Wales environment policy Natural Environment Framework launched

A consultation on how to rethink the way Wales views, protects and manages its environment has been launched.

The Welsh government aims to bring sustainability into each decision affecting Wales socially and economically, as laid out in its Living Wales document.

The government has been inching towards more and more protection of the environment since its first environment strategy in 2006.

On its website, the Welsh government says the four-month consultation on the Natural Environment Framework (NEF)"aims to increase our understanding of the importance of our environment and how it contributes to our well-being.

"This will help us make better-informed, long-term decisions for the future of Wales."

Last November it announced the merger of the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Environment Agency Wales (EAW) and the Forestry Commission in Wales (FCW).

Environment Minister John Griffiths says the reason for this is the need for a single focus and more clarity for investors and entrepreneurs.

During the past year, staff from the three bodies and Welsh government civil servants have put together a business case to look at the creation of a single body, and Mr Griffiths has approved it.

The business case includes detailed information on the form and functions of the new organisation, detailed cost and benefit analysis along with information on pensions. It is also being scrutinised by the assembly's environment and sustainability committee.

But the ultimate aim of NEF is to focus on the value of the environment as a whole, rather than in separate and independent segments. It will mean a common approach by landowners, developers and regulated industries to protect the environment and not just conserving what we have.

Image caption Pembroke power station will be contributing to the National Grid by the end of 2012

The government says it wants Wales to be increasingly resilient and have diverse ecosystems that deliver economic, environmental and social benefits.

John Lloyd Jones, a farmer and former chair of CCW, sees the approach as being the correct one for the long term.

He said: "I think it's very difficult to see sustainability and long-term gains within a society which is maybe too over obsessed with the short-term gain.

"Obviously, it's the Welsh government that should be leading this debate but it is absolutely very, very important that they have people who are working the land and who are in charge of the land that they are part of this debate. They have to involve those people."

But economists and some industries will fear more regulation in a strategy which will be seen by some as too ambitious and academic in a challenging economic period.

Dr Calvin Jones, from the Welsh Economic Research Unit at Cardiff Business School, says living up to the principle of sustainability across all policies and targets will be hard for the Cardiff Bay administration.

He said: "The Welsh government now would probably admit themselves that, even on the core sustainable development duty, they haven't really delivered across departments in the way they might have hoped.

"It's difficult to see, for example, within the economic department, anything much different than would've happened if the sustainable development duty had not been in place. So even where we are now, is not a good place to start."

Dr Jones added: "This could actually either be the making or, possibly, the breaking of the Welsh [government's] environment policy and sustainable development policy more generally."

Peter Roderick, a London-based barrister, and environmental lawyer who has advised Friends of the Earth, uses RWE npower's £1bn Pembroke power station as an example of the Cardiff-based government failing, in his opinion, to protect a special area of conservation in the Cleddau estuary.

The new gas-fired Pembroke power station is nearing completion, and is controversial as the plant will be taking water from the haven to cool turbines, which will be producing 2000 Mw of electricity for the UK's National Grid before the end of the year.

'Many obstacles'

He said: "There are many obstacles facing the government. There are legal problems but also really practical problems.

"You take the Pembroke power station, for example, there you had the government in London wanting the station to be built and you had the powers in London and you had the environmental protection powers with the assembly in Cardiff, and what did they do?

"They decided to allow the power station to go ahead and for the environment, even though the countryside council had said that it was an unacceptable impact on this protected area, it still went ahead.

And so when it comes to the big decisions, the real test of how green the assembly will be, how sustainable the assembly will be in delivering, will be how does it decide these big decisions."

Mr Griffiths launched the NEF consultation at the Tata Steel plant in Port Talbot on Monday, and the consulting period is expected to last until 31 May.

On Twitter: @apdafyddi

More on this story