Our central organising principle

Jane Davidson describes the legislative journey that is putting sustainable development at the heart of the Welsh Government

When the National Assembly for Wales came into being in 1999 it had a new and unique duty to make a Scheme on how it proposed to promote sustainable development in the exercise of its functions. This was seen as an extremely innovative and exciting duty, representing a new kind of democracy.

However, there was no definition of sustainable development to limit members’ interpretation of the duty. Although the 1987 ‘Brundtland’ definition was a starting point – that sustainable development should meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – it took a decade for successive Welsh Governments to develop a greater understanding of how this should be recognised in the Welsh context. Over that time the Bruntland general definition gave way to the development of high level indicators on the economy, social justice, environment, the ecological footprint and wellbeing. We recognised that we needed metrics against which real performance could be measured.


27 January 2012, University of Wales Trinity St David, Carmarthen

Wales’ Central Organising Principle

Legislating for Sustainable Development

A Welsh Government Sustainable Development Green Paper will appear in May, followed by a White Paper in the Autumn, and legislation next year. This conference addresses what the legislation should contain. Speakers include Dr Sándor Fülöp, Hungarian Commissioner for the Future; Andrea Ross, Reader in Law, Dundee University; Peter Roderick, public interest environmental lawyer; Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Chair of the Environment and Sustainability Committee in the National Assembly; Professor Gareth Wyn Jones, Bangor University; and Peter Davies, Welsh Commissioner for Sustainable Futures.

For more details and to register for the conference click here.

The journey was helped by the work of the well regarded and sadly now defunct Sustainable Development Commission. Its chair, Jonathan Porritt, suggested that Wales and Scotland might well be close to the Goldilocks (just right) scale for achieving sustainable development. This was because, as he put it, they could:

“… bring all the relevant stakeholders round the table, and grasp the linkages between production, consumption and wellbeing that are at the heart of a rigorous understanding of unsustainable and sustainable forms of development.”

It wasn’t till 2009, with the publication of the Government’s current One Wales One Planet scheme, that there was a specific attempt to explicitly bind the whole government into the duty. In that Scheme, a more sustainable Wales was being described as a country which:

Lives within its environmental limits, using only its fair share of the earth’s resources so that our ecological footprint is reduced to the global average availability of resources, and we are resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Has healthy, biologically diverse and productive ecosystems that are managed sustainably.

Has a resilient and sustainable economy that is able to develop whilst stabilising, then reducing, its use of natural resources and reducing its contribution to climate change.

Has communities which are safe, sustainable, and attractive places for people to live and work, where people have access to services, and enjoy good health.

Is a fair, just and bilingual nation, in which citizens of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to determine their own lives, shape their communities and achieve their full potential.

One Wales One Planet was a seminal document. Since the introduction of the duty ten years earlier, it was the first scheme that articulated a collective commitment from all Ministers to use sustainable development as the central organising principle of government.

Framing the debate in sustainability terms certainly assisted the cross-party, cross-sector Climate Change Commission as it wrestled with the all-party commitment on how to deliver 3 per cent annual greenhouse gas emission reductions. A similar focus also assisted the making of legislation around recycling.

To make sustainable development real, it must focus on outcomes. The Assembly’s Sustainability Committee investigated the Government’s delivery on two occasions. In addition, two external investigations tested both the practices and the policies:

The Welsh Auditor General investigated whether the concept was adequately embedded in the Government’s own business practices.

WWF Cymru commissioned a piece of independent research looking at whether Ministers’ policy commitments were actively delivering on the overarching agenda.

Both reviews found a mixed picture, although for the first time, key policy decisions taken in Wales on waste, climate change, retro-fitting housing, planning, education, and health were directly linked to sustainable development and were inherently different from decisions being taken elsewhere in the UK.

Two key lessons came out of the first decade on delivering the duty. First, that the existence of the duty was supported across all parties and seen as beneficial, as were the regular reporting arrangements which kept the issues in front of Members. Secondly, although innovative the existing legislation from the Government of Wales Acts was inadequate. Effectively, there is no duty on the government to have a ‘good’ Scheme. As a result, in its manifesto for the last election, Welsh Labour outlined its vision for:

“A sustainable Wales to become a ‘one planet’ nation by putting sustainable development at the heart of government; creating a resilient and sustainable economy that lives within its environmental limits and only using our fair share of the earth’s resources to sustain our lifestyles.”

That commitment is now being taken forward. In June the First Minister announced that the Government of Wales would, “Legislate to embed sustainable development as the central organising principle in all our actions across government and all public bodies”. Further, there was a commitment for the legislation to “be monitored externally by a new independent sustainable development body for Wales following the demise of the UK wide Sustainable Development Commission.”

We’re now at the beginning of the next stage of the journey, which has the potential to completely transform the way the public sector operates in Wales. This will put the focus clearly onto taking actions which contribute to wider community well being.

A decade of learning and review has brought Wales to a new understanding. First, defining sustainable development in law will make it real. Secondly, by also defining the necessary indicators to track progress in law we will create an effective process for managing conflicting priorities. Above all, we need to make a reality of sustainable development being the Welsh Government’s central organising principle by:

Introducing a legal framework for a sustainable development strategy which requires specified public bodies to refer to it in the context of their sustainable development objectives.

Auditing its delivery through the usual audit mechanisms.

Establishing the office of a Commissioner for Sustainable Futures as a strong and independent champion of the environment and future generations with significant powers and duties.

Using a sustainability lens improves decision-making and provides the moral compass linking our activities with our effects across the world. Committing to sustainability as the Welsh Government’s ‘central organising principle’ can underpin a new Welsh identity based on clear underlying values. Wales may be a small country but it has strong community values. It is the first Fair Trade nation in the world. It has a strong notion of fair play.

Wales has led the way on sustainable development to date. Its journey can help others. A Sustainable Development Bill will be produced next year with legislation delivered in 2013. When the world meets in Rio for the Earth Summit in 2012, a summit specifically focused on developing a global framework for sustainable development and promoting the green economy, the Welsh experience can set an example to the world.

Jane Davidson, former Minister for the Environment and Sustainability in the Welsh Government, is Director of INSPIRE – the Institute for Sustainable Practice, Innovation and Resource Efficiency – at Trinity Saint David University.

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