93 speeches by……and 15 more speakers
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs. And the first question, Gareth Bennett.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on performance against municipal waste recycling targets across Wales? OAQ(5)0115(ERA)
Thank you. We are making excellent progress against our recycling targets. Latest figures show 62 per cent recycling for the 12 months ending September 2016, up 4 per cent on the 12 months to September 2015. We are No. 1 in the UK, we’ve risen to No. 2 in Europe, and that’s a great testament to the commitment of councils and residents across Wales.
Thank you for that information, Cabinet Secretary, and, in itself, yes, that is a good performance. The problem is that, as councils advance towards recycling targets, frequently fly-tipping rates rise. In the two years up to 2016, fly-tipping rose by 10 per cent in Conwy, by 22 per cent in Gwynedd and, in Pembrokeshire, by a massive 47 per cent. In the light of these figures, is it time for your department to review its recycling targets?
Well, I am reviewing our recycling targets, but only to make them even more ambitious. I think you need to take great care when you interpret the increase in the 2015-16 figures around fly-tipping. It is a difficult crime to detect, however I do want to see prosecutions where it is happening. But, you know, fly-tipping incidents in Wales had been steadily declining, and then, as you say, they did increase in 2015-16. But I think a number of changes have been made by local authorities, and it’s really important that we do take the public with us. But I think the increase that we’ve seen, in reaching our targets, does show that the public are with us on this one.
Ceredigion was the best performing local authority in terms of recycling in the 12 months up to the end of September 2016, with 70 per cent of waste recycled. All of the local authorities led by Plaid Cymru are reaching the national target of recycling 60 per cent of waste. Some authorities, such as Blaenau Gwent, Cardiff and Bridgend, continue to fail to achieve that national target. Does the Cabinet Secretary agree that we need to do more to encourage and enable people to recycle so that every local authority reaches the standards of Ceredigion and recycles 70 per cent of its waste by 2025? For example, why not create a deposit-return scheme for plastic, glass and cans, and a ban on polystyrene in all areas?
Well, 19 of 22 Welsh local authorities reached the target. Bridgend and Cardiff weren’t two of the three that didn’t. The three local authorities that didn’t reach the targets, I’ve now had the opportunity to meet with them, to see why they did fail to reach the targets. And I will be continuing to work, and my officials will continue to work with them to make sure that, next year, they do reach those targets. You mentioned a couple of initiatives that we are looking at. The deposit-return scheme is one that I think we should give consideration to. But I think, for it to be really beneficial, it needs to be done not just on a Wales-wide—I think we’d have to work with England very closely, and I know Scotland are also looking at it.
Cabinet Secretary, there’s no room for taking the foot off the pedal on this. We have to target fly-tipping as well as recycling targets. There’s no such thing as throwing away—all waste needs to be disposed of in some way or another. So, there’s a cost in that. And, in Cardiff, they have achieved the Welsh Government target, which I’m very pleased about. And we need to keep going, because the landfill site at Lamby Way is going to close next year because it’s reached capacity, and that means any further landfill disposal will cost £80 a tonne. And so, therefore, there has to be that emphasis on getting the public to recycle what they need to recycle, and not put it into the non-recyclable bins. Will you join me in supporting this concept, that there is no such thing as throwing away, and we need to tackle every industrial outlet that is developing non-recyclable waste to get them to change, so that we can always reuse and recycle?
Yes, I absolutely agree with what the Member for Cardiff Central says. I’ve actually said to my officials I want us to be the No. 1 country, not just in Europe, but in the world. And I really do think that we can achieve that. I think that’s a very realistic target, you know, to be No. 1 in the world. So, we certainly won’t be taking our foot off the target. We do need to look at ways of encouraging people who don’t currently recycle to do so. I think officials recognise, and I think local authorities recognise, that there will always be a group of people that it will be very difficult to persuade, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to persuade them.
2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure an adequate supply of Welsh timber for the manufacturing industry in Wales? OAQ(5)0106(ERA)
Welsh Government is maximising opportunities to increase woodland planting and management. This should ensure there is an adequate supply of timber for the manufacturing sector. Our natural resources policy will be key in planning and prioritising use of land in the future.
Cabinet Secretary, you’ll be aware that the latest Woodland for Wales indicators report revealed that, in the year to March 2016, just 348 acres of new woodland was created, which is significantly down from over 16,000 acres that were planted on average in each of the five years to 2014. That step change in planting seemed to coincide with the creation of Natural Resources Wales, and many in the timber manufacturing industry have expressed concerns about continuity of supply, and that will influence some of their business decisions about where investment goes. What do you say to companies like Clifford Jones Timber in Ruthin, in my own constituency, that have raised concerns about this? You’ve indicated that there is going to be an increase. Are we going to get up to this 16,000 acres plus that we were previously achieving historically, so that we can have these adequate supplies not just for the next five or six years, but for 10 and 20 years hence?
Yes, I too have visited Clifford Jones Timber in Ruthin, and they raised those very same concerns with me. NRW is the largest provider of timber in Wales, and that does supply, I think, 60 per cent of the total sector requirements. We have to increase the amount that we have been doing. We’ve now got the timber marketing plan, which does outline timber availability. That is only for five years, but I think it’s a good starting point. I’ve also asked officials to make sure we continue to work with farmers, for instance, because we want farmers to diversify, and this is an area that they can do that.
Cabinet Secretary, you remember the visit to Pentre Solar in Glanrhyd in Pembrokeshire, where you and I both saw how local Welsh timber had been used not only for house construction, but also for skills and increasing skills in the local workforce to work that timber. What further steps can you take, because I think there’s a great potential for timber for house construction in particular in Wales, and also, of course, the growth of woodland helps with flood prevention in areas, carbon sequestration and, also, air quality. So, isn’t it now time for a further push from the Welsh Government on a more bespoke support scheme for woodlands in Wales, because of the benefits not only to manufacturing, but to the quality of life that woodland can bring?
Yes, absolutely, and it was a very good example of how timber could be used in house construction at Pentre Solar, which we both visited. I’ve been having those discussions with my colleague, Carl Sargeant, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, in relation to looking at different ways of building houses. I mentioned in my previous answer to Darren Millar that we’ve got the new timber marketing plan. I think we need to have a look. We’ve just set up a woodlands strategy advisory panel task and finish group. That’s going to be to look at timber availability, and one area they could concentrate on is in relation to housing.
Cabinet Secretary, timber obviously is a major element here, and we’ve seen in my area the harvesting of timber change because of the diseases within the valley area. Therefore, the replanting is important, to look at, as Simon Thomas says, not just the nature of the land, but also perhaps the opportunity for other businesses beyond manufacturing, such as tourism areas. What progress has been made in replanting in the Afan valley to ensure that we can get that back to where it was?
I can’t give you specifics for the Afan valley, but I’d be very happy to write to you.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
Cabinet Secretary, we were reminded again yesterday, in evidence from Public Health Wales, about the fact that air pollution is a public health crisis in Wales, causing something in the region of 2,000 deaths per annum. Six per cent of all deaths in Wales are as a result of air pollution, which is second only as a cause of death to smoking. So, what is the Government doing to ensure that our efforts on air quality are retained as we leave the European Union and lose some of the most important regulations in this context?
Thank you. It’s very clear to me that we definitely need a concerted effort across all sectors to address this very important issue. We need some radical solutions and I’ve made it very clear that, within my portfolio, this is one of my top priorities. You will be aware that we’ve just had a recent consultation on local air quality, and I will be bringing forward a written statement before the end of this month regarding the responses that we’ve received. I think that, by leaving the EU, if anything, we will increase our targets. I think that air quality, as you say, affects so many of our aspects of our life, including our well-being and our health. But, as I say, I think we do need to have a real concerted effort in this area.
Thank you for that response. I am pleased to hear that you are putting this at the top of your list of priorities, because there is nothing more prominent in your own portfolio that also has an impact on the daily lives of so many of us living in areas where air pollution is a problem. You’ve mentioned that this needs to be done across Government. The Public Health (Wales) Bill is currently being considered by the Assembly. At the moment, that Bill doesn’t include any reference to air pollution or to tackling air pollution as a matter of public health. Although you’re not the Cabinet Secretary responsible for that Bill, of course, what are you doing, in negotiation with your fellow Cabinet Secretaries, in order to ensure that this Bill helps you to address the issue of air pollution in Wales?
Those discussions have taken place, and it is obviously, as you say, something, as it’s going through the Assembly, that we can look at, because there is nothing more important, obviously, from a public health point of view, than air quality. As you say, we were reminded very sharply of that yesterday.
I hope that those discussions do lead to a little more joined-up thinking on that Bill, and, of course, the whole Assembly will get the opportunity to amend it, if necessary. But can I also return to the issue of Aberthaw power station, on which, when I last questioned you and the First Minister on this, I was told that Natural Resources Wales had now contacted the owners of Aberthaw and had asked them to come forward by, I think, now with a proposal for how they would reduce their unlawful emissions, which have been found so by the European Court of Justice. Can you update the Assembly on developments in Aberthaw and whether you are now content that there’s a programme in place to reduce those harmful emissions?
I am meeting NRW next week—I think it’s on the fifteenth—to discuss that, but I will be very happy to update after that meeting.
The Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Lywydd. Cabinet Secretary, your predecessor commissioned the independent review of the dairy sector in Wales, which detailed a number of recommendations to help support the dairy industry and increase its competitiveness. Following that report, can you update us on the progress that the Welsh Government has made in responding to that review and outline what outcomes you’ve delivered to make the dairy industry in Wales more competitive?
I think we have seen progress in relation to the dairy sector following that review, which, as you say, my predecessor undertook. One of the recommendation’s that came out of it was that we should have a dairy champion. I’m very keen to take this forward and, at the current time, we are trying to identify the most suitable and appropriate person to do that.
Another recommendation in that review was to raise the issue of taxation of agricultural businesses in Wales and to take a deeper look at the current regime and whether it hinders future investment in the sector. In a recent response to a written question, you said that the delivery of this recommendation has been delayed and that this should be looked at in partnership with other parts of the UK, with which I agree. Can you now update us on this specific agenda and tell us what the Welsh Government is intending to deliver in terms of outcomes on this particular issue?
I can’t give you an update on that at the current time. Those discussions are ongoing. Indeed, officials from the four nations are currently meeting, as we speak. I’m not sure if this is on the agenda, but this is something certainly that officials are looking at right across the UK.
I’d encourage, obviously, the Cabinet Secretary to put it on the agenda, given that it was one of the recommendations in this particular review. The independent review was also quite right in recognising that there are significant cash flow problems for some farmers within the dairy sector, although I’m sure that that’s also an issue for dairy farmers across the UK. Indeed, this matter is not helped by the fact that there are high input costs for dairy farmers and there’s very little support from the Welsh Government to secure funding for capital improvements. Will you, therefore, commit to evaluating the costs attached to dairy farming in Wales, and look at ways in which the Welsh Government can provide support to dairy farmers through additional capital investment support to help to improve the efficiency and therefore the viability of the sector for the future?
Yes, it’s an area that we’re looking at. You’ll be aware of the new small grants scheme, but we’re going to call that ‘farm grants’ so as not to mix it up with the rural development programme. This is an area, perhaps, where we will be able to help dairy farmers specifically.
UKIP spokesperson, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch, Lywydd. Brexit is probably going to have a greater impact on agriculture than almost any other sector, obviously because it’s regulated under the common agricultural policy and funded largely through the European Union. The Government, therefore, has to be thinking ahead very deeply about what’s going to be our agricultural regime after we’ve left the European Union. I’ve been reading the minutes of the European advisory group, which the First Minister established six months ago, to see what their thinking is, and I was surprised to discover that agriculture hasn’t featured at all, as yet, in their considerations. That may be related to the fact that there’s only one member who has any recognisable agricultural credentials amongst those who have been appointed to it. So, I wonder whether this indicates that the Welsh Government isn’t, perhaps, terribly interested in the future of agriculture in our country.
Not at all and I think the agriculture sector would tell the Member how pleased they are with the stakeholder engagement that we’ve had. You’ll be aware that straight after the vote to leave the European Union I began stakeholder events. At the end of this month we’ll have, I think, either the sixth or the seventh one. Ministerial engagement is very firmly now set in our calendars. We meet once a month, so, during recess, all the agriculture and environment Ministers met in Scotland. We are working very closely together. I mentioned that officials from all four UK countries are currently meeting as we speak, so there’s been a huge amount of input into the future of agriculture. During recess, I attended the National Farmers Union conference in Birmingham, where I held a debate with George Eustice, the UK agriculture Minister, and I have to say that the Welsh delegates made it very clear that we are far in advance of any other country with our engagement.
Well, I’m very pleased to hear that, and I can say from my own experience that, talking to people who are involved in groups that represent agriculture and farming, they’re pleased with the level of engagement that you have given them. But I don’t know whether you’ve yet had a chance to read the policy statement on Brexit that has been published by NFU Cymru, but one of the positive things that they say in there is that leaving the European Union gives us the opportunity to review the regulations that currently affect farming and agriculture, and they say that poor regulation is the reason for a lack of farm business confidence—and this is related to the costs of compliance, and time given over to compliance and to demonstrating compliance. These add significantly to farmers’ workloads. So, without wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of all regulation, it is a great opportunity for us to review the effectiveness of regulation and whether it imposes disproportionate costs for the public benefits that are supposed to flow from it. Can the Cabinet Secretary tell the Assembly that the Welsh Government will look seriously at reviewing regulation and reducing its impact on farmers without compromising public safety and other objectives?
Well, we’re going to have to review it, because, clearly, when all of the powers from the EU come back to Wales, we will then have the opportunity to have our Welsh agricultural policy. Clearly, regulation—if you ask many farmers who did vote ‘leave’ why they voted ‘leave’, regulation is cited as one of the reasons. I don’t think it helped that the UK Tory—or some of the UK Tory Ministers were saying that we would be decreasing particularly our environmental regulations. That is not going to happen, and I’ve made that very clear—if anything, we will strengthen them. But I think it is a very good opportunity to have a look at regulation, talking in partnership with the sector, to make sure that the regulation is correct. Again, that’s one of the things that we are talking about in our stakeholder events.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that answer. Brexit does give us the freedom to introduce new regulations and controls as well in areas where we might have wished to do so but had been thwarted in the past by the lack of enthusiasm on part of our other partners in the European Union. One of these areas is the live export of animals, for example, which we’ve been prevented from banning and also introducing regulations in relation to animal welfare, for example, the maximum eight-hour journey time for animals travelling, for fattening and slaughter. So, can the Cabinet Secretary give me an assurance that measures of this kind may be on the agenda as well?
I think everything is on the agenda, to be perfectly honest with you. We are wading through a huge amount of regulations and legislation just in agriculture and fisheries. In my own portfolio, there are 5,000 pieces of legislation and regulations. So, I think, you know, we are—. I have said that I really want to work very closely with the sector to make sure we have the absolute best policy. But one thing we have made very clear to UK Government, time after time, is that when those powers come from the EU, the powers are ours—they’re not theirs to be repatriated. They are ours from the beginning and we will ensure that we have a fit-for-purpose policy.
3. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve access to the Welsh countryside? OAQ(5)0113(ERA)
Thank you. The Welsh Government continues to provide significant funding for the Wales Coast Path and to local authorities for public access throughout Wales. I recently announced my intention to develop and publish proposals on amending legislation in order to develop a better and fairer approach to public access for outdoor recreation.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. I very much look forward to that widening of access, which I think is probably long overdue. It’s very important that more people in Wales, Cabinet Secretary, enjoy our great outdoors, which we are so fortunate to have. There are the obvious health and activity benefits, as well as appreciating the countryside more and, perhaps, being more environmentally responsible as a result. So, would you agree with me, Cabinet Secretary, that establishing the Wales Coast Path, which you mentioned, was a huge step forward in encouraging more people to enjoy our great outdoors? But there are some unfinished aspects to that, for example the creation of the circular routes, which were envisaged, linking local communities with the coast path, and also, perhaps, having a very high-profile annual celebration on the anniversary of the creation of the Wales Coast Path, so we could ensure it’s all walked by local communities and schools on that anniversary date?
Yes, I think that’s a very good idea and, of course, it’s the fifth anniversary this year. The contribution to the Welsh economy, for instance, I think is something that’s not always recognised. But I do agree that we should celebrate it. As you know, we do provide funding to Natural Resources Wales to continue to improve and promote the path and I think there are also things we can do, perhaps, that don’t cost a lot of money. I think perhaps we could link up canals, for instance, with other parts of the countryside and then, obviously, we have the coast path that links into that also. Our officials are working very closely because next year is going to be the Year of the Sea. So, I think, again, there’s an opportunity to really promote the coast path. And both I and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure are very keen to ensure that any future marketing plans around that help to realise the really full benefits of the investment we have put into the Wales Coast Path.
Cabinet Secretary, access to the countryside is something to be welcomed and hopefully it creates a greater understanding of what the countryside is for, which primarily is to produce food for us—to live off the fat of the land, as many people might say—but there is a serious issue about educating people when they do access fields and they do access the countryside that there are risks and there are dangers. In my own area of South Wales Central, only a couple of years ago several walkers sadly were trampled by cattle in the St Fagans and Radyr area. Across the UK, it is one of the biggest killers of people in the countryside: livestock interacting with people who aren’t aware of the safety precautions they need to take. Would you, along with your incentives to open up parts of the countryside, make sure that there is a robust education campaign and public awareness campaign out there, so that tragedies like those that have happened in my own region can be avoided wherever possible?
The Member does raise a very important point and I think it is about getting that balance right as well. Certainly, we’ve had about 5,800 responses to the Welsh Government consultation around that, and you won’t be surprised to hear that subjects such as those you have just raised were brought up in that. But, certainly, we can look to make sure that—. As I say, I am going to look at the legislation, and certainly alongside that we could look to have some sort of education campaign, as you suggest.
I support, in principle, extending access to the countryside for everyone. However, a balance needs to be found between the right of people to roam in and enjoy our countryside, and the needs of landowners and farmers to manage and use their land effectively. What discussions have you had with landowners, and organisations representing them, to persuade them to allow increased access to their land?
Well, I mentioned in my previous answer to the leader of the Conservatives that there has to be that balance, and those discussions are continual, really. But when I look to altering the legislation, I think that is another chance to have that discussion with landowners. But, certainly, I would say it’s raised in most of my meetings with the agriculture sector. Particularly when I go on farm visits, it is an issue that they do raise with me.
4. To what extent has the Welsh Government considered amending their rural development plan in light of Brexit? OAQ(5)0112(ERA)
Diolch. Stakeholders have given me their assessment of the impacts on both economy and communities. I will invest in projects of good value to assist businesses and communities build their long-term resilience. Later this month, I will announce details of when and how the remaining funds will be committed and spent.
Could the Cabinet Secretary state whether it would be possible to adapt the programme, even at this late stage, in order, for example, to expand the use of financial instruments within the programme, providing further loan facilities for businesses in rural communities, which could, then, be recirculated in the economy post Brexit?
We did look very seriously at using financial instruments in the RDP, but they’re very complex. They’re very slow to set up, and they are very costly to administer, and we found it would take about two years to set it up, and then, you know, make the first payment. So, you know, with Brexit now coming down the track, I don’t think there would be the time. I don’t think it would be cost-effective to do so now, but I think there are other ways of using our funding that we need to look at very closely. I’m keen to get as much of the funding out as quickly as possible. And, as I say, I will be making an announcement later this month.
I’m pleased to hear the Cabinet Secretary saying that she understands the importance of making the most of what we have left of the European programmes currently in existence. In the past I have discussed with her and her officials the possibility of establishing a food production park on Anglesey. Will the Cabinet Secretary be willing to consider that now, as one of the major projects, investing in the rural economy in an area such as Anglesey, which could benefit from the funding available now?
Funnily enough, I was talking with my officials about food production areas—not just in Ynys Môn, but in other part of Wales—yesterday, and it’s certainly something we can look at. As I say, I’ve recently agreed the future delivery mechanisms for the remainder of the programme, but I will be making a fuller announcement because we still have £223 million of the programme available. If it’s possible, we can certainly look at that.
Cabinet Secretary, there are clearly many unanswered questions surrounding the hugely complicated process that is Brexit. In answer I think to a question from Neil Hamilton earlier, you said that Wales is way ahead of other nations at this point—I presume by that, you mean within the UK—in terms of looking at how we’re going to develop the systems after Brexit. Can you update us—? Can you explain a little bit more about your reasoning behind that? And also, what discussions have you had with the farming unions in Wales to make sure that farming support does continue?
There are many, many, unanswered questions. The magnitude of this work is huge, but we are grasping it, and I think the answer I gave to Neil Hamilton was that we were way ahead of the four UK countries in relation to stakeholder engagement. I think that was the specific answer I gave to Neil Hamilton. So, I’ve had many, many discussions with the farming unions, but not just the farming unions—the wider stakeholders. Because it’s not just about farming unions; it’s also about the environment sector, the forestry sector. We’re making sure that in our stakeholder engagement events, everybody is around the table. I was very keen to avoid silo working, so you’d have the agricultural sector working over here, and the environment sector working over there, and I think that’s why we’ve had such good buy-in, really, from our stakeholders.
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to promote food tourism across Wales? OAQ(5)0104(ERA)
Thank you. The food tourism action plan, launched in April 2015, identifies initiatives and promotional activity to develop Welsh tourism. It includes steps to develop food tourism as a sector and selling point for Wales, with Welsh food promoted at major events, activities and attractions.
I’m pleased to hear, of course, that the Welsh Government has made it clear that food is an essential part of the tourism offer in Wales. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Dr Beynon’s Bug Farm in my constituency, which isn’t just a working farm, but it’s also the UK’s first full-time edible insect restaurant, known as Grub Kitchen, and I would encourage you to visit because I’m sure, like me, you’d find it fascinating. Given that the Welsh Government has made it clear that food is an essential part of the tourism offer, can you therefore tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to support smaller, more unique food tourism businesses like the bug farm, and what is the Government doing to encourage more and more people to visit these sorts of attractions in the future?
You’re right; I did mention that food and tourism are priority sectors, and if we put the two together, we can see that food is absolutely an essential part of the tourism offer here in Wales. It provides, I think, a common point of contact. People come to Wales for the wonderful scenery; they also come for our wonderful food and drink. So, we’ve got the food tourism action plan. That focuses on the importance of Welsh food and drink in terms of the visitor experience, and I’d be very happy to visit the Grub Kitchen if the Member would like to invite me.
Cabinet Secretary, in my party’s Assembly manifesto, we called for 2018 to be designated as a national year of Welsh food and drink. [Interruption.] I’m still in the party. Easy, please. 2017 is the Year of Legends, so does your Government support my party’s call for a national food and drink year next year?
I’m not sure if the Member was in the Chamber, but in an answer just a couple of answers ago, I mentioned it’s the Year of the Sea next year, but we can certainly have a look—
Oh, right. The year after? [Laughter.]
I’m unsure; that obviously falls within the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy and Infrastructure’s department. I really don’t know what 2019 is, but I can certainly have a look.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on public parks? OAQ(5)0108(ERA)
Thank you. The provision and maintenance of public parks is the responsibility of local authorities. Our public parks can enhance the resilience of our ecosystems and help us tackle the impacts of climate change such as flooding. Public parks provide spaces for recreation, children’s play, outdoor learning and opportunities to improve physical and mental well-being.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for her answer. I have to declare an interest as the species champion for the shrill carder bee, an important part of the Gwent ecosystem. The Cabinet Secretary, I’m sure, appreciates the importance of public parks to our ecosystem and to its habitats, and she’ll be aware I’m sure of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘State of UK Public Parks 2016’ report last year, which reported that Wales was anticipating the highest percentage reduction to staff, as well as the greatest proportion of declining parks. No park managers in Wales expect to have parks that are improving in condition in the next three years. What could she say to reassure me that that is absolutely not the case?
As I say, it is an issue for local authorities, and we’ve made our views very clear. You’ll be aware that we were recently consulting on the natural resources policy—that closed on 13 February—and I’m getting ready to publish the final policy later spring, early summer, and this is an area that we are focusing on.
In our manifesto, Cabinet Secretary, Welsh Conservatives pledged to a community right to bid for registered assets of community value. I appreciate we don’t have that but, actually, in the Labour manifesto your party stated that you would introduce measures to prevent unnecessary closures, and to assist communities to take ownership of community assets themselves, where possible and appropriate. I’m wondering whether you’ve had an opportunity to speak to your Cabinet colleague, bearing in mind that a consultation by your own Government revealed that there was a lot of popular support for this idea, about when something similar might happen in Wales so that we can know what it looks like, and have the opportunity to support it.
Yes, I have had the opportunity, and obviously I was in that portfolio previously, and I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children is considering it.
I think everybody agrees that the parks in Cardiff are glorious, and I was very pleased that the friends of Cefn Onn park, which is in my constituency of Cardiff North, secured a £495,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant towards improving the park. Work is actually beginning on this this month. So, would she congratulate the friends of Cefn Onn park and the local authority in definitely taking major steps forward to improve this park in Cardiff?
Yes, absolutely. It’s very good to see this work being undertaken. I absolutely agree with you about the parks in Cardiff. I think that’s one of the things, when I first started visiting Cardiff as an adult; the parks are indeed very glorious and there is so much green space in our capital city.
7. What plans does the Welsh Government have to improve access to the countryside for recreation in Wales? OAQ(5)0103(ERA)
Thank you. I refer you to my written statement of the 13 February. Welsh Government is already supporting improvements to existing access infrastructure. It is my intention to develop and publish proposals on amending legislation in order to develop a better and fairer approach to public access for outdoor recreation.
Thank you for the positive reply, Minister. A report by the Environment Agency in 2007 highlighted the importance of angling to the Welsh economy. It was estimated that the Welsh inland fisheries generated £75 million of expenditure by anglers, many of whom were visitors to Wales from abroad. Does the Cabinet Secretary agree that increasing responsible and sustainable access to Welsh inland waters, together with a campaign to promote Wales as a venue for angling, could bring immense benefits to the Welsh economy in the near future?
Angling is obviously a very important recreation in Wales and some of the most passionate letters I think I’ve received—I think one of them was from a 10-year-old boy, who was a young fisherman with his father. We are certainly looking, as I say, at the responses we had to the consultation and I will be bringing forward a statement later this year.
We’re blessed in Wales with a stunning landscape and extensive countryside and a great way of seeing that countryside and taking exercise at the same time is on horseback. It’s not just a means of taking exercise; it can be of great benefit to disabled people and there have been schemes across the country for riding for the disabled. Maintaining a riding establishment has become ever more difficult and many have shut. What support are you offering to riding establishments to get them up and running again, so that they can offer this facility to people like the disabled?
I absolutely agree with you that horse riding is something that disabled people can take part in. I can’t think of any specific initiatives we’ve got or anything that’s actually across my desk from anybody asking for assistance in that way, but I would be very happy to consider it if that were the case.
8. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the Welsh Government plans for energy targets from community-owned energy generation projects in Wales? OAQ(5)0114(ERA)
Thank you. I will be setting ambitious targets for renewable energy. We are working with stakeholders to consider what aspects energy targets might cover. I believe community and locally owned energy projects are important, as we want to see projects retaining economic and social benefit in Wales.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that reply. I’m aware of an NRW tender for a single turbine project in south Wales, which is an ideal scale, really, for a community project. The criteria for the tender really are prohibitive for community projects at that scale, requiring track record of delivery and several years’ worth of accounts. I obviously understand the need for due diligence and for there to be appropriate levels of assurance but I note that in the tender, there’s a reference to community benefits being expressed in pounds, which seemed to me to show the limited approach of that. Does she agree with me that we need to try and find ways, consistent with the need for assurance, for these small-scale projects to be genuinely accessible to community energy production?
Absolutely, and we’ve continued to encourage NRW to create the maximum possible local benefit from the estate, and we offer support under the local energy service to enable community developers to deliver on these opportunities. I am aware that there have been groups, particularly co-operatives, that have come forward and because they haven’t got that sort of historical, financial history, it has led to issues. I know that Value Wales have been looking at these specific issues and I have asked NRW to link up with them to see what more can be done in that area.
The Government has committed, from this April onwards, I believe, to ensuring that 100 per cent of energy in the public sector comes from renewable sources. Would it be possible to take a step further and have a target for the whole of Wales, and ensure that 100 per cent of all of our energy needs are provided from renewable sources within 20 years?
Yes, it’s certainly something that we can look at. We’ve got a debate next Tuesday, Presiding Officer, in Government time, around this and targets, et cetera. I was very pleased to see that target coming forward from next month and 50 per cent of that energy will come from Wales, initially. I do think we need to be very ambitious—pragmatic and realistic, but I think we have to be very ambitious—and I’m very happy to look at what the Member suggests.
Cabinet Secretary, we’ll be discussing the foundational economy in a debate later, and it seems to me that community energy projects and the whole greening of the Welsh and British economy are areas where we could really have great advances that would empower local people very considerably.
Yes, I absolutely agree with the Member. I think it’s really important that we do all we can to make sure the process isn’t as difficult as, perhaps, it’s been at times. Certainly, when I’ve met with groups that have got these community energy schemes off the ground, they’ve needed incredible tenacity and patience and I think we need to do all we can to support them. I think we have put a lot of resources into doing that, not just financial, but also that support that’s so needed.
9. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on how the Welsh Government is supporting the renewable energy sector in Wales? OAQ(5)0109(ERA)
Thank you. In our drive for a decarbonised future, we are fully committed to supporting more renewable energy projects in Wales. Our wealth of natural resources enables us to benefit from a wide range of opportunities, from major projects such as tidal lagoons to community-scale energy generation schemes.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. We know that the renewable energy sector has enormous potential to boost the economy and through efficient supply networks, any benefits can be spread throughout Wales. How is the Welsh Government ensuring that finance is available so that these projects can be taken forward? I’m thinking in terms, here, of direct support for community generation, as mentioned in the previous question, but also in terms of investment from external sources.
Well, we work with numerous companies to promote investment into all regions of Wales. In the renewable energy sector, we attract inward investment through conferences, through exhibitions, such as RenewableUK’s all-energy and wave and tidal events. It’s really important that we have Welsh supply chain companies on our Welsh Government stands, so that they can make the contacts, and that then supports their growth plans. It also highlights the depth of expertise that is available to inward investors. Just recently, as the First Minister—you’ll be aware—was in the United States last week, I was in Dubai. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure has recently visited both China and Japan, and I mean, it’s not just about renewable energy—it’s about all sectors—but we’re making sure that we do attract that investment here.
I’m sure, Cabinet Secretary, you share my disappointment that the budget today did not include a positive statement around the tidal lagoon. That’s something that would be extremely welcome here in Wales. What further steps can she take now to press the UK Government to come forward with a positive decision on the tidal lagoon? Also, bearing in mind, for example, that we had a very good event here last night, at which we heard from Milford Haven Port Authority, what can we do to build a supply chain that’s ready, throughout Wales, to supply that lagoon when, hopefully, it gets the go-ahead?
Well, Presiding Officer, Members will understand that I am limited in what I can say about particular projects or proposals, and that does include the proposed tidal lagoon for Swansea bay, given my statutory role. However, you’ll be aware that we’ve had discussions—myself and Ken Skates—with Charles Hendry. We support, in principle, the development of a tidal lagoon energy industry in the UK and we will continue to have those discussions.
Cabinet Secretary, I’ve asked you previously about connectivity to the grid, which acts as a real stumbling block for many small-scale renewable projects to actually get off the ground. When I asked you this question the last time, you said the Government are making very good progress. I followed that up with a written question that indicated there had only been two meetings with officials and the distributors, Western Power Distribution. So, could you enlarge on exactly how the good progress that you informed me the Welsh Government was making the last time I asked you this question is actually translating onto the ground, so that there is a greater increase in capacity so more community-based renewable projects can actually have that connection and be allowed to go forward?
We have a significant number now of community energy-based projects going forward. I think we’ve got about 11, now, in construction. I am actually meeting with the National Grid, if it’s not next week I think it’s the week after, which will be my initial meeting, but, as I said, officials have had meetings also.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.