Politicians have an easy way of solving the world’s problems. We pass laws and then honestly and earnestly believe that the new law will transform lives and change the future. It saves us worrying about the real world and gives us comfort about our place in society. In this way, legislation is the hallucinatory drug of choice for politicians.
But it may be that legislation can change the future. And that’s the intention of the new Future Generations Act which became law in Wales at the end of last year. This is probably one of the most ambitious pieces of legislation to reach the statute book in any UK administration for some years. The vision and scope of the Act is nothing short of revolutionary. In short it compels every part of the Welsh public sector to proactively create our sustainable future.
The National Assembly had been born as the world’s only legislature which had a commitment to act sustainably written into its constitution. The future Generations Act began life as the Sustainable Development Bill which was a Welsh Labour manifesto commitment designed to give a real meaning to this commitment but which had delivered only opaque reports, endless analysis and pious speeches since the creation of the National Assembly back in 1999.
The Act gives Wales a new way of living and working. It places a comprehensive definition of sustainable development and a new commitment to tacking climate change on to the Welsh statute book for the first time. It tells all parts of the public sector that they have a new duty to deliver on those commitments. But it does so in the context of economic, community and cultural sustainability underpinned by a new commitment to health outcomes of decision-making which is essential in a country where public health remains our greatest unspoken emergency.
The Act places new and extensive demands upon all public bodies and authorities in the country. Now all decisions taken by local authorities or health boards or any other Welsh public body must reflect the needs of future generations in terms of our impact on climate and a raft other comprehensive indicators – from the place of the Welsh language in planning decisions to health impacts of transport decisions and to follow the principles of sustainability in all decisions at all times. The expectation is that not only will the decisions be different but also the way of reaching and making those decisions. The ambition of the Welsh Government is that this process will also extend and deepen our democracy.
If this happens then it will be truly transformative. A landmark piece of legislation which is actually a landmark.
This new act will sit alongside the new Environment Act and a new planning regime, the Welsh Government is slowly and quietly creating a revolution in the intelligent far-sighted and sustainable management of our natural resources.
By creating a statutory framework for the management of emissions the Welsh Government foresaw the decisions taken in Paris. And by putting in place a wholly new and comprehensive framework for government actions and decisions it is putting in place the UN’s ambitions for resource management in the new century. And it is doing so in a way that seeks to provide accountability and transparency but without the bureaucracy that all too often bogs down truly creative thinking and acting.
But it also creates major new challenges for the Welsh Government. The most obvious being its commitment to the building of a new motorway across some of the most precious and protected landscapes in the Gwent Levels.
Can the same government legislate so profoundly for a sustainable approach to policy and then drive the most environmentally destructive road scheme since 1999? I fear that this may be a challenge too far. A second challenge will be to change the shape and culture of government and decision-making in the public sector. This will be equally as difficult but also more difficult to understand and assess its success or otherwise.
So the Government has won the argument and the votes in the National Assembly. It now has the tools and the powers to make Wales one of the most sustainable countries in Europe. But this is also where the talking stops and the action begins. The success of the Welsh Government’s ambitious vision will be judged now on its future decisions and not simply on its legislative record.
Alun Davies is the Labour Assembly Member for Blaenau Gwent and a former Minister for Natural Resources in the Welsh Assembly Government. This ‘View from Wales’ by Alun Davies AM originally featured in the Spring 2016 New Ground. The views expressed in New Ground are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the editor, SERA its executive or its members. If you would like to contribute to future editions, please contact Melanie Smallman, Co-Chair at email@example.com.