The Welsh government’ bold step will need to overcome apparent contractions with commitments such as widening the M4
Wales has become the first country in the world to incorporate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals into legislation.
The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which came into force last month, will make public bodies think more about the long term, work better with people and communities and each other and take a more joined-up approach, the Welsh government says. “This new law will mean that, for the first time, public bodies listed in the act must do what they do in a sustainable way,” it says. “This act is about improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of Wales.”
Public bodies, including local councils, most NHS organisations, fire and rescue authorities and national parks, must ensure that when making their decisions they take into account the impact they could have on future generations. It also creates the £95,000 a year post of Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, whose role is to support public bodies to work towards achieving the wellbeing goals.
The Welsh Assembly has had a duty to promote sustainable development as one of its aims since its inauguration in 1999. It has led the way in introducing a ban on plastic bags, which has now been adopted by the rest of the UK, and in increasing recycling rates. It has also funded innovative projects, including £2m granted to Riversimple, a startup based in Llandrindod Wellsthat is building a new hydrogen car, which combines ground-breaking technology and a new business model based on leasing rather than ownership.
However, the cause of Welsh sustainable development has been held back by a lack of support from the UK government, which has recently made it more difficult to develop wind farms and is stepping back from an initial enthusiasm to fund a tidal lagoon in the Bristol Channel, near Swansea.
The first Future Generations Commissioner is Sophie Howe, a former adviser to the Labour administration in Cardiff and deputy police commissioner. She says: “This act enables Wales to become a global leader in sustainable development. We have to do things differently because we cannot carry on the way we currently live and work.
“The impact on public services of a growing older population, the pressures of climate change as seen most recently with flooding in parts of Wales, and the ongoing austerity agenda are just three of many reasons for doing things differently.”
The move has been welcomed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which says: “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 ct is but a further step along a challenging road.”
Road to ruin?
However, it is clear that the quest for sustainable development could rub up against the desire to encourage economic growth. The RSPB’s sustainable development manager, Annie Smith, and policy officer Peter Jones wrote in a blog post: “The Welsh government’s current commitment to an 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.”
As former adviser to the Welsh Assembly, Anne McMorrin, warns: “Get it right and it can help grow a sustainable economy, safeguard our natural resources and protect our vulnerable communities. Get it wrong and it threatens to be a bureaucratic white elephant that lies untried and untested on the statute book.”sustainable development government Environment innovation technology sustainable economy