CLA Cymru Director, Nigel Hollett writes:
The Welsh Government has huge ambitions to change how we manage the countryside: support farming, manage our natural resources, improve public access and above all contribute to tackling climate change. Our meeting revealed how the Government wants to work with us to achieve these ends – and just how much land managers have to gain from the relationship. We learned how much our messages are already getting through.
This – the first climate change department among the four UK nations - was created following the May Senedd election. Julie James MS, has been a major government figure for some time, and earlier this year, we met the Minister in her previous role focusing on planning and local government. Today her remit is not only responsible for Wales’ progress in tackling climate change, but in making our contribution to dealing with that, she is responsible for the environment, directing NRW, the National Parks, energy, planning, transport, tree-planting, the National Forest and much more. The wide-ranging significance of Julie James’ responsibilities is underlined in the fact that over a quarter of the Welsh Government’s total budget is allocated to the Climate Change department so it is clearly signficant.The Senedd approved Wales’ 2050 net-zero target in March. Wales has interim targets for 2030 and ’40, and a series of 5-year carbon budgets to get us there. With respect to the UN Conference COP 26, next month, Julie James will be engaging with UK Government and attending some of the Glasgow event. Her department is also coordinating its own COP Wales through a series of regional events showcasing good practice and running expert panels; the CLA will be actively involved .
Wales alone can’t solve a global problem, but the Minister explained, Wales can’t ignore it either. Front of mind for the Minister is Wales’ small nation status in meeting a challenge, which is a global and local issue. From the perspective of farms and rural businesses, we stressed the need for robust and credible evidence to secure buy-in to an effective Government strategy, which needs to be joined-up with the wider UK and international community. Inevitably, it needs to include effective metrics for carbon emissions, management and sequestration.
Our meeting revealed how the Government wants to work with us to achieve these ends – and just how much land managers have to gain from the relationship. We learned how much our messages are already getting through
At a local, practical level, we need to work with the scientific community on problems such as improving tree health. Phytopthora infection of larch and ash dieback issue alone, affect a vital part of our standing natural tree population. While we plant more trees, we must protect the carbon management capacity we have. One problematic specific climate change initiative has been the Minimum Energy Efficiency (MEES) Standards. These come from Westminster, but the Welsh Government can play a role in changing or improving this initiative. Their aim is dramatically to improve the sustainability of rented homes by targeting energy efficiency. In fact, we explained to the Minister, the high cost and impracticality of upgrading traditionally built rural homes is causing many homes to be lost from the market - creating an issue for the Government’s housing targets, notably in rural communities where more homes are urgently needed. The Minister is reviewing the effectiveness of the Energy Performance Certification (EPC) scheme to make it effective for Wales, as it is not fit-for-purpose as things stand. We welcome urgent attention the Welsh Government can give to this to ensure vital rural rented housing stock is not lost.
An effective carbon measurement process is vital, the Minister agreed. Government and land managers alike want to see a carbon management and trading scheme, which taps into global resources and is consistently regulated. The Welsh Government wants to work with companies looking to manage their carbon footprint. This includes farms looking to offset their own emissions, meet food retailers’ requirements, and those who may be looking to take advantage of a carbon management surplus. Welsh Government is concerned about land being sold to companies solely to plant trees, which can have a negative social and economic impact – and sometimes-detrimental impact on climate change and bio-diversity too.
The Climate Change Minister explained to us that the Welsh Sustainable Farming Scheme, set to replace the CAP in 2025, has a social element to it owing to the wider social objectives of her department. The departmental goals overlap with those of the Rural Affairs team – still headed by Lesley Griffiths MS. It’s vital this scheme dovetails with its counterpart in England, not only for the sake of over 700 cross-border farms, but to best serve the UK single market.
Significantly, it appears that that Welsh Government does not propose to implement open access to land which has been a concern to our members. Led by her Deputy, Lee Waters MS, (also leading on trees), the Government would like to improve rights of way, working with landowners where they are interested. This is particularly true in the proposed National Forest – characterised to be a network of woodlands across Wales with wildlife corridors – which has appropriate public access for recreation and education - with the landowners’ permission. While the Welsh Government is eager for National Parks (and possibly a new one in North East Wales), to protect and enhance environment, the Minister is committed to see flourishing communities within the designated areas. They are a living and working environment.
This was our first meeting with Julie James as Climate Change Minister. Considering the influence she carries over such a wide range of relevant Welsh Government strategies, clearly our work with the Minister and her team is going to be very important indeed over the next four years. The COP 26 conference month will offer us more insights into government policy, but the hard work begins for all parties to turn visions and commitments into reality. This will require high levels of cooperation and mutual understanding.