“The Environment” has always been something of a touchstone in Welsh politics. Since the demand for sustainability was written into the Assembly’s founding legislation in the 1998 Act there has been a requirement that Welsh Government promote sustainable development in everything it does. The duty on sustainable development was transcribed into the 2006 Act and has driven policy ever since.
This duty was finally amended by the 2015 Well-being of Future Generations Act earlier this year when it was replaced by both a definition of sustainability and the Act which which creates a new duty for not only the Welsh Government but all public authorities in Wales.
There is certainly a consensus in Wales which creates a very different debate from that which is heard in Westminster. It is difficult to think of any Assembly Member who publicly questions the science of climate change but at the same time it is also difficult to think of many that believes its a priority either.
However although the Welsh Government’s approach to environment and climate change policy has enjoyed broad and wide support across the chamber and civic society, it is also true to say that it is not something that the Government has always appeared to believe in very strongly itself.
The last Labour manifesto was peppered with phrases like “sustainable jobs”, “sustainable transport” and “sustainable solutions”. It is questionable – despite the above – whether the heart and soul of the Labour Government has driven policy as far as perhaps it could have done so. And it remains open to question whether ministers are as committed to the policy as their statements would have us believe.
There has been an acceptance in government that the economy must come first and this has driven policy on house-building and building regulations to the building of the new M4 over the Gwent Levels. However the Welsh Government will also point to both the Future Generations Act and the Environment Bill as evidence that the Government is holding firm and delivering on its previous commitments. The establishment of Natural Resources Wales with new and wide-ranging powers over natural resources management will also create a new area of debate.
The next Labour manifesto will probably not contain as many references to sustainability as the last. There will be arguments over the commitment on the M4 and it is likely that there will be a focus on promoting green growth and making additional commitments taking forward the suite of laws and regulations flowing from legislation passed in the current Assembly. There may also be a commitment to further wildlife protection legislation to build upon or replace the 1981 Act. One of the areas where there may be some disagreement between the parties will be on the nature and extent of the emission targets which will soon be statutory requirement.
The Welsh Conservatives have taken a generally positive approach to environmental policy, but have generally seen it as a rural issue rather than something which could underpin the whole policy portfolio of government. They have not been as angry as some of their counterparts in England about measures to address climate change but have been the party which has been most strongly opposed to the development of wind energy, which, since their spokesperson represents the county most affected is little surprise. The test for the Conservatives next May will be to adopt an approach which is less piecemeal and more comprehensive. A policy which recognises that the “environment” is more than green fields and should inform economic as well as planning policy. They will be the only opposition party to support the Government over the building of the new M4.
For both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Lib Dems, environment policy is one where they feel confident in terms of their approach and position. They have both urged the Welsh Government to “go further” in being more ambitious and far-sighted in their proposals at different times. Both oppose the extension of the M4 although the Lib Dems have reached an agreement with the Government over an environmental assessment of its impact as a part of their budget deal. Plaid Cymru is hoping to outflank Labour on the green economy and will be focussed on energy as a means of delivering on its commitment on climate change. Both will be signalling a commitment to significant reductions in emissions but it is unclear how they expect to meet these targets.
Again UKIP will stand apart from this consensus. The party appears intolerant of emissions targets and policies to mitigate the impact of climate change. It is unlikely in the extreme that the party will have any significant commitment on either climate change or wider environment policy.
Perhaps the biggest environment issue over the next few months will be the disagreement over the new M4. It will be seen and portrayed as a totem pole for many campaigners when they come to analyse party’s commitments. No party which is committed to driving a six lane motorway across some of the most precious, internationally recognised and protected landscapes in the country can be seen to be serious about the environment.