5. Debate on the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee Report, 'Annual scrutiny of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales: 2023'

– in the Senedd at 3:15 pm on 5 June 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:15, 5 June 2024

(Translated)

Item 5 is a debate on the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee Report, 'Annual scrutiny of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales: 2023', and I call on the committee Chair to move the motion—Llyr Gruffydd

(Translated)

Motion NDM8592 Llyr Gruffydd

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee report, 'Annual scrutiny of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales: 2023', laid on 16 April 2024.

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru 3:15, 5 June 2024

(Translated)

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. I’m pleased to be able to contribute to today’s debate on the committee’s annual report on the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales. Our report, which was published in April, looks back at the commission’s work in 2022-23 and considers progress towards its wider work programme. It also considers, of course, the commission's future in the context of the Welsh Government’s commitment to reviewing the status, remit and objectives of the body. We have made nine recommendations as a committee. Three of these are to the commission, to which it has responded positively, and six are to the Welsh Government. The Welsh Government has accepted four of our recommendations fully and it has accepted the other two in principle. 

2022-23 was the second year of the commission’s three-year term. When the commission’s new remit was set in 2022, it was tasked with investigating and making recommendations to the Welsh Government on renewable energy policy for the future. The commission began work on renewable energy in early 2022, and it published its report to the Welsh Government in October 2023. We were encouraged to see that several of the commission’s recommendations accorded with those the committee had already made in its reports on renewable energy and marine management policies.

Now, at the time of writing our report on the commission’s work, the Welsh Government’s response to the commission’s renewable energy report was overdue, having been promised by the end of January. We recommended that the Welsh Government prioritise its response to the commission, and at long last a response was issued last month. Although the committee hasn’t had an opportunity to collectively consider the Welsh Government’s response, I do hope that committee members won’t mind me taking this opportunity, if I may, to make a few general observations that are relevant to our role of scrutinising the commission.   

As a committee, we’re keen to understand the impact of the commission’s work, looking at how it’s influencing Welsh Government thinking and decision making. The obvious way of doing this, of course, is by considering how many of the commission’s recommendations the Welsh Government has adopted and then subsequently implemented. Cabinet Secretary, the commission’s terms of reference commit the Welsh Government to, and I quote, stating clearly whether it accepts or rejects the commission’s recommendations. I’m afraid that you have failed to meet that commitment in the response to the commission’s report on renewable energy. In fact, it’s difficult to determine from the response which of the recommendations the Welsh Government will be taking forward, if any at all. I would therefore like to ask the Cabinet Secretary and her cabinet colleagues to reflect on this when responding to reports by the commission in the future.  

By and large, the response sets out the steps that the Welsh Government is already taking to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy. There is no sense of whether the commission’s recommendations will help deliver change, or how they will do so. This leaves us questioning what impact the commission’s report has had, or whether it has had any impact at all. Of course, I’m sure the commission will have its own views on this, and I know that the committee will be keen to explore those views during our next scrutiny session with the commissioners.  

Before moving on, it’s worth mentioning that the recent reconfiguration of cabinet portfolios means that, although the Cabinet Secretary has responsibility for the commission, it is her cabinet colleagues who will be responsible for responding to recommendations made by the commission on policy-specific matters such as renewable energy, flooding and climate resilience and so forth. So, perhaps the Cabinet Secretary could, in responding, say a few words about how she’ll work with her cabinet colleagues to ensure that the commission’s work is afforded appropriate priority.

Turning to the wider matter of what comes next for the commission, the commission performs an important function, providing the Welsh Government with an outside perspective on Wales’s infrastructure needs. The current commission comprises experts who demonstrate dedication to their work, and a passion for that work as well. However, the commission is small and has limited resources, particularly compared to bodies with similar functions, such as the UK National Infrastructure Commission.

The commission was established almost six years ago, so, particularly in looking at this recent period, you could argue that it's still in a nascent phase. That said, the committee does believe that now is a good time to take stock and consider whether it is delivering on expectations. I want to state clearly that this isn’t a criticism of the commissioners; rather, it’s a matter of ensuring that the current model will allow the commission to achieve its full potential over the coming years.

Recommendation 1 in our report has done what we intended it to do, namely to provide a nudge to ensure that the Welsh Government delivers on its commitment to undertake a comprehensive review of the commission before the end of this year. We’re pleased to hear from the Cabinet Secretary that scoping work for that review has started. I’d like to ask the Cabinet Secretary to share the terms of reference, the time frame, and any further details of that review's process with the committee as soon as they’re available.  

Our other recommendations in the report call on the Welsh Government to consider various matters in the review. First, there is the term of appointment for commissioners. Currently, it is three years, which is short given the commission’s role and remit and compared with those of other public appointees, such as the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, for example. Secondly, there is the time frame for the Welsh Government to respond to the commission’s reports. The current time frame of between six to 12 months is excessive, in our view. We have recommended a response time of between six weeks and three months, in line, of course, with that for reports by Senedd committees and, by the way, the Interim Environmental Protection Assessor for Wales.

Finally, we’ve recommended that, as part of the review, the Welsh Government should consider whether there is merit in asking the commission to undertake a national infrastructure assessment, comparable to the five-year assessments undertaken by the UK National Infrastructure Commission. Given the constraints that the current commission operates within, it would be unreasonable to expect it to do this, but, as the commission evolves, it’s certainly something that we think, as a committee, could be a worthwhile exercise.

I’m pleased that the Cabinet Secretary has agreed to consider all the matters that I’ve referred to as part of the review. I’d like to ask the Cabinet Secretary to report back to the committee on the outcome of the review as soon as it’s available. I see today’s debate as something of a listening exercise, which will help inform the committee’s scrutiny of the commission in future. But, without doubt, it will also give the Cabinet Secretary food for thought in taking forward the review, and I look forward to hearing Members’ contributions. Thank you.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you also to the committee team and our Chair for their work on this issue. I'd like to start by acknowledging the important work that the infrastructure commission has done in Wales. In assessing our infrastructure needs from an environmental and economic point of view, it is work that will benefit our nation for years to come, and their focus on renewable energy and the flood resilience of our nation is so vitally important, and that is true, yes, in response to the climate emergency, but also for our future.

We must, of course, acknowledge the unease that has arisen regarding a commissioner's links with a public affairs agency that counts renewable energy developers among its clients. Transparency is central to maintaining public trust, and we as a committee have called for measures to manage any conflict of interests within the commission. Now, the commission must, of course, be seen to be entirely independent. That's something that Dr David Clubb has said, and we know that that is something the commission is very much aware of.

I would like to emphasise that Plaid Cymru played an important role in demanding that the national infrastructure commission be established. Its establishment was agreed through a fiscal negotiation. Now, there have been some problems with how it was set up, with a cap imposed on its resources and independence. This stands in stark contrast to the infrastructure commission in Denmark, which enjoys cross-party trust and has such an influence on policy. This is no reflection on the members of the commission or the chair; they do extremely important work in difficult circumstances. The problem remains the lack of resources available to the commission and the lack of powers.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 3:25, 5 June 2024

Now, what Plaid Cymru had envisaged would be a body that would prove a focal point for nationwide engagement, ensuring debates on controversial decisions occur early in the process. It would also ensure long-term stability beyond electoral cycles, across different Governments.

Now, it's no secret that Plaid Cymru have always championed the cause of devolution. We believe that full devolution of powers over infrastructure and our natural resources to Wales would allow far more localised and effective decision making. So, we're glad that the commission has backed our calls for the full devolution of the Crown Estate, and that the body's aim should be the reinvestment of all funds in Wales for the long-term benefit of the people of Wales in a sovereign wealth fund. That would enable us to address the unique challenges and opportunities that Wales presents and ensure that our infrastructure development is tailored to our specific needs, while of course reaping the financial benefits of our own natural resources.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 3:26, 5 June 2024

(Translated)

Now, I recognise that there is work to be done, and, as the Chair has already said, perhaps it's too early for us to set out exactly what we would expect. Certainly, our committee will continue to look at how the infrastructure commission works. I have my own hopes that further resources could be available to it in order to enable it to do so much more work. 

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru

So, we welcome the 2023 report and the work of the commission. We call for transparency, for robust conflict of interest management and further devolution of powers, and we reaffirm our commitment to investing in infrastructure and working towards a sustainable future for Wales. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:27, 5 June 2024

(Translated)

I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning, Julie James.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you very much for the opportunity to reply on behalf of the Welsh Government to this debate today to highlight the really important work of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales. I really would like to thank the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee for their report on the commission and their ongoing scrutiny of the projects that it undertakes. The commission has, as both speakers have said, firmly established itself as an authoritative voice in the sector that is respected and whose opinions are actively sought out by stakeholders, and I do believe this is a sign of maturity for the organisation and we are seeing a real difference from its work. 

The commission's latest annual report highlights the range of activity that NICW, as we call it, has undertaken in its first full year of work, and they are to be congratulated on the breadth of issues that this relatively small team has covered. The commission's year 1 resulted in an in-depth report on renewable energy, which was published last year. This covered a variety of aspects relating to energy strategy, grid, planning, community benefits and the Crown Estate. Dirprwy Lywydd, I expected the recommendations to be bold, innovative and to help Wales progress towards meeting our renewable energy and wider carbon reduction targets, and I think it's fair to say that they've certainly lived up to that expectation. 

While, in our response, we could not agree to all of the sometimes radical suggestions put forward, they are absolutely helping shape our future work programmes in this area. My colleague—. As the Chair of the committee pointed out, my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Energy and Welsh Language is now responsible for renewable energy in the Welsh Government, and he will be meeting with NICW to discuss how we can integrate their recommendations into our future work programmes. It's also a subject of discussion in the regular meetings between him and me as part of our ongoing work.

I'm really pleased to say that the infrastructure commission's work on flooding is also reaching its conclusion. The research phase on the project is to look at minimising the risk of flooding by 2050, and that is now complete. The Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs and I are looking forward to receiving the report from NICW towards the end of this year, and we expect that their recommendations will provide food for thought on new ways for us to think about our response to flood management—

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:29, 5 June 2024

Can I—? Sorry, Cabinet Secretary, but there's a little bit of noise in the Chamber and the Chair can't hear what you're saying, so can you perhaps repeat the last sentence, and can Members in the Chamber please ensure that they're quiet so that the response can be heard?

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

Yes. Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. I was simply saying that the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs and I are looking forward to receiving the report from NICW on flooding towards the end of this year, and we expect that their recommendations will provide much food for thought on new ways for us to think about our response to flood management across Wales. And whilst those significant reports are very important, and they will assist us to map out ways forward on big policy issues, I do think that one of the big strengths of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales is to generate debate and discussion on very complex issues. For example, late last year, in conjunction with the Royal Town Planning Institute, the commission held an event on the Infrastructure (Wales) Bill, which generated significant discussions on the contents of the draft legislation. This in turn helped to inform evidence to the committee for their scrutiny of the Bill.

And another example of the new ways in which the infrastructure commission generates debate is through social media linked to blog posts of thought pieces that they're doing. A growing number of these are appearing on the commission's website, and I really would encourage Members to have a read of these thought-provoking articles. And again, I think this is real proof that the infrastructure commission is not afraid to ask difficult questions and to promote active discussion and debate.

Dirprwy Lywydd, I'm really pleased to say that the commission is not just sitting in Cardiff, but has also been up to mid and west Wales to look at our ports infrastructure and our rural economy, talking to local stakeholders and getting a variety of opinions on these issues. We really need these helpful contributions to cut through all of the complexity and to allow sensible and pragmatic recommendations and suggestions to the Welsh Government on some of the most difficult environmental issues affecting us today.

The committee report and the debate today have been helpful in assessing the new commission's progress to date. The committee's recommendations refer frequently to the review of NICW, which is to take place this year, and indeed the chair just specifically asked me about it, so I'm pleased to be able to say that my officials are working with the Welsh Government's internal audit service to carry out that review, which will be completed by the end of 2024.

The review will consist of an assessment of the robustness of the Government's arrangements, the evaluation of internal reflections undertaken by the commissioners, external engagement with stakeholders and a benchmarking exercise across similar organisations. The review will also look at NICW's remit, form and function and will be commensurate in scale to the size of the commission, seeking a diverse range of opinions and views before raising observations. The commission will, of course, be fully involved throughout this process. And I just want to be very explicit in saying that that will of course include the term of office for the commissioners, as both Members who contributed mentioned.

When the infrastructure commission received its new remit in 2022, it included giving it an 80-year horizon, incorporating the climate and nature emergencies into infrastructure thinking and making the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 goals a driving principle of the work. We wanted it to be bold, to take the debate into innovative and creative thinking, and to ask awkward questions of the Government and other stakeholders. I think it's fair to say, Dirprwy Lywydd, that the commission has embraced this remit with enthusiasm. They have been energetic in pursuing it and innovative in their thinking. And I look forward to working with the committee in its role to scrutinise the work of the commission and very much welcome the committee's report that we've debated here today. Diolch. 

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:33, 5 June 2024

(Translated)

I call on Llyr Gruffydd to reply to the debate.

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm not sure if I'm disappointed that only one Member has contributed to this debate, but perhaps we could take that as a vote of confidence in the commission, rather than a lack of interest.

Thank you to Delyth for highlighting transparency. That is something that we as a committee did emphasise, because we were given an assurance by the chair that there were processes in place, but that is something that we do have to be watchful of.

We will look forward as a committee to seeing the outcomes of the review of the work and role of the commission, particularly the governance element, and the external engagement that the Cabinet Secretary mentioned. I do think perhaps that there is room for improvement there. That is something that the commission itself would recognise and we would be very eager to understand how that might be strengthened in moving forward.

The Minister said a great deal about how the work of the commission engenders debate. The question for us, as a committee, is: how do the work and recommendations of the commission lead to change in Government policy? That is something that we will continue to keep a close eye on. Thank you.

(Translated)

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 3:34, 5 June 2024

(Translated)

The proposal is to note the committee's report. Does any Member object? No, there are no objections, and therefore the motion is agreed.

(Translated)

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.