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31 Jan 1996 : Column 966

Sustainable Development

1 pm

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North): I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones), for agreeing to participate in this all-too-brief debate on an issue of enormous global significance which is of particular relevance to Wales.

It is important to recognise at the outset how far-reaching a transformation is implied by the achievement of sustainability. The principles of sustainability, which are being elaborated at all levels of human society, have been accepted by the Government through their endorsement of the Rio documents and their participation in the process of the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development, which came about following the 1992 earth summit. I shall recall some of those principles.

First, there is a need for a radically different method of measuring economic success other than gross national product growth--what are called new economic indicators, bearing in mind environmental and social considerations. The second principle is to give resource productivity priority over labour productivity as a measure of progress, which implies major changes in taxation, and taxing pollution and wasteful resources instead of jobs.

Thirdly, there is a preference for the use of renewable resources over non-renewable resources. Fourthly, it is suggested that environmental considerations should be integrated into all decisions on development. Fifthly, the implementation of the proximity principle is recommended, encouraging more localised patterns of production, distribution and consumption. That is some transition.

The European Union recognises the validity of those principles in its fifth environmental action programme "Towards Sustainability" and in the very important White Paper "Growth, Competitiveness and Employment". In the second document, the EU argues that environmental sustainability and the solving of the unemployment problem must and can go together.

The Government have established bodies to advise them and to promote sustainable development. The round table has representatives from business and voluntary sectors. Indeed, last week the second report of the advisory panel on sustainable development, chaired by Sir Crispin Tickell, was published. It reviewed last year's recommendations and considered the next priorities. It is lucid and succinct yet forceful, and it merits very serious attention.

When those organisations were set up early in 1994, a special body on sustainable development was established by the Secretary of State for Scotland, but in Wales, under the former Secretary of State, there was nothing of the kind. To members of Plaid Cymru, who attach importance to Wales as a country in its own right, and do not think of it only as some kind of appendage to England, that was offensive.

Countries will succeed and contribute to the collective welfare of the global community in the extent that they tackle the sustainability issue seriously. It is as crucial as that. The indications are, however, that the Government of Wales--in effect the Welsh Office--is failing in its

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responsibility to put our country, for which it is responsible, on the road towards sustainability: the only basis for true and lasting prosperity in the 21st century.

That is not to say that nothing has been done or that nothing is happening in Wales. Indeed, I am happy to make that point. The Welsh Office organised two seminars--in November 1993 and May 1995--that were attended by representatives of various quangos, local government, the social partners as they are called, non-governmental organisations, and so on. Copies of the minutes of those seminars, which happen to have found their way to my desk, suggest that the seminars were useful enough, but the suggestion that

seems to have come to nothing. I hope that the Secretary of State will at least support a permanent working group. I shall, however, describe a more radical proposal later.

The absence of any kind of permanent body, or any Welsh Office think tank on sustainable development, raises questions about the local Agenda 21 process in Wales. Local authorities, which are involved in reorganisation, are enjoined to consider sustainable development in producing their local plans. What kind of guidance are they being given by the Welsh Office? Without adequate guidance, how can an all-Wales Agenda 21 evolve? Perhaps the Under-Secretary could enlighten us on the matter.

The business in the environment initiative is being delivered in Wales by the Arena network to assist Welsh businesses in achieving greater environmental efficiency. Will the Minister tell us how the Arena network programme's progress is being monitored and how many businesses have participated in it? I imagine that many businesses in Wales, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, will not even know of its existence. That needs to change.

The Welsh energy project has been acknowledged inside and outside Wales as an important and useful initiative. It produced a five-point action plan for a pilot series of innovative sustainable economic development areas, business development initiatives, the creation of a network of local information centres--I know that that is happening--the encouragement of investment in energy efficiency and the growing worldwide environmental protection market, and the provision of help to local planning authorities. What monitoring is taking place to assess the extent to which the action plan is being successfully implemented?

Renewable energy, in view of the serious pollution and the climatic effects of burning fossil fuels, and of course the fact that those fuels are being depleted, is hugely important, as I tried to show when I spoke in the debate on the Queen's Speech. We in Wales have major resources which could provide significant and sustainable economic development and employment opportunities.

I quote the words of Mr. Mike Brooker, chairman of the environmental study group of the committee organised by the Prince of Wales, which held a very successful seminar entitled "Towards a Sustainable Energy Strategy

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for Wales", which I attended and by which I was very impressed. In his summary of the findings of that seminar, Mr. Brooker says:

    "Delegates at the conference--representing industry, environmentalists, politicians and academics--concluded that, although there was a huge amount of complex and detailed information available, there appears to be no coherent strategy to embrace environmental, social and economic issues. Developing such a strategy is an essential pre-requisite to the future management of energy issues.

    There was general agreement about the need for change by all the stakeholders,"--

forgive the word stakeholders--

The Welsh Office should have something to say on that last question. Is the Welsh Office not the responsible organisation? What is it doing to ensure the creation of such a strategy? Is it not time--this is a practical proposal--to revitalise the Welsh energy project established in 1991 before the Rio summit, and update it in the light of the sustainable development agenda, which has moved ahead significantly since the project was established?

I am aware of the Aries project, which is supported by the Welsh Development Agency and the Development Board for Rural Wales and which receives European funding, on the economic development opportunities of renewable energy. The study was organised by an interesting little company in my constituency, called Dulais Engineering, which exports, among other things, photovoltaic equipment, refrigerators and medical equipment to Eritrea, and does other important work in relation to third-world economies.

I am aware of the Alt-Energy Wales project, which is funded from the European Union Altener programme. I hope that the Welsh Office will support the idea of creating an Aries Wales forum, which would provide a focus for stakeholders--there is that word again--and would provide information and assistance with preparing business plans and so on. Such a forum would help to energise the renewable energy scene in Wales.

All these matters should be considered in the context of an overall strategy covering planning issues, the encouragement of manufacturing and sourcing in Wales, training, research and development and so on. It should have targets for the contribution of renewables to total electricity supply and for reducing demand through improved efficiency. I understand that a reduction of as much as 20 per cent. is perfectly feasible.

One of the advantages of such a strategy, the drawing up of which would entail wide consultation, would be that the public at large would be able to understand the broad context in which individual developments occur. The singularly ill-informed public debate on wind energy, which is influenced more by misinformation than by enlightenment, shows that currently that is not so.

Crucially, an energy strategy should tackle offshore oil and gas resources. Currently, Welsh Office input into this enormously important and controversial policy is minimal. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what the Welsh Office is doing about it.

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Sustainable development is not just about energy, although that is perhaps the central issue. I recommend to the Minister the very useful overview on the subject provided in Plaid Cymru's consultation document, "A Sustainable Development Strategy for Wales". He already has a copy, and I have been looking forward for some time to his response.

Other areas are considered in the document, and I ask a series of questions. First, what is being done to encourage the location and growth of environmental goods and services industries in Wales? By 2000, there could be a global market of $600 billion in that sector. Does it figure in the inward investment strategy of the Welsh Development Agency or of the Development Board for Rural Wales, or in Source Wales?

Secondly, on transport, what long-term thinking is in progress in view of the Government's intention to continue to increase fuel duty, the royal commission's recommendation to accelerate that increase and the possibility of a carbon tax? What would that imply for regional economic development in Wales? How are rural areas to cope or be compensated? To what extent should electronic communications supplant physical mobility? How should that affect investment priorities? How can we develop an integrated transport policy for Wales? How will train services be protected--enhanced, even--under privatisation? How is that affected by the fact that rail is not the responsibility of the Welsh Office? Should not that be changed?

Thirdly, on farming, when will we have an integrated all-Wales agri-environmental scheme?

Fourthly, and most important, how can we create employment through sustainable development? I refer the Minister to Plaid Cymru's excellent document, "100,000 Answers", in which 30,000 of the jobs described would be created as a result of environmentally linked activity.

These issues cannot be tackled without a thoroughgoing strategic approach. Pace the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the Tory right's so-called economic instruments on their own would be not only inadequate but socially inequitable and damaging. The 17.5 per cent. VAT on domestic fuel showed that with startling clarity. We need a range of instruments and interventions, and we need them soon, because unless we tackle the issues, Wales will lag far behind instead of being, as it could and should be in this matter, in the lead.

I have seen reference in the Welsh Office documentation to the idea of a centre for sustainability in Wales. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what is happening to that proposal, which we would strongly support. Wales should aim to become a centre for sustainability. Placing Wales at the forefront of sustainable development should be the great millennium project for Wales--that and the achievement by 2000 of real democratic self-government. The Welsh Office, even though its masters do not share our enthusiasm for the latter project, has a responsibility now to lay the foundations for the first.

What kind of body should be responsible for driving the sustainable development process in Wales? It should, of course, be a powerful Welsh Parliament, but what about the interim? Should it be the Countryside Council for Wales? Sustainable development is about much more than the countryside. It is just as much about what goes on in the factories of Glamorgan, Gwent and Deeside. The new Environment Agency has a remit for sustainable

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development. We do not have our own agency in Wales, as Scotland does, although there is a Welsh regional structure. In any case, the agency's responsibility is primarily pollution control and waste disposal, and sustainable development goes way beyond that. Sustainable development is about integrating all aspects of life in keeping with its central principles, and the organisational structure in Wales should reflect that.

The Secretary of State for Wales should now set up a powerful working group for sustainable development, comprising representatives from the Welsh Office, local government, the new Environment Agency, the WDA, the DBRW, CCW, NGOs such as Friends of the Earth, and, indeed, the Prince of Wales's environmental trust for Wales--soon to be christened "Bro"--the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress, with higher education and research to provide the scientific and academic underpinning.

In the absence of a properly constituted democratic forum for Wales, only a powerful partnership such as that can provide the focus and resources for such a vital project. To set that process in motion would be to provide true leadership, and would mean that when a democratically elected Government or Parliament meets in Cardiff, with sustainable development as the first item on its agenda, it would already be up and running in Wales.

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