We’ll be “Facing the Future Together,” given the right support

A Welsh Government Ministerial event Facing the Future Together offered priorities, progress and promise – but there’s more to be done to be sure the Government’s doing enough to take advantage of what land management can offer to meet society’s goals. Nigel Hollett blogs.
Welsh Government Minister for Climate Change, Julie James MS
Julie James MS, the Welsh Government Minister for Climate Change heads the UK's first government department committed to this subject. The Minister's remit is wide including planning, energy, the environment and much more.

Image on the Wales-page: Nigel Hollett with Clare Pillman, CEO NRW at the Facing our Future Together Event

The Welsh Government Minister for Climate Change, Julie James MS offered an interim assessment of the work of her department this week. “Facing the Future Together” in which she was joined by Natural Resources Wales CEO, Clare Pillman, marked a year in office in which the Minister said that her department and NRW is addressing the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. The scope and structure of Ms James’ department – the UK’s first devoted solely to Climate Change - concentrates relevant areas of policy-making under one roof in areas such as the environment and planning. The Minister referenced where priorities in these come into conjunction: management of flood risk, for example.

Trees, woodland and forestry have never commanded so much attention in government policy. In the last 12 months, CLA Cymru played its part in the Minister’s “deep dive” initiative here. I’m delighted to see that a scheme to support the vital roles played by existing trees is to be launched. If the new Woodland Growing Scheme is what we’ve called-for it will include resource for maintaining tree health, tackling tree disease and supporting the replacement of dead and dying trees. At a basic level, there’s scope to improve the felling-license criteria and process as part of this initiative. Members whose woodland is affected with ash dieback, phytopthora in larch, and needle-cast in fir, for example, will welcome this. Disease will not wait. A scheme needs to hit the ground running ensuring all parts of Wales are covered, with sufficient resource to make the impact we need.

A new “deep dive” is to be launched later this year: this time on biodiversity. I’m please to say that we’re likely to be directly involved as we were above. I think there are at least three important themes that need to be pursued here. The first is how we support the vital role played by land managers in bio-conservation –and how this fits in the Sustainable Farming Scheme. Our recent CLA Cymru event at Cruglas in Ceredigion (among others) offered a clear demonstration of how agriculture and this subject go hand-in-hand and how the SFS must have an effective strand of support for bio-conservation. The second concerns bio-diversity and carbon management. The Government has an understandable focus on the net-zero goals in the climate change crisis. The Minister herself acknowledged that land management and what we grow is currently the only practical solution for removing carbon. If Welsh agriculture is to be included in the UK Emissions Trading Scheme, the vital role land management plays must be valued appropriately.

The Welsh Government’s focus on optimal carbon management will inevitably lead to conclusions about preferred species-selection and the land management regime working over a period of time. There may be implications for society’s wider aspirations for biodiversity. Finally, our focus on this subject is likely to lead further into work on nutrient levels and their effect on floral diversity and control of non-native invasive species. Support will be required to be effective on both.

Another area of emerging welcome news is in the regulatory issues behind energy efficiency in housing stock. Over the past two years and more, we’ve shared our views that the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) cannot be met in many rural, traditionally built residential properties without a very high investment and major disruption to residents and businesses. The Minister expressed her concerns to me in a private meeting almost a year ago. The regulations here are reserved to Westminster. Speaking at this event, the Minister said that she will be addressing concerns with key stakeholders. Again, my concern is that rural property-owners need to see progress here – and the prospect rather than promise – of change is not helping property owners make their plans.

This event provided some reassurance that the Welsh Government understands how it needs to work in partnership with land managers to meet its’ essential objectives

All these offer us some encouragement, but there are major issues that I will want to take up with the Minister. Fortunately, this Facing the Future event gave me the opportunity to discuss these with Government officials and NRW senior officers and peer-organisations such as the farming unions. The phosphate issue and its impact on agriculture policy and planning is a critical area in which we need to see a positive plan of action and a timeline. Another area where there’s scope for improvement is in renewables. The Minister said she’s keen to increase renewable energy, but she said, not at the cost of the environment. That she added that the benefits here need to “remain in Wales” may offer us an opportunity with respect to rural, small, sustainable projects. The key here, of course, is for the Welsh Government to ensure investments have long-lasting economic viability. The slightest whiff of doubt leaves good projects on the shelf.

This event provided some reassurance that the Welsh Government understands how it needs to work in partnership with land managers to meet its’ essential objectives. Moving forward our challenge is going to be to demonstrate how the government can help us to help them, within a given timescale and with the right resources.”