Help shape the future of Wales: a new National Development Framework

The Welsh Government recently launched a consultation on a new National Development Framework (NDF) for Wales, which will provide a spatial plan to accompany Planning Policy Wales. It addresses national priorities through the planning system (referencing no less than 21 Government Programmes, Plans and Strategies) and focuses strongly on Future Generations goals, exploring issues such as: sustaining and developing a vibrant economy; decarbonisation; developing resilient ecosystems; and improving the health and well-being of our communities. 

In the words of First Minister, Mark Drakeford AM:

“This National Development Framework sets out where we think we should try to grow and the types of development we need over the next twenty years to help us be a sustainable and prosperous society.”

The document outlines 33 policies that cover issues ranging from sustainable urban and rural development, to renewable energy and place-specific related targets.  However, there are a number of overarching key themes summarised below.

Affordable Housing

“Good quality affordable homes are the bedrock of communities and form the basis for individuals and families to flourish in all aspects of their lives.”

One of the key overall policy takeaways is the need for the delivery of affordable new homes. In addition, the policy places an increased focus on the design and quality of the new homes and neighbourhoods to ensure they provide a greater quality of life. This perhaps comes as no surprise following Welsh Government Minister for Communities and Housing, Julie James AM, recently hitting Welsh headlines after accusing the housebuilding industry of “building the slums of the future”.

Central to the policy is an estimate of an additional 114,000 homes to be delivered across Wales up to 2038, but ideally sooner (8,300 new homes annually up to 2023), with 57% of these being proposed for South East Wales.  The NDF also highlights a core need to provide homes to those who may have difficulty in joining the property ladder, meaning social and long-term rent housing models are likely to be increasingly viewed as favourable options.

Connectivity, transport and infrastructure

“Sustainable places will support a reduction in the need to travel, particularly by private vehicles, and a modal shift to walking, cycling and public transport.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is also an emphasis on connectivity – both physical and digital. In keeping with the growing decarbonisation agenda, the NDF sets out a need for developments that are well connected to both public and active transport options. The three Metro projects planned for Cardiff, Swansea Bay and North Wales are likely to heavily feature within future proposals as developers look to demonstrate how projects can deliver excellent connectivity for future residents.

“All methods of travel will need to have low environmental impact and low emissions, with ultra-low emission vehicles and public transport replacing today’s petrol and diesel vehicles. Active travel and public transport will be a significant part of the transport mix, allied with a reduced reliance on private vehicle use”

At the core of the NDF is the idea that Wales’ reliance on the car has to end. Developments including the Metro systems, Global Centre of Rail Excellence and rail electrification highlight that the time has come in Wales for rail to take the lead. The NDF emphasises strong regional connectivity as key to driving economic growth while also delivering sustainable communities throughout Wales. Central to achieving both strong regional connectivity and a reduction in carbon emissions will be how rail and other forms of low-carbon transport help enable commuters to view ditching the car as not only a feasible option but also a desirable one.

Energy

“The Welsh Government supports large scale on-shore wind and solar energy development in the identified Priority Areas for Solar and Wind Energy. There is a presumption in favour of development for these schemes and an associated acceptance of landscape change.”

Finally, the NDF also highlights an unequivocal support for renewable energy – as long as it is sited within priority areas. These areas differ slightly for wind and solar, but mainly overlap one another and are largely located within rural areas such as Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Powys. However, a broad swathe of the South Wales valleys and the Vale of Glamorgan is also included as a priority area. The NDF highlights large scale renewable energy developments as potentially capable of delivering social and economic opportunities to local communities, including the potential for future benefit funds to help deliver local amenities as well as combat fuel poverty.

The Regions

The NDF concludes by outlining a set of spatial planning policies for each region (North Wales, Mid and South West Wales, and South East Wales), focusing on growth of the major settlements and the connectivity within each of these regions. This includes centres of national growth (such as Cardiff, Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Wrexham) as well as smaller centres of regional growth (for example Colwyn Bay, Bangor, Newtown and Merthyr Tydfil).

Moving Forward

Following the NDF being finalised and adopted, moving forward all strategic and Local Development Plans will need to support the implementation of the NDF, and this will therefore add another layer of policy to be considered by local authorities and developers.

This document will shape development in Wales for the next 20 years so it needs to be fit for purpose – ensuring the delivery of a sustainable, vibrant, and connected future Wales.  The consultation closes on the 1 November, so make sure you take this opportunity to help shape the future of Wales: https://gov.wales/draft-national-development-framework.

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.