Are Welsh Ministers and departments working with or against nature in the Brexit era? Their statutory duties to give due consideration to wildlife appear to have little bite.
Where there’s a will…
Since 2006 the Welsh Ministers have had a duty under section 79 of the Government of Wales Act to promote sustainable development in the exercise of their functions. More recently we have had ground-breaking legislation such as the Well Being of Future Generations Act and the Environment (Wales) Act, which amongst other things commits all public bodies to promote ‘resilient ecosystems’. Consequently, we might hope that nature in Wales will be given full consideration, despite the loss of the stick of European Directives, in the Brexit era.
However, several recent reports show that the legislation is not being translated into action and the loss of wildlife continues. The 2016 State of Nature in Wales report revealed further declines in priority species of birds, butterflies and plants. This worrying trend is reinforced by the 2018 State of Birds in Wales report. In addition, the official State of Natural Resources Report (SoNaRR), published by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) in 2016, reported the unfavourable condition of 55% of top wildlife sites. Alas, NRW lacks the staff, funds, expertise and the will at high level to do anything about this.
Nature in the way?
If you compare the reports, it is clear that the official language used in the latter differs considerably. The terms ‘nature’ and ‘conservation’ have been dropped in favour of ‘sustainable management of natural resources’. This implies Nature to be exploited. Despite giving themselves challenging targets under new Acts, recent Welsh Government decisions have ignored these and confirmed that they will disregard wildlife when it becomes inconvenient. Here are some prime examples:
Gwent Levels: It is determined to push ahead with the most damaging motorway route over the Gwent levels SSSI (and a culturally and historically significant landscape).
Cardigan Bay: It has decided to open up Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation to highly destructive scallop dredging.
Greenland white-fronted goose: It has tarnished Wales’ standing in the world by continuing to allow the Greenland white-fronted goose (a sub-species in serious decline) to be shot; the only place in the world on this rare goose’s migratory flyway where this happens.
Cormorants and goosanders: It licences the shooting of cormorants and goosanders purely on the basis that they might eat some fish – in clear breach of the law as no specific evidence that the birds have a ‘serious impact’ on any fishery has been provided.
Fussing with words on paper…
In place of action, the Welsh Government keeps consulting on a range of reports. These impenetrable documents are shrouded in opaque language and lack specific targets. They demonstrate Welsh Government’s addiction to process rather than outcome. These consultations take up the precious time of consultees with limited resources, but there is no evidence that detailed comments submitted ever influence the mind-numbingly dense official language in which they are written to produce anything which can stick; or that they benefit nature one iota. Indeed, there is a growing realisation at the highest levels that most Welsh Government consultations are a complete charade and not worth responding to.
The latest consultation, on the ‘Wales Marine Plan’ was all about economic development – how to exploit the seas to the full. The ‘evidence report’ included with the document had no references to wildlife, despite the importance of Welsh waters to important wildlife species being well documented. Meanwhile, we still have an internationally agreed target to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 – just 2 years away. There is no plan in place to achieve this, so we will miss this target quite spectacularly. There seems to be a lack of understanding and commitment to reverse declines in wildlife either to meet these official commitments or to help Nature for its own sake. There is a complete lack of ambition or leadership on the environmental agenda from either Welsh Government or NRW, with worryingly little response from the NGOs to challenge these government bodies.
It’s sometimes difficult to be optimistic in nature conservation but we must persevere. The strong wording in the new Welsh Acts may eventually work through to some action. It also gives the potential for legal action to force the Welsh government to abide by its own rules. Post-Brexit changes to land and sea management after subsidies may be positive and there are new landscape-scales policies being developed, along with examples of re-wilding such as Cambrian Wildwood, helping to restore large areas of land. Collectively we need to get wildlife back up the political agenda and keep fighting for the rightful recognition of Nature.
JANET MACKINNON continues with reflections from central Wales…
Environmental enforcement – putting into practice?
“Despite Wales having some of the best environmental legislation in the world, we have some of the poorest outcomes for our rivers…” wrote Stephen Marsh-Smith, Chief Executive of Afonydd Cymru (the umbrella organisation and representative of Wales’ six Rivers Trusts) in a complaint to the European Commission (EC) about the Welsh Government’s performance on managing agricultural pollution in March 2018.
The issues highlighted by Afonydd Cymru1 emphasise the crux of the Brexit challenge for nature conservation: there is a British tendency to have good, sometimes excellent, environmental regulation policies but weak enforcement of these. This is often a result of conflict with other policy areas, especially agriculture, and lack of resources. A key question, therefore, is in the absence of future recourse to a higher authority in the form of the European Union (EU) will the environment be the weakest link?
In my ECOS article last year (edition 38(3)) on issues relating to Brexit and nature conservation in central Wales (Powys and Ceredigion), I emphasised the need for enhanced environmental governance, empowerment of agencies such as Natural Resources Wales, and additional funds to ensure that the environment is not marginalised in the process of Britain exiting the EU. Since then the political rhetoric on environment issues, including wildlife, has increased in both England and Wales, but the reality is less encouraging.
Planning, sustainability and agriculture – key questions remain
In May 2018 the consortium of environmental bodies Wales Environment Link (WEL) commented on the re-alignment of Planning Policy Wales 10 (PPW10) to the Wellbeing of Future Generations (WFG) Act as well as the Environment Act.2 WEL asked how the successful application of PPW 10 will be measured and called for monitoring linked to the National Indicators for Wales. WEL also felt there was vagueness about what is actually meant by the “sustainable management of natural resources”. A statement on this is currently awaited from the Welsh Government following a major consultation in 2017.3
Meanwhile, a report on UK Environmental Policy Post-Brexit4 commissioned by Friends of the Earth and published earlier this year warns: “Nature protection policies are judged to be especially vulnerable as they are at risk under all scenarios…” for Brexit. This stark warning reflects the reality of the situation rather than rhetoric. In central Wales and other predominantly rural areas, the key challenge will be how the environmental impact of agriculture is reduced as pressures to create ever larger intensive operations continue alongside more traditional sheep farming.
Mick Green is an independent ecologist. He has worked in conservation in Wales all his professional life.
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