells at the European Parliament and the House of Lords. Elected to the National Assembly in 2016, she has stated that she will drop her peerage and title if elected leader. Eluned is a first-language Welsh-speaker.
In her current role as Minister for Welsh Language & Lifelong Learning, she does not have any significant interaction with the energy and environment sectors, but she represented SSE in Wales from 2009 to 2013 as the Director of National Development. This doubtless provided her with a good background in the subject. It also gave her the opportunity to represent her company in RenewableUK Cymru’s regular strategy group meetings.
Her campaign website details a number of ambitions for the environment in Wales, including a National Forest, affordable clean energy, stronger regulation on eco-construction, a carbon-neutral public sector, stronger renewable energy policy, meeting European climate objectives and targets on lower-emission transport. Eluned is a ‘recent convert’ to supporting nuclear power.
As laudable as these aspirations are, there is very little detail to examine what they might mean in practice. However, we can perhaps derive some encouragement from Eluned’s call for Wales to be a global ‘beacon’ for green government.
Mark is widely regarded as the front-runner in the contest. Mark is also a Welsh-speaker, and currently has the role of Cabinet Secretary for Finance, probably the most senior role of the three candidates.
Mark’s campaign website has the slogan ‘For the many, not the few’, which sharp-eyed readers will realise is the clone of UK Labour’s Manifesto slogan. It also contains the text of his environmental policy statement, which includes:
- Investment in enhanced biodiversity and improved access to the countryside
- Creating an Environmental Growth Plan for Wales, promoting industries which enhance rather than damage the natural world
- Paying farmers for non-market (i.e. public) goods, such as water quality, good soil and flood prevention
- An independent commission to advise on nuclear power. Mark is stated to be sceptical of nuclear whilst still supporting it in principle
- Re-examining the case for a new Welsh Energy Mutual (on the model of Dŵr Cymru)
There is definitely more ‘meat’ on the bones of this as an environmental policy. Mark mentions other things in his speech, including supporting renewable energy, but I’ve chosen to highlight here only things that I see as additional to existing Government policy.
Vaughan’s portfolio is the double-edged sword of Health and Social Services. This means he has a huge budget and high profile. It also means he has the thankless task of trying to manage a system under colossal pressure with expectations of staff and patients that almost certainly can’t be met.
Vaughan’s family backstory is less traditional than the other two candidates, and his website boasts the slogan “Change takes Courage”. An interesting slant on fighting the status quo, given Labour have a century-long hegemony in Wales, but one which might resonate with members who thirst for something different from the current orthodoxy.
Sadly Vaughan’s policy offering on environment and energy is the weakest of the three, with no mention whatsoever of environmental issues. The only recent public pronouncement is his support for nuclear power. This suggests that energy and environment issues are simply not on his radar, or that he’s entirely comfortable with the current policy direction for environment and energy in Wales — something that will sit at odds of many practitioners and commentators in the sector (myself included).
My interpretation of the material provided by the three candidates is that Mark Drakeford has the most comprehensive grasp of environment and energy issues. Eluned’s offering is weak on how the policy would be delivered, and Vaughan’s position is notable by its complete absence.
Most disappointing for me is that none of them have made a compelling case for Wales to lead on climate change and energy issues, or offered suggestions which suggest a radical change in direction for the sector in Wales.
If they’re interested in radical, may I suggest:
- A cost/benefit analysis of free bus travel in Wales to reduce congestion (and therefore air pollution and other social costs) which would directly target those in the lowest income brackets
- A commitment to implement ‘presumed consent’ for community and shared ownership energy projects
- A commitment to support the development of the high-voltage grid in Powys in order to enable decarbonisation of heating and transport powered by renewables
- A commitment to require Passive-Haus (or equivalent) zero-carbon standards for new-build in Wales as soon as is practicable (in fairness, Eluned suggests something similar in her policy proposals)
- Requiring OFGEM to ensure Distribution Network Operator investment plans suitably consider the proactive investment in the grid to enable decarbonised heat and transport, and to investigate as a matter of urgency the grid-lock in South Wales which leaves us unable to install any large (>1MW) battery storage until 2026
- Requiring OFGEM to develop a strategic plan for Wales, which takes account of Welsh legislation – such as the Well-Being of Future Generations, and Environment Acts – and which has as its primary objective enabling the Welsh Government to meet its legal and policy commitments for energy, carbon, infrastructure and climate change
- An analysis of the costs and benefits of the devolution of Crown Estate functions and assets in Wales to a new body, Crown Estate Wales (analogous to the Scottish version). This could potentially act as a strong driver for renewables, as such a body would be subject to Welsh legislation and policy requiring comparatively vigorous activity on promoting renewable energy development
My availability to consult on energy and environment issues remains open — to all parties — for the next leadership contests, whenever they may be!
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