Whatever the UK Government claims, we still don’t have real control over Wales’ water
Simon Thomas, Plaid Cymru AM for Mid and West Wales
Water is an emotive subject in Wales. And for good reason.
The development of water resources in our country for the benefit of English conurbations is a central factor behind the rise of Plaid Cymru and of Welsh nationalism.
The drowning of Capel Celyn had both symbolic and physical effects, proving that Wales didn’t have a voice, and demonstrating a disregard for the Welsh language and its communities.
The exploitation and development of other natural resources like coal is another part of the same story, with resources extracted with no regard for the workers, communities and indeed the nation.
We didn’t see the benefits but had to pay vast human and environmental costs in the form of industrial accidents, illness, waste tips and in the case of Aberfan, innocent lives.
Stewarding and using our resources more sustainably and humanely is an obvious political goal for those of us who want to stop Wales being the victim and build a better nation.
Because of the emotion behind these issues, citizens of Wales would be forgiven for thinking that the announcement of a joint water protocol behind the Welsh and UK Governments gives us real control over our natural resources.
Indeed, that was the spin deployed by the Wales Office, which now brands itself the ‘UK Government in Wales’.
But the protocol does no such thing.
What happens in the protocol is that the veto power held by the Secretary of State for Wales and UK Government over our water is replaced instead by a joint veto held alongside the Welsh Government.
It allows for disputes between the two governments to be dealt with “in good faith” through discussions between officials and ministers.
It also allows for disputes to be escalated to the Joint Ministerial Committee if that doesn’t work.
I would remind readers that a dispute exists under the JMC arrangements over Brexit at the moment which does not appear to have been resolved. It is hardly a promising model for getting Wales’ voice heard.
But doesn’t this “prevent another Tryweryn”? I’m afraid that this is spin.
Another Tryweryn would thankfully be almost impossible under modern planning laws and environmental protections, which for all their faults have been overhauled since the 1960s.
Even more importantly, the water industry has been completely changed since then. In 1973 the industry was restructured and the Westminster government created a single Welsh National Water Development Authority.
Later, the Water Industry Act of 1991 enabled Dwr Cymru Welsh Water to be created.
Building new large-scale reservoirs would now be extremely difficult, and couldn’t be done without elected Welsh Government and National Assembly determining what the conditions would be. The protocol has almost nothing to do with this.
But in considering the future of our natural resources, I am not just interested in dwelling on the past.
It is unclear in the Wales Act 2017 whether water has been fully devolved. Currently, the industry is regulated by cross-border ‘England and Wales’ structures like OFWAT.
Unlike Scotland (where water is truly devolved), we have no national water regulator, no water industry commission, and no obvious government unity or entity overseeing policy relating to water.
Natural Resources Wales has some limited responsibilities over I do not detect any desire from the Labour Government to establish Welsh versions of these bodies in the short, medium or long term.
Neither is there any apparent desire to establish Wales-accountable sections of those England and Wales bodies.
This means that Welsh Governments can promote certain limited initiatives within the water industry (such as encouraging more efficiency), but have no clear accountability for the industry.
This is alarming when you consider that the UK Government has a clear intention to promote further competition and privatisation in the water and sewerage industries.
Furthermore, if and when Brexit happens, it is unclear where competence over EU water directives will lie.
As part of the EU, the Welsh Government is currently responsible for implementing seven EU directives relating to water (including the Drinking Water and Urban Waste Water Treatment directives).
These EU frameworks have been undeniably successful in raising the standard of drinking water across the EU.
Wales also participates in a joint academic programme with Ireland between Bangor University and Trinity College Dublin to address common challenges in the water industry.
We clearly need to take action in Wales to legislate so that our people continue to benefit from these high standards and programmes outside of the EU.
Plaid Cymru’s vision is for all of Wales’ resources to be regulated and controlled by our own elected governments.
The Welsh and UK Governments have presented no such vision, and this protocol fails to give us real control over our water.