Lisa Childs, Senior Account Director at Copper, looks ahead to what a new First Minister of Wales in 2024 means for Wales’ net zero ambitions
The news in Cardiff Bay this week was the worst-kept secret in Wales; a question of when, not if, following heavy hinting and the postponement of Welsh Labour’s annual conference from March to July 2024.
On Wednesday, Mark Drakeford announced his resignation as Welsh Labour leader. In his statement, he said: “When I stood for election as Leader of Welsh Labour, I said I would stand down during the current Senedd term. That time has now come”.
However, I don’t think anyone was expecting the announcement would come before Christmas, hurtling the WhatsApp groups of Cardiff Bay into chaos.
It was an emotional day, as we reflected on the sacrifices the First Minister made during the pandemic, the visible impact the loss of his life partner has had on him, and lamented what might have been had the Covid-19 pandemic not dominated his premiership.
Mark Drakeford succeeded Carwyn Jones as First Minister in 2018 and outlined his intention to stand down and First Minster halfway through his second term. Mr Drakeford will stay on as First Minister of Wales until his successor is elected as Welsh Labour leader, and appointed as First Minister, in March 2024.
Battle of the big-ticket departments
The First Minister’s announcement has sparked the firing gun on the next Welsh Labour party leadership election. The expected front runners are Vaughan Gething (Minister for Economy) and Jeremy Miles (Minister for Education and Welsh Language) – although rumours are also circling around Eluned Morgan (Health Minister) and Hannah Blythyn (Deputy Minister for Social Partnership).
Vaughan Gething has been forefront of engagement with stakeholders regarding the Celtic freeport and investment in Wales, and benefits from union support, an existing profile within the business community and, perhaps, higher public recognition due to his previous role as Health Minister during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, both front runners have served as prominent Cabinet members in the Welsh Government so it is likely that, no matter the outcome, we will see a continuation of the current approach towards decarbonisation and major energy and infrastructure projects.
What this means for energy and infrastructure policy
The First Minister has been steadfast in his commitment to net zero, with his close ally Julie James heading up the key department responsible for maximising the opportunity that net zero presents for the Welsh economy.
With the Infrastructure Bill making its way through the Senedd, the establishment of Ynni Cymru, the Celtic Sea offshore wind opportunity and other developments on the horizon, Wales is on the cusp of a green energy revolution.
However, if we are to decarbonise, if we are to reach our net zero targets, and if we are to achieve 100% of Wales’ annual electricity consumption from renewable energy by 2035, then we must also acknowledge that we do not currently have the grid connectivity to do so.
It is widely recognised that the lack of grid infrastructure is holding back the green economy; indeed, the Climate Minister, Julie James, highlighted it as the number one issue for her team at the Future Energy Wales conference held in November 2023. This would surely be a priority policy area for the incoming First Minister and their climate minister to focus on.
Another priority, which the Infrastructure Bill attempts to solve, is around the constraints in the DNS consenting process that is leading to delays and adding critical time to project lifespans.
Wales is not on track to meet its 2035 commitments unless the Welsh Government supercharge their consenting processes. Renewable UK’s Plug The Gap report questioned whether Wales’ DNS system is robust enough and up to the challenge presented by the climate emergency.
There have been 22 applications under the regime in the past 7 years, with a 41% refusal rate. Of the 9 projects refused, 44% were refused by the Minister against the Inspector’s recommendation.
Due to the long-term nature of this policy area, industry and developers will no doubt be calling out for the incoming First Minister to provide consistency, collaboration with industry, and clarity on how we are going to achieve the bold promises and targets set by the Welsh Government.
Clear red water?
Having governed in Wales for over 25 years, and against a backdrop of a Conservative UK Government since 2010, how the future First Minister of Wales interacts with the UK Labour team and Kier Starmer will be of interest to business leaders and commentators alike.
Both front-runner candidates are seen to be aligned to the Shadow Cabinet and their policy platform, so any potential for “clear red water” or policy divergence between the Welsh Government and potential future UK Labour Government should be kept at bay.
Whilst Welsh Labour haven’t announced the process for electing the next leader, we can assume that it will follow the process used in 2018.
When Carwyn Jones stood down and Mark Drakeford was elected 5 years ago, Welsh Labour used the one-member-one-vote system – like the one used to elect Jeremy Corbyn.
It means all party members – and members of unions and affiliated groups – get an equal vote. So, whilst optically important, which candidates are backed by which unions and other affiliated members becomes less important. Nonetheless, we know that Vaughan Gething enjoys staunch support from the Welsh trade union movement.
In 2018, after candidates were announced, we also saw which Labour Senedd Members (then Assembly Members) nominated each candidate in the Welsh Labour Leadership Election – with Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan coming second and third to Mr Drakeford. Although a formality and not weighted in the election, shoring up the backing of fellow MSs will be a key target for candidates and will bolster their campaign.
A rejected alternative option in 2018 was to reform Welsh Labour’s electoral college, giving half the vote to party members and half to affiliated members. To reiterate, the process for electing a leader in 2024 is yet to be confirmed.
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We have over 15 years’ experience in delivering for clients in Wales and are currently supporting clients with exciting projects in wind, solar, grid, carbon capture and storage, and re-industrialisation.
We’ll be following the Welsh Labour leadership election every step of the way and providing our expert analysis.