LONG-AWAITED plans to overhaul environmental governance have been unveiled amid concerns that Wales has the weakest protections in the UK.
Julie James announced the publication of a Welsh Government white paper on establishing environmental principles, strengthening governance and introducing biodiversity targets.
Wales’ climate change minister said a bill will be brought forward to ensure there is no post-Brexit drop in environmental standards.
She told the Senedd that an environmental governance body will be established to oversee implementation and compliance with environmental law by public authorities.
She said: “We think it’s very important that it is independent of the Welsh Government, that it holds our feet to the fire.”
Ms James stressed that the proposals are not simply an exercise in replacing EU structures and legislation, with the approach instead tailored to the Welsh context.
“The governance body will similarly reflect Wales’ priorities,” she explained.
“The body will work in a spirit of collaboration and take an escalatory approach, working with Welsh public authorities to put things right.
“However, where this is not possible, the body will be rightly empowered to take effective enforcement action to ensure compliance.”
Ms James said public authorities will be required to draw up local nature recovery plans.
She told MSs the proposed headline target is that of the 2020 global biodiversity framework: reverse decline with an improvement in biodiversity by 2030, with recovery by 2050.
Janet Finch-Saunders pointed out that the proposals are long-awaited, with the Welsh Government first committing to addressing a governance gap in 2018.
The Conservatives’ shadow minister said: “This is already long overdue and has been requested through our environment and climate change committee so many times.”
Ms Finch Saunders warned that proposals for local nature recovery plans could add to the considerable pressures on public authorities.
Pressed for clarity on the timetable, Ms James cautioned that this is the very beginning of proposals making their passage through the Senedd.
She said work on a bill is under way but suggested it could take a year to bring forward.
Delyth Jewell broadly welcomed the announcement but warned of a genuine need for urgent legislation to close a gap in Wales’ environmental protections.
Plaid Cymru’s shadow minister said: “We’ve been waiting too long for this.”
She urged the minister to make every effort to avoid any further delay, with equivalent governance bodies already established for England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Ms James acknowledged the delays, saying further slippage is not an option as the bill will be one of the last to go through the Senedd in this term, which ends in 2026.
Responding to concerns the new environmental body could be confused with Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Ms James said: “Broadly, this is not a regulatory authority.
“This is an authority that gives guidance to public authorities on how to set the targets and monitor and make sure they do them.”
John Griffiths, the Labour MS for Newport East, raised the importance of gaining buy-in from the public and organisations such as the Gwent Wildlife Trust.