A fox standing in a woodland looking towards the camera with the sun shining on its face. There are green leaves emerging from the ground around the fox.

A fox standing in a woodland looking towards the camera with the sun shining on its face. There are green leaves emerging from the ground around the fox.

Next steps on the path to nature recovery

Published 01/07/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

Senedd Committees, and the environment sector, have been calling for an environmental governance body, environmental principles and biodiversity targets for several years.

In January 2024, the Welsh Government published the greatly anticipated White Paper on proposals for a Nature Bill, which is expected in the last year of this Senedd term. The White Paper makes proposals in three areas:

  • Overarching environmental principles to underpin all future policy decision-making;
  • Establishment of a permanent environmental governance body to ensure public authorities uphold environmental law; and
  • Introduction of a framework to protect and restore nature, including biodiversity targets.

Previous Senedd Research work has explored the need for an environmental watchdog in Wales, the functioning of watchdogs and principles in other UK nations, and the state of biodiversity in Wales. This article specifically addresses the recent White Paper and stakeholders’ responses (which have been either published or provided to Senedd Research).

Which environmental principles are proposed and how would they apply?

In Part A of the White Paper, the Welsh Government proposes to “set out environmental principles that reflect those of the EU”. The five proposed principles are:

  1. Integration
  2. Precautionary
  3. Prevention
  4. Rectification at source
  5. Polluter pays

The principles would sit above existing Welsh legislation and apply to all Welsh Government decision-making. The proposed Bill would require the Welsh Ministers to publish guidance explaining how the principles should be interpreted.

Welsh Ministers would also need to “have due regard to the environmental principles and the accompanying guidance during the development of their policies and legislation”. The White Paper does not propose that the same duty applies to other public authorities.

Environmental NGOs are broadly supportive of these proposals. However, Wales Environment Link (WEL) and RSPB Cymru suggest that the wording “due regard to environmental principles” provides Welsh Ministers with weak legal accountability. Green Alliance proposes replacing ‘due regard’ with a stronger phrase, such as ‘apply’ or ‘act in accordance with’.

Several stakeholders suggest additional principles could be included. WEL and Green Alliance are among stakeholders that propose a ‘non-regression’ principle, to prevent the diminishment of environmental law over time. NFU Cymru proposes the ‘proportionality’ principle, which it says is a fundamental principle in EU law that considers severity of risk and importance of an environmental issue in decision-making processes.

Will the watchdog have teeth?

Part B of the White Paper proposes to introduce an environmental governance body, or ‘watchdog’. This watchdog would advise, monitor and investigate named Welsh public authorities on issues of environmental law.

Other UK nations established permanent watchdogs in 2021: the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) (England and Northern Ireland); and Environment Standards Scotland (ESS). Wales appointed an Interim Environmental Protection Assessor for Wales (IEPAW) in February 2021, but the IEPAW has limited powers relative to the OEP and ESS.

The table below is modified from that produced by Dr Viviane Gravey and compares the watchdog proposed in the White Paper to the ESS and OEP.


Welsh proposal

ESS (Scotland)

OEP (England & Northern Ireland)










Investigation focus







Public authorities and private authorities exercising public functions

Public authorities

Public authorities

Targets monitored

Domestic and international

Domestic and international


Chair appointment

Appointed by Welsh Ministers, Senedd Committee consulted

Proposed by Scottish Ministers, approved by Scottish Parliament

Appointed by UK Government after hearing in UK Parliament


£2.5-3m budget

12 staff

7 or 8 Commissioners

£2.2m budget

23 staff

8 board members

£12m budget

74 staff

7 board members

Multiple stakeholders, including National Resources Wales (NRW), National Trust, and Green Alliance, raise concerns that a combination of the broad suite of responsibilities and limited resourcing may prove challenging for the Welsh watchdog. Dr Viviane Gravey and Dr Ludivine Petetin say:

The proposed Welsh Commission [the watchdog] is thus trying to do as well as the ESS and OEP together – with a much smaller workforce… As it stands, the consultation is giving the new Commission an impossible task.

NRW notes that it could be required to collaborate and provide evidence when the watchdog investigates other bodies. It encourages the Welsh Government to account for NRW’s resourcing pressures when determining the requirements of the watchdog.

The Welsh Government proposes to not give the watchdog the power to fine public authorities for non-compliance with environmental law, stating that this was the majority stakeholder view in the 2020 task group report. However, of the thirteen stakeholders who have shared their responses publicly or with Senedd Research, only three agreed with this position. Nine stakeholders disagreed, stating that the watchdog should be able to levy fines, and one stakeholder did not state a view. RSPB Cymru says financial penalties would provide a strong compliance incentive, but that any funds raised should both remain in Wales and be reinvested in positive environmental outcomes.

Biodiversity targets – who are they for and can they be met in time?

In April 2021, the Senedd voted to declare a nature emergency and called for the Welsh Government to introduce statutory targets to reverse biodiversity loss. Part C of the White Paper proposes a suite of biodiversity measures centred around a statutory headline target:

Reverse the decline in biodiversity with an improvement in the status of species and ecosystems by 2030 and their clear recovery by 2050

This headline target would be supplemented by secondary targets, which Welsh Ministers would be under a duty to introduce in secondary legislation. It would also be linked to a new Wales Nature Recovery Strategy setting out a long-term vision for biodiversity.

The Welsh Government would also publish a Nature Recovery Action Plan every 4 years that details specific actions it will take to meet the biodiversity targets. Public authorities will be obliged to publish Local Nature Recovery Plans which reflect the biodiversity targets.

Tirweddau Cymru Landscapes Wales, in responding to the proposal that public authorities should produce Local Nature Recovery Plans, highlights that biodiversity plans and reports are already produced by authorities under the Section 6 Duty of the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, stating:

…organisations that submit their S6 reports under the [A]ct receive very little if any feedback, so we question the value of regulation here if it is to be unsupported within WG [Welsh Government].

The water regulator Ofwat highlights that whilst it is a public authority, it does “not deliver operationally in Wales, and would not be undertaking any practical on-the-ground delivery of biodiversity improvement”. It requests further clarity on which organisations would be required to deliver Local Nature Recovery Action Plans and suggests that public authorities without land management responsibilities are excluded.

The National Trust emphasises that around 90% of Welsh land is used for agricultural purposes. Welsh farmers are currently supported through the Basic Payment Scheme, which the Welsh Government plans to replace with a new Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS). The National Trust asks the Welsh Government “to commission a modelling exercise to determine if and how Wales can meet its 2030 targets”, with direct consideration of the SFS. NFU Cymru highlights that ”delivery of Welsh Government’s environmental ambitions is reliant on the uptake of schemes by farmers”.

If the proposed Bill becomes law in 2026, this will leave only 4 years to meet the 2030 biodiversity target, necessitating rapid action to improve biodiversity and ecosystem health.

The Welsh Government’s consultation analysis and policy response is due before summer recess.

Article by Matthew Sutton and Katy Orford, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Matthew Sutton by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which enabled this article to be completed.