Green portrait: Jane Davidson walks the talk

As Environment Minister Jane Davidson prepares to stand down from the Welsh Assembly, many believe she will be a tough act to follow. Maxine Perella caught up with her as she draws her political career to a close.

This May sees the 2011 elections for the Welsh Assembly which will decide the incumbency for all of Wales' government seats. One figure that will be notably absent from proceedings is Environment Minister Jane Davidson who has decided to step down and exit office after 12 years in the political spotlight. Instead, she will be busy preparing to walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, one of Britain's finest national trails.

A keen rambler, Davidson is looking forward to taking some time out to reflect before deciding on her next move. "I deliberately haven't set anything up for myself when I leave the assembly, but I certainly haven't retired. I have two huge passions in life - one is the environment and one is education, and whatever I do with the rest of my life will be in relation to those two fields," she says.

Indeed, environment and education are the two portfolios that Davidson has held since being appointed as a cabinet minister in 2000 and she has relished both challenges. Even better, she has managed to link the two up through some smart policy thinking. "I introduced education for sustainable development and global citizenship, and our foundation phase has a whole area of learning dedicated to the environment and the outdoors."

Leading the way in sustainability
Davidson's reverence for the environment is clear for all to see. In the three years since taking up her environment portfolio, she has helped engineer some formidable legislative firsts in the UK sustainability arena - statutory targets which will see Wales recycle 70% of its waste by 2025, a compulsory charge on single-use carrier bags, and the launch of a low carbon green building charter.

"My passion for the environment has been there all my life and so to be given the opportunity of environment portfolio, I thought, this is permission to make the Government greener. And I really have enjoyed taking it on. It is challenging moving away from it ... but I hope I have a policy legacy that carries on. That's the best legacy any minister can have," she reflects.

Many will lament the departure of a minister so committed to her cause, especially one that remains undefeated and with a pretty safe seat, but Davidson is typically pragmatic about it. "I profoundly believe that in a legislature of 60 people that we should move in and out of the assembly, I think it's really good for democracy. I also think it's good for politics for people to leave the assembly without being defeated. There is that old adage that goes 'all political careers end in failure' and I didn't want mine to end that way!" she laughs.

Proudest achievements
I ask the Minister what achievements she feels most proud of during her time in office, and she gives what she calls an "esoteric" reply. "My belief is that we have to live within our environmental limit and if we have policy designed to help us live within our limit, it's not just policy for the environment, but social and economic policy as well. So my greatest achievement has been to get the whole of the cabinet behind the idea that sustainable development is the central organising principle of this government. I don't think we are delivering it as well as we could be yet, but just getting that commitment - that then leads onto a set of policy initiatives."

Homing in on specifics, Davidson is proud that Wales is leading the way with its statutory recycling targets. These targets are based on a staggered approach, starting at 52% in 2012-13 and rising to 70% by 2024-25. While some might think a 70% figure somewhat ambitious, the Minister disagrees - she argues that the numbers weren't simply plucked out of the sky, but founded on a strong evidence base.

"If you actually take our best composting and dry recycling rates this last quarter and add the two together, it's 69.7%. They are two different local authorities, but the best dry recycling outcomes and the best composting outcomes in Wales right now are nearly 70%. We forensically scrutinised all the evidence about making this work," she maintains.

Council engagement
Davidson acknowledges that not all of Wales' 22 local authorities are happy about having to meet statutory targets, but she says there is an understanding among council leaders that it is the right thing to do - and that funding will be put aside to help them meet their obligations. Also the assembly has not underestimated the importance of a having a continuous dialogue with councils throughout the consultation process.

"If I had introduced statutory recycling targets three years ago there would have been an outcry, but by working with the councils over that period of time we have been able to demonstrate that there is a financial saving of about £38 million in going for 70% targets as opposed to landfill. Increased recycling not only saves money, but generates jobs - there is no aspect on a 70% recycling policy that is negative when you look at the evidence base," Davidson points out.

Local authorities in Wales are also doing their own benchmarking and some of the outcomes make interesting reading. One is cost issues - there is no intrinsic difference between urban, rural and valley authorities. Where one authority might have more costs in terms of transport, another will have more costs in terms of numbers of bins collected or households.

One area authorities are making impressive headway on is food waste. All 22 councils now offer a collection service, which extends to 80% of households. The assembly hopes to roll the service out to nearly all homes in Wales by the end of the year. "We strongly support collecting food waste weekly, dry recyclables weekly, and residual waste fortnightly because there's so little left in residual that it doesn't seem sensible to allocate the funding for extra transport to collect it weekly. If it's managed well, it's by far the better outcome," says Davidson.

Last summer, Wales published its Towards Zero Waste strategy which proposed a 30% cap on municipal residual waste treated by energy-from-waste by 2025 to tie in with the 70% recycling targets. Underpinning the delivery of this strategy will be a series of sector plans, the first of which - the municipal sector plan - is due to be published this month. Consultation will also open on the collections, infrastructure and markets plan, followed by the retail and service sector plan.

Look at the evidence
In many respects, Wales is ahead of game when it comes waste and resource management. So what can England, and the rest of the UK, learn from what Wales is doing? Davidson has no hesitation in answering - look at the evidence base.

"I think devolution is a great laboratory for people to look at other countries and what they do. I don't think it's about what individual ministers do, I think it's about the evidence base that underpins what ministers do. And the evidence base available to me is available to any minister, anywhere."

As Davidson bows out of politics, most would admit the blaze she has left in her trail is quite dazzling. Whether the next appointed person to the brief can match her energy and determination remains to be seen, but I ask the Minister what she hopes for in her successor. The answer is simple, and says it all. "I hope whoever is appointed to this brief loves it as much as I do."

Maxine Perella is editor of LAWR


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