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1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Gwilym Jones): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) for raising the important topic of sustainable development and for the considerate and positive way in which he has approached the debate.

I am sure that we agree that this is an issue that should concern us all. Yet very often its importance can be lost through simply not understanding or realising what it means. In the words of the Brundtland definition, sustainable development is

That, perhaps, still provides the most succinct definition. It challenges us to recognise the needs of economic development with those of environmental protection. Both are important and both should be in harmony. Both need to be emphasised, but not at the expense of each other.

Sustainable development is not just a matter for Government: it affects, or should affect, everyone's life style. None the less, the Government have played a significant part in taking forward the challenge of the agenda that was set at the earth summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Two years ago, the Government published their national strategy for sustainable development, which not only set out the principles of sustainable development but looked ahead 20 years to identify problems and opportunities. The underlying principles include sound science, the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle and the need to take account of the natural environment, especially non-renewable resources.

Central and local government, business, industry, the scientific and voluntary sector and, not least, individual citizens all have a role in carrying forward the strategy. To foster that, the Government established three independent

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bodies to promote sustainable development. The Government panel on sustainable development gives authoritative and independent advice to Government on a number of broad strategic issues. The United Kingdom round table on sustainable development draws in a wide cross-section of advice from the main sectors and groups who have a role in developing and carrying forward sustainable development, and the Going for Green initiative seeks to carry the message to individuals and local communities.

I note that the hon. Gentleman expressed a preference here--and in almost every other area--for setting up a separate Welsh forum or a Welsh version of Going for Green. I remind him that there are Welsh representatives on the round table and Going for Green, and the Welsh launch of Going for Green will take place in the spring.

As the hon. Gentleman said, both the Government panel and the UK round table on sustainable development have recently issued reports. Both reports are under consideration by the Government, and responses will be issued shortly. He will appreciate that I would not wish to anticipate the detail of the responses at this stage.

One of the major developments during 1996 will be the setting up in England and Wales of the Environment Agency, which will take up its responsibilities in April. It will build on the work of its predecessor bodies, Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, the National Rivers Authority and local waste regulation authorities. It will seek to protect and enhance the environment in line with the Government's commitment to sustainable development.

Greater integration will mean that the agency will be better placed than its predecessor bodies to consider the environment as a whole, to ensure a consistent approach to regulation and to provide a more streamlined service to industry and to the public. The Government will issue specific guidance to the agency about the objectives, and the contribution that it should make towards achieving sustainable development. Drafts of that guidance have been issued for consultation.

The Government are anxious that their strategy for sustainable development is continually updated and developed. Annual reports are published, reviewing achievements against previous commitments, and setting quantified targets and priorities for future years. The next annual report is due in March.

The hon. Gentleman rightly concentrated on the relevance of sustainable development in Wales, and on the actions that he considers should be taken to promote that concept in the Principality. I welcome his contribution in areas such as energy, transport and agriculture. If time permits, I shall return to those issues briefly during my reply.

As I have already said, the achievement of sustainable development depends on a large number of players, of which the Government are only one. That is as true in Wales as it is elsewhere. None the less, in the Welsh Office we recognise and welcome the role that we can play in Wales. We are of course paralleling and augmenting many of the United Kingdom initiatives that I have already described.

Each year since 1991 the Welsh Office has published "Environment in Wales" reports. They provide an overview of the state of our environment, record progress

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made towards meeting previous commitments, and look forward to the likely impact of new initiatives. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Welsh Office has also hosted two seminars on sustainable development. Their purpose was to draw together key Welsh organisations, and so to encourage an exchange of ideas. I hope that a further seminar will be organised soon.

The pivotal role that local government can play in achieving sustainability was accepted at the Rio earth summit. It was agreed that every local authority should produce its own local Agenda 21 to provide a framework for sustainability in its area. Many local authorities in Wales have already made progress on that front, and we have made it clear that we hope that the new unitary authorities will give priority to completing their local Agenda 21 documents.

Raising public awareness of the relevant issues is vital if we are to achieve the goal of sustainability. I therefore very much look forward to the official launch of the Going for Green campaign in Wales.

I am confident that Wales will fully share in the benefits of the new Environment Agency. A committee will be established to advise the Secretary of State on the activities of the agency in Wales, and I am sure that its new integrated approach to the environment will enable it to become a key player in bringing about sustainable development in Wales.

Last September my right hon. Friend announced his intention of publishing a White Paper for rural Wales, and immediately set in hand a wide-ranging consultation exercise to encourage and promote debate across the whole range of the Welsh Office's policies as they affect life in rural Wales. The response to the consultation was very good, and we are grateful to all those who took the opportunity to participate, including the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North. The House will understand that it would, of course, be inappropriate to refer now to the probable contents of the White Paper, which we expect to be published shortly. In the meantime, the hon. Gentleman may be confident that sustainable development will be at its heart.

I shall now say a little about particular environmental issues in Wales. Our rivers and coastline are an intrinsic part of the Welsh environment, which we must protect for this generation and future generations. Recent years have brought a considerable investment in improvements to our aquatic environment, and we are now seeing the results. Last year 89 per cent. of the identified bathing waters on the Welsh coastline met European mandatory standards. That compares, for example, with a pass rate of only48 per cent. in 1986.

The National Rivers Authority deserves much credit for the achievements that we have seen in river water quality. The authority has worked closely with the water companies and with other sectors of industry, including agriculture, to tackle the various sources of pollution. As a result of that combined effort, the most recent figures published by the NRA show that 98 per cent. of Welsh rivers are now classed as of good or fair quality, including 89 per cent. classed as of good quality. That record of achievement is set to continue. Welsh Water alone intends to invest £650 million in its environmental programme over the next five years.

Increasing pressures for housing and development require even greater care in optimising the use of scarce land resources. Within Wales the Welsh Development

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Agency's land reclamation programme is the largest landscape improvement programme in Europe. Since its formation the agency has reclaimed more than 15,000 acres, and its aim is to reclaim all significant dereliction in Wales by the end of the century.

Some of Wales' most attractive new business sites are on reclaimed land--for example, Swansea enterprise park and Delyn enterprise zone. In addition, 80 reclaimed sites have been developed for housing, such as the former national garden festival site at Ebbw Vale. In those and in other cases, land reclamation, besides being positive in itself, also avoids the need to develop green-field sites.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): On the provision of housing, is it not incumbent upon the Government to make it more feasible, and more commercially and financially attractive, for properties in town centres to be carefully and tastefully refurbished, so that our built heritage can be looked after in that way, rather than making it difficult, as it is now, for that to take place, which creates more pressure on green-field sites?

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