Wales’ central organising principle

Anna Nichol reports on a conference that examined how we can take forward legislation for sustainable development

When the Welsh Government announced it would be introducing a Sustainable Development Bill, aiming to enshrine its commitment to sustainable development as its central organising principle within primary legislation, the Institute of Welsh Affairs teamed up with partners to explore how we could help widen the debate around its content.

The first major event was a conference held in University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Carmarthen at the end of January. It was organised jointly with the Cynnal Cymru, the Wales Commissioner for Sustainable Futures, Peter Davies, WWF Cymru, and INSPIRE – the new Institute for Sustainable Practice, Innovation and Resource Effectiveness in Trinity Saint David, led by former Minister Jane Davidson, who also chaired the conference.

Over 100 delegates from across academia, government, public sector, third sector and business participated in the day, although it was disappointing not to have attracted more from the business community. However, the breadth of speakers sparked some lively discussion which, along with the presentations, will be reflected in a publication later this Spring, supported by Cynnal Cymru and WWF Cymru.

As well as giving us food for thought from his own perspective, Peter Davies updated us on the government’s latest thinking. Whilst there will still be a White Paper this autumn, there won’t be a Green Paper this spring. Instead, there’ll be separate discussion documents so look out for opportunities to contribute. In the meantime, a Welsh Government has published a Discussion Document on the Bill here.

Speakers at the conference underlined the seriousness of the challenges we face to deliver sustainability and the need for ambition if we are to succeed. Professor Gareth Wyn Jones gave a sobering outline of the radical shift that’s needed to our economic model, something which cannot be detached from our political, social or indeed value systems. Andy Middleton, Associate Director at INSPIRE, similarly urged us to open our minds and be ambitious in working for the society that we really want, not simply tinkering with what we have.

We may be breaking new ground in Wales, but speakers reminded us that we’re not alone. The Bill will include a new independent sustainability body, possibly with a Commissioner or Ombudsman. We were extremely lucky to have Sándor Fülöp, former Hungarian Commissioner for the Future to share his experience of what he achieved through his role, what enabled success and the stumbling blocks preventing further achievements.

Professor Susan Baker, of Cardiff University, gave an impressive overview of her research into what models of governance for sustainable development have and haven’t worked across Europe. Whilst nobody’s cracked it yet, there are certainly clear lessons to be learnt, not least that to be effective there needs to be meaningful participation by civil society and the business community.

Tim Peppin, Head of Environment, Sustainability and Regeneration at the Welsh Local Government Association looked at how the legislation might be able to make a practical difference on the ground. Achieving sustainability is not going to be easy but it can be done, or as he quoted from Machiavelli, “Never was anything great achieved without danger”.

A series of workshop sessions led by legal experts examined what might be in the legislation itself. Jane Davidson has highlighted how Andrea Ross’ work of Andrea Ross, of Dundee University, influenced the Welsh Labour party 2011 manifesto’s commitment to a Sustainable Development Bill. So we were fortunate she was able to join us to pose some further challenges to government and legislators.

Peter Roderick, a public interest environment lawyer, drew on his work with WWF Cymru here to argue for a wider scope to the Bill, not least to include environmental rights and for a Commissioner with real powers and duties.

Emyr Lewis, a Partner in Morgan Cole and Senior Fellow at the Wales Governance Centre, was able to share his experience of the primary legislative process in Wales to date. He underlined how fundamental the process of scrutiny is and how important civil society engagement in this process is in order to deliver robust and meaningful legislation.

If we really want sustainability in practice, then we must reach beyond those who specialise in sustainability and beyond the environmental sector. It was useful, therefore that Professor Stephen Palmer, a specialist in public health at Cardiff University, and Baroness Eluned Morgan, Director of National Business Development for SWALEC joined a panel discussion. It was positive to hear them describe how relevant sustainability is in these areas and some of the thinking that’s already taking place.

This is the first of many events that Institute of Welsh Affairs will be holding around the Bill in partnership with other organisations. A series of seminars involving the IWA’s branch network is being organised during April, and a follow-up conference focusing on the Rio Summit is being held in Cardiff on 18 May. If this forthcoming legislation is to be effective it is vital that civil society and business are engaged in its development. Hopefully, the conference and related publication will be part of much wider public debate around the content of the Bill.

Anna Nicholl is an Associate Researcher with the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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