We’re running guest blogs from the four main political parties in Wales on the subject of environment and development in the country. Russell George, Conservative AM for Montgomeryshire
By Russell George
I have found the last few weeks as a member of the National Assembly’s Environment and Sustainability Committee absolutely fascinating.
For those not aware, the Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into energy and planning policy in Wales. It is the Committee’s first major piece of work and I certainly pushed hard for this inquiry when the Committee discussed its forward work programme.
I believe this inquiry will be an opportunity for Members to properly scrutinise, in detail, Welsh Government policy on all aspects of renewable and non-renewable energy generation and how the Government intends to meet Wales’ future energy needs.
It is also an important vehicle for Welsh citizens to have their say. I was pleased that Members ensured that the terms of reference incorporated two key petitions submitted to the Petitions Committee, allowing us to examine the public’s concerns in relation to Technical Advice Note (TAN) 8 planning guidance.
I was also amazed by the scale of written evidence that was submitted to the Committee team during the public consultation period over the summer.
Over 300 submissions were received, which ranged from individual letters from members of the public, to collective submissions from town and county councils, through to environmental and agricultural NGOs and of course, energy companies.
What really struck me going through the evidence was the amount of in-depth knowledge displayed by members of the public. It was obvious that many of these people have become key campaigners in their communities and have dedicated hours to meticulously researching Government policy at local, nation and UK level, as well as pouring over environment, energy, land and local government legislation to such a degree that they have probably attained expert witness status!
Over the last month, Members have had the opportunity to receive oral evidence from a number of key individuals and organisations involved in planning, generating and monitoring the energy sector in Wales and the UK.
I have never had the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses on this scale or in as much detail before.
There have been a number of notable witnesses not least in the first meeting, when Members cross examined in two separate sessions, the First Minister, Carwyn Jones and the Environment Minister, John Griffiths.
What was telling from the responses given by both men was there was a distinct divergence in policy appraisal – the First Minister suggested that Welsh Government’s central planning guidance on renewables, TAN 8, had become irrelevant due to the UK Government’s National Policy Statement, who could now affectively sanction onshore wind farms over 50MW anywhere in Wales. However, the Environment Minister claimed the policy document was still very much an important part of the Welsh Government’s planning strategy.
In the last meeting, there was intriguing evidence given to us by the associated voice of the renewable energy industry – RenewableUK. Their evidence was revealing because they believe that the Government’s renewable energy policy is,at present, very confused and has damaged investor confidence.
They feel it is important that the Government now ‘refresh’ its TAN 8 policy guidance and examine all options that will increase renewable energy generation. I personally think that this is a sensible approach but I certainly would not want to predict the recommendations of the Committee. All I can do is to ensure that the Committee’s recommendations are comprehensive, challenging and robust.
We have a number of sessions ahead of us yet.
Our next meeting will involve evidence from the major energy companies and I am sure the evidence will continue to be enlightening.