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Welsh Section Conference 2017

Author: Dr David Parker CEcol CEnv FCIEEM (Welsh Section Committee)

Conference presentations

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Wales is fortunate in having the best new environmental legislation in the UK and probably beyond.  The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 and the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 are the centrepieces of the new legislation and the challenge now focuses on their successful implementation.  Over 60 people assembled at the Welsh Section Conference to hear how this might happen.

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is a key player in the implementation of the new legislation and its Chief Executive, Emyr Roberts, explained how NRW is delivering the sustainable management of natural resources.  Clearly progress is being made here and is highly dependent on the continuing development of an excellent evidence base to guide policy-making, both at strategic and local levels.  Good spatial planning is at the heart of this and the challenge is to deliver it with support at the community level.  Dr Roberts provided useful advice on actions that are required to make the legislation work; we need to:

  • Make the environment meaningful to people
  • Connect with different agendas
  • Use plain language
  • Engage people and communities
  • Show, tell stories
  • Make the Area Statements work
  • Use evidence
  • Be prepared to challenge short-term thinking
  • Stop arguing amongst ourselves
  • Celebrate success

I would add to this the need, within the development of the evidence base, for good monitoring and surveillance systems, and the openness to share information about projects and interventions that have not worked so well.  We know from our own careers that we can learn a great deal from our errors and how we have worked to correct them. 

A recurring theme of the conference was ecosystem resilience and trying to determine what this means in terms of implementation.  Becky Sharp (Neath Port Talbot CBC), Neil Parker (Environment Systems) and Mike Shewring (Natural Power) spoke about the new requirement to produce an Ecosystem Resilience Assessment for development proposals which require an EIA and how they are developing guidance on how this can be done.  My view on this is that the production of a resilience assessment is completing a missing piece of EIA/Ecological Impact Assessment process where conclusions on the ecological impact of development are rarely set out well.  This addition to EIA is badly needed in the rest of the UK and Ireland as it will result in much better assessments being produced.

Part 1 of the Environment (Wales) Act promotes the sustainable management of natural resources, with the objective being to maintain and enhance the resilience of ecosystems and the benefits they provide.  Caryn Le Roux (Welsh Government) spoke about this and, in particular, section 7 of the Act which will replace the Section 42 lists of habitats and species which are “of principle importance for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing biodiversity in relation to Wales”.  This is a work in progress and she expressed concern about the potential length of the species list and the problems this implies concerning implementation.  This is a recognised problem, but it does illustrate the difficulty of breaking down highly complex interconnected ecosystems into their component parts in order to fit with legislative requirements.  However, there is a real drive from Welsh Government to make the lists more useful and valuable.

Essential to the understanding of ecosystem resilience is the promulgation of good case studies.  One was presented by Jeremy Smith (Cardiff University & Eco-explore) with his 30-year study of pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca in upland oak woodland in south Wales.  Pied flycatchers have undergone at least a 60% decline in the UK since 1994 and this study has examined breeding productivity in relation to woodland management, which is principally by sheep grazing.  He found that the flycatchers are declining at different rates depending upon woodland management practice, but this is complicated by year-to-year differences in rainfall and temperature.  This study is a good example showing the difficulties of single-species management within a complex ecosystem but also the need to consider biological, physical, climatic and socio-economic factors in an integrated way.  We need more long-term studies of this kind.

The use of maps, remote sensing and GIS are essential tools to implement sustainable natural resource management and to increase ecological resilience.  Katie Medcalf (Environment Systems) presented work on biophysical mapping which indicates the best places to target interventions to obtain multiple benefits, for example, flood risk management together with biodiversity enhancement.  This mapping includes all the components of the biological and physical environment including geology, soils, habitats and hydrology to provide the evidence base to design landscape and catchment scale actions.  This approach has great potential in the production of Area Statements and will also provide essential underpinning to new approaches to Government-funded farmer/landowner support following Brexit.

Area Statements are an essential requirement of the Environment (Wales) Act and are a responsibility of Natural Resources Wales.  Russell De’Ath, who is managing this work, explained that Area Statements are an evidence base to be prepared at the appropriate scale to help NRW and others implement the National Natural Resources Policy of the Welsh Government.  There will be six Area Statements for the land areas of Wales and a single Statement for the Welsh marine waters.  Subject areas will include renewable energy, green infrastructure, natural flood alleviation, land and soil management.  NRW is working with a range of stakeholders to deliver this work and have developed an inclusive process to ensure that the Statements achieve their objective.

Land management is a key factor in the sustainable management of Welsh terrestrial, freshwater and coastal environments.  Brexit and the inevitable changes which will take place in public payments for agriculture and land management, provide an opportunity for the development of a new approach. Arfon Williams (RSPB) explained that the majority of Welsh farmers are dependent on CAP payments (Pillars 1 and 2) for the financial viability of their farm businesses.  With the removal of these payments, great changes in land use and demography of particularly the Welsh uplands is inevitable unless there is a shift to “payment for public goods”, where upland farmers enter into contracts for the deliver of ecosystem services such as soil conservation, catchment management and wildlife conservation.  There is a strong link here with the Environment (Wales) Act and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, because farmers and land managers are the delivery tools for much of what is contained within this legislation.  Partnership working around a shared understanding is the key to success here.

The final presentation to the conference was from Hadyn Davies (UK Environmental Law Association and Birmingham City University) on the legal enforceability of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.  He explained that this legislation is the first of its kind in the world and its progress is being closely watched, perhaps more overseas than in the UK.  The Act places a duty on public bodies:

… to carry out sustainable development by taking action which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, by taking account of the sustainable development principle, the five elements of which are aimed at achieving the well-being goals; carrying out sustainable development must include the setting of objectives and the taking of all reasonable steps to meet them.

At present it is felt that the duty on public bodies is more political than legal, but it is clear that public bodies must take account of sustainable development principles.  The work of the Future Generations Commissioner is important, but the Commissioner has powers only to make recommendations that are not binding and, therefore, cannot be enforced.  A good example where the Commissioner has operated well is with her submission at the Public Inquiry for the M4 Relief Road. It will require more cases such as this to determine whether the new Act can be legally enforced.  The political will to enforce this Act will be much more important in the short term.

The conference concluded with a summing up from Sally Hayns (Chief Executive, CIEEM) who felt the conference had shown that there is a common environmental narrative which bind us together.  The use of language is important and the profession has to be able to communicate to a wide range of stakeholder audiences in order to deliver the environmental potential of the new legislation.  Explaining the multiple benefits of ecosystem services and effective natural resource management to the safety, health and well-being of people, presents a huge challenge for all, not least to the ecological and environmental management profession in Wales.

 

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