Bringing people together to deliver Wales’ low carbon energy infrastructure

Louise Wilson, Abundance Investment

Louise Wilson, Abundance Investment

Earlier this week we attended the Welsh Government’s Cross Party Group on Sustainable Energy event exploring “Wales’ Low Carbon Energy Infrastructure”, chaired by Llyr Gruffydd AM.

Presentations were made by Hywel Lloyd of the Institute for Welsh Affairs, who presented findings of the Re-energising Wales project, and Louise Wilson of Abundance Investment – an investment platform for environmentally and socially conscious projects. Both presentations promoted a positive “can-do” attitude towards the potential for Wales to create a successful low carbon economy, with the overall message being that the ingredients already exist – now is the time to make them come together.

The IWA’s Re-energising Wales was a three year project looking into the role that renewable energy should take in Wales’ future economy, resulting in 10 key points on where and how action should be taken to ensure that improvements in energy are matched with improvements in the economy.

The points cut broadly across energy within Wales, but all carried a familiar theme in that the benefits of any future investment needed to remain as local as possible. Of particular interest was the idea of Wales taking a forward role in the developing of marine renewables, a currently underutilised mode of renewable energy creation, yet one with potentially global export opportunities that would fit the dual healthy environment, healthy economy focus.

The proposals set out by the IWA might have sounded beyond the reach of the Welsh economy, however Louise Wilson of Abundance Investment takes a different view. Outlining that to achieve 100% self-sufficiency in renewable energy within Wales, there would need to be spending of £25 billion on renewable energy and £5 billion on energy efficiency. Too much maybe? Well £24 billion currently exists within ISA’s in Wales, and 4 of the top 5 concerns for Welsh people are environmentally related (including plastic, waste, air pollution and climate change).

The evidence suggests then that people care, but don’t know what to do, and so the answer for Louise and Abundance Investment is simple. The public need to be engaged and given a financial stake within Wales’ low-carbon economic future – which is why Abundance have a minimum investments threshold of just £5.

Louise’s argument that the money is there, the impetus is there, and the mechanism is there for the Welsh public to fund 100% renewable energy - provides a reminder that the tools to challenge these future problems exist within Wales already.

The question now is how we can effectively engage the Welsh public, with all their human and financial capital, to help achieve these goals.

M4 Relief Road Decision: is this the beginning of the end for the car as king?

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Following some pretty clear signposting over recent weeks, not least in the Welsh Government’s declaration of a Climate Emergency, it was not surprising yesterday to hear First Minister Mark Drakeford’s decision regarding the future of the M4, despite the public inquiry, headed by planning inspector Bill Wadrup, concluding in favour of the project.

Dating back to 1991, and rolling back on the Welsh Labour’s 2016 manifesto plans to deliver the six-lane route, Professor Drakeford has now stated that the project will not go ahead due to "the financial position of the Welsh Government, the cost of the project, and its consequential impact on other capital investment priorities".

But this appears to be much more than a decision about economics vs environmental impacts – it perhaps indicates the start of a shift-change in Wales in terms of how we view the priority of the car. It can be in no way denied that this is the age of the car, with 80% of us still choosing to commute by car, and for example, new homes generally requiring 2-3 parking spaces per household.

The Future Generations Commissioner has been a long-term critic of this project, alongside a strong voice of environmental opposition to the project that largely focused on the sensitive ecology of the Gwent Levels, described by some as being equivalent to a ‘rainforest’ due to its diversity of species. Professor Drakeford stated that he placed “greater weight than the inspector did to the adverse impacts that the project would have on the environment".

There was much opposition to the project from within the Welsh Government itself, with many highlighting the impracticality of using up all of the Welsh Government’s newly gained borrowing allocation on one project – particularly within the South East and along the M4 corridor, a region already heavily favoured for government investment. In particular, Lee Waters AM, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, has been a vocal opponent of the proposal, which he has labelled “an expensive stop-gap” that would only “unleash” more traffic onto South Wales’ motorways.

However, despite a range of merits for and against the M4 scheme, there can be no doubt that communities around Newport continue to suffer the impacts of the stagnant traffic through the Brynglas tunnels, and that this route is seen as a “bottleneck” on one of Wales’s main transport routes.  Business groups were prominent supporters of the project, arguing that congestion on this stretch of the M4 “stifled” the Welsh economy, and Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns MP, highlighted the apparent need of the business community and those living in and around Newport for the project to come forward.

It is clear that congestion along the M4 needs addressing. However, opponents of the project have often pointed to evidence indicating that far from solving congestion, the creation of new roads only leads to more people travelling by car – returning the problem to its original state.

The question now is - what comes next?

Professor Drakeford has said he will set up an “expert commission” to recommend a “high-quality” integrated and low-carbon transport system that will have first call on the funds set aside for the M4. 

Thee will clearly need to be a renewed focus on public transport, including local rail infrastructure, and in particular driving forward the South Wales Metro, as well the Swansea Bay Metro, as two significant projects that could go some way towards dispersing the last 10% of traffic that apparently leads to congestion, and a reduction in the number of commuters who still travel by car.

In addition, based on the conflict between the Inspector’s Report and the First Minister’s decision – there is likely to be a legal challenge, but regardless, it appears that currently there is limited political appetite for taking the scheme forward within the Senedd. 

As the dust settles on this bold decision by the New First Minister, we wait to see over coming weeks and months whether this decision simply results in a stagnation for the south Wales corridor, or a range of innovative, sustainable transport solutions that can help catalyse the start of a new ‘post-car’ era – perhaps resulting in a change in the way we invest, plan and travel in Wales.

Keeping Wales Moving: Sustain Wales Summit 2019

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The recent Sustain Wales Summit was both dynamic and solemn in equal measure. Changes to South Wales’ infrastructure is underway, driven by the need to counter the consequences of a contemporary Wales that relies far too heavily on privately owned, fossil fuelled cars. As a result, Sustain Wales’ Summit: Sustainable Transport and Mobility - Putting the Citizen at the Heart of Urban Travel last week revolved around a simple core message: our relationship with the car must change.

 Building upon the Future Generations Act, the Urban Mobility Partnership promotes a multi-modal, integrated transport system that will improve our health, environment and economy by changing the way we travel. The multibillion-pound initiative hopes to liberate isolated urban communities while establishing a travel infrastructure that is as inclusive and accessible as it is kind to our planet.

 Automotive transport was explored at length, but the main messages were that diesel taxis account for a high proportion of welsh air pollution, and that one of the most common causes of death in young children were road traffic accidents (this is worse in more deprived areas of the community).

Client Earth’s Kate Nield, AM Leigh Waters, Clean Air Cardiff’s Jason Bale and Public Health Wales’ Dr Tom Porter all brought new angles and fresh insight to the topic, covering everything from the effect of micro-particulates on the body, to the international environmental law’s that are not being up-held across Wales and the UK as a whole. This wealth of specialist knowledge encouraged interdisciplinary dialogue and new perspectives on the current plans for bike shares, buses, trams and the much-anticipated metro. But how well established are these plans? 

Leigh Waters AM, Minister for Transport and Economy emphasised the new found political urgency that the ‘climate emergency’ has inspired. Time to act was the generally accepted message, but some members of the audience wondered if this is nothing more than convincing rhetoric in light of a global media outcry? In response, Waters took time during his turn on stage to express his frustration with previous consultations, saying that the existing sustainable transport work that had been done was expedient. However, Waters emphasised the need for a much greater depth of insight and much greater level of creativity within future consultations and design processes, perhaps indicating things are not as concrete as some of the Summit’s rhetoric suggests.

 Through the Summit, it was clear to see that South Wales is working hard across the transport industry to establish a more connected and environmentally friendly community. But are the plans in place bold enough? With an environmentally conscious Mark Drakeford at the head of Welsh Government and no sign of an M4 Relief Road, South Walian people need action fast. Talk of retro-fitted busses and the rejuvenation of disused industrial railway lines are an achievable start, but is it enough to spark real change in the Welsh Capital and beyond?

Brexit or Bust: The Welsh Conservative Spring Conference

As Theresa May addressed the Welsh Conservative Party conference in the Llangollen Pavilion over the weekend, English Local Election results were still flooding in; by close of play the Conservatives had lost more than 1,300 seats. Amidst this quite staggering political upset, May’s time at the conference – which began with party member Stuart Davies’ now infamous heckle: ‘’why don’t you resign? We don’t want you’’ – was spent elaborating on the party’s poor performance in the local elections and emphasizing Brexit’s divisive nature on the doorsteps.

May focused on the ideas of party solidarity and internal cooperation as the key to facilitating a timely Brexit, but the atmosphere in the pavilion did not inspire either of these things. Party members described the event as down beat and even funerary, with many commenting on the internal friction that currently pervades the Tory party and mainstream politics at large and its chokehold on party progress.

In the face of a divided party operating in the shadow of a still unresolved Brexit, May’s focus turned to Welsh education and healthcare. Commenting on the children being let down by an education system that is trailing behind UK national standards and a Welsh NHS that can not provide the necessary standards of care to its patients, May looked to leverage Welsh governmental insufficiencies against Labour’s ongoing leadership, echoing Welsh Conservative Party Leader Paul Davies’s view that Labour, not devolution, is the issue with Welsh politics.

In his first conference address since election as party leader, Davies also focused on education and healthcare, as well as urging the Welsh Government to stop ‘’dithering’’ over the M4 relief road decision. Many crucial topics, however, could be seen languishing in Brexit’s pervasive uncertainty, and if May fails to address the issue with haste, we might be seeing a lot more heckling.

Although many important and impassioned messages were communicated at this Welsh Tory Party Conference, you can’t help feel that May, Davies and all senior members of the party are trying in earnest to both apologise for and distract from Brexit. Although the promises of establishing UK wide parity in education, healthcare, housing, social care and infrastructure could potentially attract lots of voters as the next Assembly elections begin to appear on the horizon, in the short term faith will continue to waver unless May can truly rally the party and address the European elephant in the room.

Not May’s Day: A very Liberal Local Election

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National view

Yesterday’s unfolding local election results painted a clear and immediate picture: Theresa May is fast running out of both time and popularity, and in the face of a languishing British democracy - the people have taken a serious second look at the alternative political options.

Among those options the Liberal Democrats have come out as clear victors, making modest but extremely significant gains. Amidst the now tired rhetoric of a squabbling Tory government and their equally divided Labour opposition, many new Independent and Green party seats have been secured, alongside the cascade of more than 703 new Liberal Democrat seats taking control of an additional 10 councils (total of 18).

Now that all 248 English councils holding elections have announced their full results, the Conservative party faired even worse than initially predicted - being down by 1,334 seats and having lost control of 44 local councils (they now control a total of 93 councils). The Tories blame their party’s performance on voter anger over Brexit, emphasising that they have retained council majorities and leaderships in many Brexit voting councils: typically areas with fewer graduate voters and an aging demographic.

Tory losses have been heaviest in southern England. Many Lib-Dem led councils in the South were ousted by Tory leadership following the 2015 Tory/Lib-Dem coalition. Now, as the Liberal Democrats reclaim their historic place as the party of protest and shirk the criticisms of Tory coalition, the Pavement Politics of the Lib-Dems has secured their best Local Election result since 2004. Labour also sees its downfall as the plight of Brexit: in its 9th year as opposition party Labour has lost a total of 82 seats losing reducing the number of councils they control from 66 to 60.

In line with the current strong environmental movement at the moment, the Green Party has added 194 councillors, and the strong protest vote is evident by the number of independent councillors rising by 612. It is also worth noting, that having made significant gains in 2015, UKIP lost 145 seats.

The noticeable shift towards Lib-Dem support in this historic local election has prompted commentary that their new found relevance and popularity is fuelled by their support for a people’s vote in the absence of any decisive action from the Tory’s or the Labour Party.

However, both Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis and Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have publicly responded to the election results, sending very similar messages regarding the frustration being demonstrated by the public: define and deliver the Brexit that was voted for. Although it may seem like Conservative and Labour Party decline in this local election could be used to leverage cross-party co-operation, and see Labour helping to deliver May’s Brexit, the picture is not yet clear.

The BBC’s lead election analyst Sir John Curtice has warned against conflating Lib-Dem popularity and the national outcry for a people’s vote: ‘when you actually look, is there any evidence that the Liberal Democrats are doing better in remain areas than in leave areas? The truth is that evidence seems to be lacking’’. It would therefore seem that the swing towards the Lib-Dems could be more than skin deep. Perhaps Brexit has been divisive and tumultuous enough to prompt a major shift in the landscape of English Local Politics and British Politics at large?

All in all the 2019 English local elections have shown that – in MP Sir Bernard Jenkins words – Theresa May has “Lost the Plot”, and that in the face of muddy British Politics the people of England are seriously considering less conventional options: Now is the chance for the Lib-Dems, the Independents and the Green Party to really make their mark as the British two-party system appears increasingly to be no longer fit for purpose.

Local insights

But what does this all mean when we look closer to home, at a local level?

Noticeably the Lib Dems have won leadership of Bath and North East Somerset County Council from the Conservative Party, gaining 23 new seats. Tim Warren, the previous Conservative leader of the Council commented that he knew this election would be ‘’bad, but not this bad’’, and that ‘’we couldn’t get [the voters] to differentiate between local politics and Brexit, and we got hammered for it’’. The Conservatives have lost 24 seats, leaving the Lib-Dems with a large majority.

In yet another story of Conservative defeat, Winchester County Council has been also taken by the Liberal Democrats. The previous Tory majority lost five crucial seats to the Lib-Dems, who have won back control of the authority for the first time since 2003. This is another story of Brexit frustration, with the Local Conservative Leader Caroline Horrill calling politicians nationally to ‘’come together and agree a deal’’.

Where Tory and Labour approaches to Brexit were overwhelming in a local arena, Lib-Dem Leader Lucille Thompson focused on the fact that these elections were not about Brexit but local services and local people. Given that Winchester voted to remain in the 2016 EU referendum, this change of local leadership should not come as a surprise.

Other regional Councils gained by the Lib Dems include Cotswold, Somerset West, North Devon, and Taunton.

Swindon however has gone against national trends, strengthening its Conservative majority to five seats. Just one seat changed hands, the Labour ward of Penhill being won by the Conservatives. Many were surprised to see the Conservative control of Swindon CBC remain, let alone to see it bolstered. Many of the seats were closely fought, however, the Tories holding the ward of Old Town by just 15 votes.

Council leader David Renard seemed quietly confident prior to the vote, and will now be feeling extremely satisfied with his ability to stay the tide of Brexit rebellion in the form of both disenfranchised remainers and frustrated leavers.

In conclusion

Aside from the political uncertainty at a national level, large political shifts and uncertainty at a local level (there are now a total of 73 councils under no overall control) may present challenges over coming months for those working with local authorities, due to a significant change in key personalities as well as the potential for major shifts in policy. It will be crucial to understand these changes to local politics and key stakeholders (and  influencers), in conjunction with a need to reassess and potentially reposition communication and engagement strategies according to the new political landscape.

If you would like some assistance reviewing your political and communication strategy, then please get in touch: clare@grasshopper-comms.co.uk.