Some 50 years ago Parliament voted to flood Cwm Tryweryn in Meirionnydd, drowning the village of Capel Celyn to provide water for the City of Liverpool.
The plan went ahead even though every Welsh MP bar one had voted against it. The anniversary was marked last year by the drama production Porth y Byddar by Manon Eames, which premiered at the National Eisteddfod last August to standing ovations every night.
But memories of this event have also been stirred by the UK Government’s Planning White Paper. Published last May in the fevered weeks after the election result threw Welsh politics into flux, and in the run-up to Tony Blair’s resignation as PM, the document received little attention in the media. This was particularly so in Wales, where its proposals were seen to relate principally to England.
But despite its green-sounding title, “Planning for a Sustainable Future” actually proposes widespread changes that would take power out of the hands of local communities and democratically elected politicians, and allow an unelected “planning commission” to drive through major infrastructure plans with the potential to cause real damage to the Welsh environment.
What’s more, the document’s proposals are not just long-term aspirations. These proposals have now been embodied in the Planning Reform Bill which was given a Third Reading at Westminster before Christmas and which goes to Committee next Tuesday.
In England, the document proposes sweeping changes which would make it easier and quicker for the Government to push through developments like roads, airports and power stations, denying local people and local authorities the right to oppose them in principle at public inquiry. A number of the major environmental NGOs have come together to oppose the proposals, dubbing them a “planning disaster”.
As a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth put it, “You won’t be able to object to a new nuclear power station in your community, but you might be consulted on what colour the gate is.”
In Wales, though, there has been much less discussion about the proposals, which is surprising as they reopen old wounds of the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn.
But the White Paper’s proposals would not just signal a return to those days, but to something even less democratic. It proposes that applications for all energy projects over 50MW, including dams for hydro-electric power, nuclear power stations, LNG terminals and pipelines, wind farms and tidal barrages, should be determined not by elected politicians at all, but by a panel of two or three unelected members of the planning commission, only one of whom would necessarily have any connection with Wales.
According to the Woodland Trust’s own figures, electricity, wind power and gas projects are the second most common development threats to irreplaceable ancient woodland, with no less than 113 areas of ancient woodland currently under threat from such projects around the UK.
How could organisations like the Woodland Trust work to save these woods, if the Government had put an unelected planning commission in place to approve these applications, making clear that there was effectively a presumption in favour of the developments concerned?
Indeed, the panel that would make decisions on the energy development would be under no obligation to make its decisions in line with the Welsh Assembly’s plans and policies, such as the environmental strategy and the spatial plan, both of which have been argued and consulted over at some length, throughout Wales and at Cardiff Bay.
What’s more, if the Assembly or the Assembly Government fundamentally disagrees with one of the planning commission’s decisions, they will have no right to “call it in”.
The next few decades will most certainly be difficult times, as we struggle to maintain living standards as fossil fuels become ever more expensive and the need to reduce carbon emissions becomes an ever greater priority. Clearly, difficult decisions will have to be made. Environmentalists accept this. But short-circuiting democracy to drive through ever more environmentally destructive plans is no solution.
The Welsh Assembly has rightly nailed its colours to the mast of sustainable development as its overarching strategic framework, thus taking into account the social and environmental impacts of development, not just the economic.
The Valuing our Environment report for the WDA and others found that £6bn of Wales’ GDP is directly dependent on the environment, while the management and sustainable use of the environment contribute around £1.8bn in wages in Wales and account for one-in-six Welsh jobs. And as the world population increases and our impact on the environment grows ever greater, the economic importance of the environment is set to go up and up.
I would suggest, therefore, that the last thing we need now is the Westminster Government, pursuing a short-term economic development agenda, forcing through plans which potentially damage the Welsh environment and undermine sustainable development, against the wishes of local communities and the Welsh Assembly.
The UK Government has made clear that it sees these plans as a priority that they wish to push through the House of Commons this year. In contrast, we know that many members of the Assembly are deeply worried about them and they see them as undermining the Assembly’s position and its commitment to sustainable development.
In the middle stand Wales’ 40 MPs. Do you know how your MP plans to vote on the Government’s Planning Reform Bill? Why not write to him or her to ask? If you have a internet access, you don’t even need a stamp, and there is a special website to help you frame your message at: www.planningdisaster.co.uk
by Rory Francis, writing for the Western Mail
Rory Francis is public affairs officer for Coed Cadw, the Woodland Trust in Wales and a trustee of Wales Environment Link, a network of 30 voluntary environmental and countryside organisations working for a better quality environment for Wales, which represent 216,500 subscribing members in Wales.
4 January 2008
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