On Wednesday, at the Sustainable Severn Event,  an excellent talk by Martyn Evans from Natural Resources Wales reminded me of the fundamental shift that is taking place across the border.  I think we, in England, have a lot to learn from how the Welsh Government is shaking up the policy and regulatory framework.  As the Westminster Government continues to scope its 25 year plan for nature, I would encourage those involved to be curious about what their counterparts in Wales are up to. They are executing a major change in the culture of government in Wales and this might be exactly what we need in England if we are to mainstream thinking about the environment in decision-making.  Below, my colleagues, Peter Jones and Annie Smith who work in our Cardiff office, give their perspective on one part of the package of reforms: the Well-being of Future Generations Act.


The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015

Peter Jones, Policy Officer and Annie Smith, Sustainable Development Manager

Earlier this year, the National Assembly for Wales passed legislation for sustainable development – the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act – which will come into legal force in the country from April 2016.  This legal enactment builds upon the previous policy commitment to sustainable development in the Government of Wales Acts, and makes the ‘sustainable development principle’ the basis for all actions by a list of Welsh public bodies, including the Welsh Government itself, local authorities, health boards, various public services and Natural Resources Wales.  This legislation for SD is believed to be the first of its kind anywhere on the planet and was welcomed in Cardiff by a senior representative of the UN Environmental Development Programme. 

The Act defines the SD principle to mean that public bodies are required to ’act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, ie, in effect the Brundtland definition of SD.  The core of the Act comprises seven well-being goals that Welsh public bodies are required to deliver through their strategic and policy objectives and actions. They cover a prosperous, low carbon society and economy; a resilient natural environment; human health and well-being; equality of opportunity for all; cohesive and safe communities; a thriving Welsh language and culture, and giving full regard to global impacts.

The suite of goals must be treated as just that – a suite – to be integrated in delivery, and they represent a major achievement for the Assembly and the ‘Sustainable Development Alliance’ of NGOs who worked with AMs and the Government to greatly improve the Bill as it was laid. The second well-being goal, which the RSPB worked particularly hard for, calls for ‘A Resilient Wales - A nation which maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example, climate change).’

This is the message that we have been trying to impress on policy makers and decision takers for decades – that delivering for biodiversity is part of delivering sustainable development. And now, in Wales, it is the law.  How will it work?

All of the public bodies named in the Act – including the Welsh Ministers - are to publish well-being objectives and annual reports on their delivery. In addition, the Welsh Ministers are to create a framework of national indicators and milestones, to be reported on annually, to measure the nation’s progress towards the well-being goals. A Future Generations Commissioner, supported by a specialist advisory panel, will support, advise and encourage public bodies to think long term, and will, monitor their performance and make recommendations, as necessary. The Auditor General for Wales is required to examine the extent to which public bodies have acted in accordance with the SD principle when setting, and seeking to deliver, their objectives – considering each public body at least once during a term of Government. At the beginning of a Government term, the Welsh ministers must take a forward look considering the wider context, in a Future Trends report, and before the end of the term the Commissioner must publish a Future Generations report on how delivery can be improved.

One key role of the Commissioner will be to encourage public bodies to work together, and another provision of the Act – on the creation of local Public Services Boards, which will include local authorities, health boards, fire services and Natural Resources Wales with other non-statutory invitees - seeks to secure join-up at the local level.

What the Assembly has really done, in effect, is try to legislate for a cultural shift. Sustainable development is an elusive and revolutionary new way of thinking and living, and clearly the Act is but a further step along a challenging road. It will need continued commitment from Government, the Assembly and civil society, but the framework of planning, measuring progress, reporting, support and scrutiny provided by the Act should represent a real advance as long as it is recognised that it needs to spell change. The Welsh Government’s current commitment to a M4 Relief Road that would cut across nationally important protected sites on the Gwent Levels, for example, seems fairly indefensible for a Government seeking praise for its bold and progressive approach.

‘Resilience’ is an ongoing subject of debate in the Assembly, this time in the context of the Welsh Government’s Environment Bill. Part 1 of the Bill seeks to underpin the delivery of sustainable development by establishing a new framework for the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources which enshrines the principles of the Ecosystem Approach adopted by the CBD. Another ‘first’ from the Welsh Government, and a Bill that – with some important improvements – will represent a major opportunity for Wales’ natural environment, its wildlife and its people. We have been arguing that the new framework needs to make more explicit provision for biodiversity – to ensure the new approach helps to drive delivery of our international commitment to stop and reverse species’ declines. After all, the Resilient Wales goal, calling as it does for a biodiverse natural environment with healthy, functioning ecosystems, demands it!