Five years after it became law, and as a similar bill is passing through the English Parliament, we are beginning to see where this trailblazing legislation is failing expectations.
The Welsh Well-Being of Future Generations Act was passed in 2015 to a fanfare proclaiming that it would change the way that government was done in Wales, and embed sustainable development in all decision-making by public bodies on how they spent taxpayers’ money.
Along the road, the public was widely consulted on “The Wales we Want” and led to expect big changes. But many public bodies are still carrying on just the same while paying lip service to the Act.
1. The Public Service Boards
The Act required the setting up of public service boards (PSBs) for each county to implement it at local level. These set a baseline for their area, and were supposed to set targets, publish plans and report annually on the monitoring of those targets and plans so that the Act’s seven goals could be achieved. The PSBs contain representatives of all the public bodies and one representative of civic groups in the county.
The problem is that nobody has heard of these PSBs. They meet and take decisions but hardly anyone knows what progress is being made and what the targets and plans are.
Yet the Five Ways of Working defined by the Act, that are supposed to ensure long-term planning and an end to silo thinking by departments, include the requirement for public bodies to involve and collaborate… “involving people with an interest in achieving the well-being goals, and ensuring that those people reflect the diversity of the area which the body serves; acting in collaboration with any other person (or different parts of the body itself) that could help the body to meet its well-being objectives.”
A solution to this problem would be for each county to have citizens assemblies which liaise with these boards, and to which these boards are held accountable. This would greatly increase public awareness and involvement. Members of these assemblies would be selected at random from the population in the county, as is the general rule for citizens assemblies (otherwise they would be populated by the ‘usual suspects’).
Another is to call upon the intelligence and resourcefulness of all the community groups which acted so quickly, generously and spontaneously in response to the coronavirus panedemic to protect vulnerable members of their community, without the need for anyone to tell them what to do, as documented by the Welsh Council of Voluntary Services.
2. The 46 indicators
The Act has 46 indicators by which progress is intended to be measured. They include the sustainable development goals of the United Nations which have their own sets of indicators. The government does report on them.
The problem is: hardly anybody pays any attention to them because they are not mandatory, and so hardly anyone refers to them. Voluntary targets are rarely achieved.
Yet they have a potentially crucial function to play.
A solution would be to make it is compulsory for the monitoring of progress under the 7 goals explicitly refer to these indicators.
There are also not enough indicators. One can easily find sustainability topics for which no indicator exists (e.g. plastic use reduction). These indicators therefore need to be reviewed.
3. The ecological footprint of Wales
One of the most important goals of the Act from the point of view of the environment, and the long-term well-being of the population, is reducing the ecological footprint of Wales to one planet within a generation. In simple terms this means living within planetary boundaries, the limits to growth.
The problem is that currently the footprint of Wales is at least five times larger than its physical size, and the average ecological footprint of its inhabitants is just under three planets; this is why we have climate and ecological emergencies. Unless we live within planetary boundaries, future generations will not survive and the other goals will not be achievable or lasting.
The ecological footprint of Wales is one of the Act’s indicators. But:
- it is measured by the footprint of consumption, not production;
- nobody pays any attention to it.
Solutions for this problem are:
- for reducing the ecological footprint of Wales to be given a much greater priority;
- for progress towards achieving the ‘one planet Wales’ goal to be made urgent, mandatory and yearly monitored;
- for it to include the footprint of production (i.e. of industry), which would stimulate progress towards the circular economy;
- for it to factor in improvements in the biocapacity (biodiversity etc.) of Wales – its ability to absorb pollution and provide resources.
4. Procurement and planning decisions
A major but underappreciated consequence of Act is that all procurement and planning decisions by public bodies ought to be in line with reducing the ecological footprint of Wales and achieving the seven goals.
As the Act says, “meeting the needs of the present should not compromise meeting the needs of future generations”.
Some solutions: for procurement: To achieve this aim, procurement by all public bodies should have social and environmental criteria attached to contracts; with these criteria linked to the indicators; and should aim towards a more localised and circular supply chain to stimulate with its huge spending power the required shift in the economy. This would create jobs and new skills.
For planning: Planning policy in general should be aligned with the unique, groundbreaking One Planet Development planning policy, under which applicants have to demonstrate how they will reduce their ecological footprint to one planet within five years (using a calculator provided by the Welsh government), be zero carbon, zero waste, zero carbon transport, improve biodiversity, and so on.
Following the granting of planning permission applicants are subsequently monitored by the planning department to ensure that they do as they said they would, or otherwise planning permission is rescinded. This is a unique, revolutionary and crucial aspect of the policy – because what gets measured gets done.
Broadening this ongoing relationship approach to all planning decisions would make planning departments responsible for the sustainability of their decisions – what a constructive step-change that would be!
To achieve this level of sustainability the criteria underlying these planning decisions should become much more holistic, in other words looking at all the consequences of a given decision, just as the One Planet Development planning guidance stipulates.
The watchdog’s report
The Future Generations Commissioner – the watchdog set up by the act to critique of progress – has recently published an 800-page review of progress under the Act. While making many positive recommendations, it is lacking in crucial areas.
It only refers to the ecological footprint of Wales twice – to describe it [“Currently, if everyone in the World consumed the same as the Welsh average, we would need 2.5 Earths to provide the necessary resources and absorb the waste.”] .
It does not describe how we can measure progress towards reducing it, nor even the goal of achieving a one planet Wales. Yet:
What gets measured gets saved
It is a truism of both money management and energy management that what gets measured gets saved.
Unless Wales takes a good hard look at itself, beyond platitudes, it cannot either make progress or be sure that it is making progress.
While making many excellent recommendations, such as on procurement, the Future Generations Commissioner’s 2020 review is guilty sometimes of parroting the self congratulatory approach of the Welsh government.
For example it says that Wales is “leading the way in recycling”, borrowing the phrase from the government’s own consultation on the circular economy. This is simply untrue.
The facts are that between 2012-13 and 2018-19, the amount of waste in Wales sent for disposal/treatment has remained fairly stable (around 1.5 to 1.6 million tonnes); in the last three years recycling and composting has either flat lined or reduced.
Wales is below its 2019-20 target. But there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of waste disposed of via incineration with energy recovery. This is glossed over.
Incineration creates a market for non-recycling of waste and discourages an increase in recycling and composting, and is opposed by the public wherever a new incinerator is planned. It should be the last resort in a circular economy and plans should be made to phase it out except for the most unreclaimable waste.
To be really useful, a watchdog needs to investigate the actuality, be specific in a forensic manner, uncover what officialdom does not want to be uncovered, and make recommendations that are appropriate and targeted.
This is what Westminster’s cross-party committees frequently do with their investigations.
Unfortunately the report’s recommendations do not acknowledge that the social goals of the Act will be unattainable unless ecological security is established – because the economy and the ability to feed and clothe ourselves depend upon it.
For example, it is easy to say that the housing crisis should be properly addressed, but why not call for all new housing and refurbishments to be of the measurably energy-saving Passivhaus standard (as the city of Antwerp did in 2013)? (The review does call for all housing to be carbon-neutral but Passivhaus is the best way we have of guaranteeing this goal.)
Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, understands and supports the Act, but he seems to lack the ability or resources to drive the necessary changes down to the local level and the operational level within every public body – though to be fair the pandemic has been a substantial distraction.
- Reducing Wales’ ecological footprint (which includes carbon) is fundamental to all else.
- What gets measured gets saved and attained.
- For this we need feedback loops – regular checks.
- So social and ecological accounting tools must be made available – and training in their use given to all decision-makers.
- The attainment of the key performance indicators aligned to the Act must be in officials’ job descriptions and mandatory – voluntary targets are rarely achieved.
- Regular reporting on progress should be embedded in the duties of all departments down to grassroots levels – otherwise the required culture change will not happen and business as usual will prevail.
There are other things wrong with the Act and its implementation, but these need urgent attention. If these ideas were to be implemented it would be a huge step forward towards achieving the original, highly worthy intentions of the Act.
Authored by David Thorpe, who teaches the ‘One Planet’ Governance PostGraduate Certificate course at University of Wales Trinity St Davids business school.