Welsh Assembly adopts sustainability scheme

A statutory sustainable development scheme was adopted by the Welsh Assembly on 16 November. Work on an action plan for implementing the scheme has slipped behind schedule, but the Assembly is sticking with a key commitment to align all of its policies, programmes and grant schemes with sustainability principles within five years.

The Assembly takes some pride in being the only government in Europe with a statutory duty relating to sustainable development. Over the past year it has been putting in place the building-blocks to turn that requirement into a reality.

The new sustainability scheme is the first step in that process. It is not a sustainable development strategy, but a set of principles and commitments intended to guide the Assembly in integrating sustainability into its work.

Key commitments are:

  • Review all policies, programmes and grant schemes within five years "to align them collectively with sustainable development objectives".

    Priorities for review include developing ways of assisting Welsh businesses to "exploit the opportunities of emerging eco-friendly markets", waste management, a strategic framework for energy developments in Wales, and new guidance on sustainable procurement criteria for major capital projects.

  • Review and refine existing appraisal mechanisms and definitions of value for money to align them with sustainable development principles.

  • All new policies, projects, programmes, grant schemes, appraisal mechanisms and definitions of value for money are to reflect sustainability objectives.

    To honour these commitments, the scheme commits the Assembly to develop "practical options" for mainstreaming sustainable development in its structures, along with sustainability appraisal tools for staff and training for decision-makers.

    Sustainability targets are to be set in an action plan, and progress against them reported annually. Progress will also be measured using several dozen sustainability indicators, on which the Assembly consulted in September (ENDS Report 308, pp 34-35 ).

    The scheme also commits the Assembly to work in partnership with a wide range of other bodies, including the European Commission, the UK Government, local authorities and other public bodies, business and the voluntary sector.

    The benefits of a partnership approach were highlighted by Environment Minister Sue Essex when the Assembly formally adopted the scheme on 16 November.

    Two years ago, when the case for giving the Assembly a sustainable development duty in the devolution legislation was still being debated, there were some who argued that this would put Wales at a competitive disadvantage, she said. But there has since been a "remarkable change of attitude", especially in the private sector, where "many organisations are now signing up for sustainable development."

    The inclusive approach to policy development was also reflected in the Minister's remarks on renewable energy, where the Assembly is struggling to reconcile the demands of the countryside protection and renewables lobbies. Its recent decision to call in several controversial wind farm projects for its own determination "has affected adversely how sustainable development companies are viewing their future in Wales," according to Helen Mary Jones (Plaid Cymru, Llanelli).

    Ms Essex promised that "as well as taking a fundamental look at planning guidance, which will feed into the energy strategy, a small group is [to be] set up of those that are directly involved, such as the wind energy producers and environmental groups. They can then work on producing a technical advice note."

    Work on implementing the sustainability scheme has not proceeded as rapidly as originally intended. Sustainability appraisal mechanisms for use by the Assembly and its subject committees were due to be finalised by the end of the year. And both the detailed action plan and sustainability indicators were due to be published at the same time as the scheme.

    On 16 November, Ms Essex accepted several amendments to the resolution adopting the scheme tabled by Plaid Cymru with the aim of getting things moving. Both the action plan and "practical options" for mainstreaming sustainable development within the Assembly will now have to be ready by mid-February. The Minister added that she expects the sustainability indicators to be finalised in the "next few months".

    One issue over which the Assembly has been wrangling almost since its inception is the desirability of a sustainable development committee. Ministers have so far rejected this, arguing that it would dilute the responsibility of subject committees for promoting sustainability (ENDS Report 308, pp 34-35 ).

    The issue is a difficult one for Ms Essex, who acknowledged that she had "fervently supported" the idea of a sustainable development committee before she was appointed a Minister. Now, she said, she is "not so sure". The dispute will come to a head over the next couple of months.

    In a possible pre-emptive strike, Richard Edwards (Lab, Preseli Pembrokeshire), who chairs the Assembly's Environment Committee, said it has already agreed "that it should champion sustainable development and scrutinise activity across the National Assembly from a sustainable development perspective."

    Another point still unresolved is the make-up and nature of an external advisory group on sustainable development - in particular whether it should be a panel of experts, favoured by Plaid Cymru, or a stakeholder forum. The scheme leaves both options on the table.

    One success for Plaid Cymru this autumn has been in persuading Ministers to move the Assembly's sustainable development unit into its central policy unit, where it will be better placed to get the sustainability message across.

    Plaid Cymru's Helen Mary Jones said that her party will also give the "highest priority" to monitoring the uptake of sustainability ideas by the Assembly's civil servants and Ministers. "By the end of February next year," she said, "we will expect to see meaningful sustainability tests in the compliance section of every paper that goes to every Assembly committee."

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