Wales tackles wicked environmental issues

John Osmond reports on progress with the Welsh Government’s efforts to legislate for sustainable development

For a fledgling legislature the National Assembly, guided by the Welsh Government, is hugely ambitious in taking on sustainable development as one of its first big projects. How on earth do you pass a law for such a wide-ranging and potentially woolly, not to say slippery, concept as sustainable development?

Yet that is what the Welsh Government is about to embark on. It will publish a White Paper before Christmas and then bring forward a Sustainable Development Bill next year. The Welsh Government has gone out of its way to consult widely about how it should address this task. Today we publish here my account, commissioned by the government, of four consultative seminars it organised over the summer in Bangor, Wrexham, Pembroke Dock, and Cardiff. They were attended by around 300 people, which is not a bad turn-out for events of this kind. One of the more powerful quotations from one of those attending the seminars sums up the difficulty:

“Sustainable development is a way of thinking about things. It is not a natural subject for legisation.”

So what is the Welsh Government attempting to do? It wants to give some real substance to its claim that sustainable development is the central organising principle for the way it makes and implements policy. As a background note prepared for the four seminars suggested:

“The Sustainable Development Bill should form an over-arching framework which influences other specific Bills beneath it, for example the Housing Bill, and creates sustainable development focused targets within those Bills.”

The Welsh Government’s definition of sustainable development is as follows:

“…enhancing the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of people and communities, achieving a better quality of life for our own and future generations in ways which:

  • promote social justice and equality of opportunity; and
  • enhance the natural and cultural environment and respect its limits – using only our fair share of the earth’s resources and sustaining our cultural legacy.”

The problem is how you implement this in practice when faced with specific here and now problems? In particular, how can it be made to go  with the grain of the Wesh Government’s absolute priority, as set out by First Minister Carwyn Jones, to deal with our weak economy, tackle unemployment, and improve the standard of living of the people?

A few weeks ago the Welsh Government published here a summary of the wide range of responses to the consultation it received between May and July this year. At first sight the feedback was really impressive, a total of 3,926 written responses. However, 3,749 of those were formulaic, orchestrated by WWF and Oxfam, calling on the government to do such things as “put words into action”, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote fair trade.

In fact there were 177 ‘real’ responses coming mainly from the third sector and local government. However, if you read through the summary of what was said, the government will be able to derive little guidance because the consultees were generally responding to such generalised and wide-ranging questions. These included ‘What are the principal barriers you face to making more long-term, joined up decisions?’ and ‘Have we identified the most appropriate level of organisational decision making at which the [sustainable development] duty should be applied?’

Having attended the four seminars on the Bill I think these provided the government with a better overview of what people across Wales who have thought about these questions feel – especially those in local government, the universities and third sector organisations. I was struck by the realism of those who attended. By and large they were highly committed to the sustainable development objective and supported the government in trying to take a lead. But at the same time they appreciated the difficulties and the often contradictory pressures with which the government has to deal.

I would be interested if any of those who attended would agree with me about the following ‘consensus’ recommendations that I took from the meetings. I have prioritised six:

  1. A definition of sustainable development should be placed on the face of the Sustainable Development Bill.
  2. The legislation should prescribe indicators by which the achievement of sustainable development can be measured.
  3. Sustainable development principles should be part of the core curriculum in schools.
  4. Public procurement is the route to extend the sustainable development Duty beyond the public sector.
  5. The Sustainable Development Commissioner which is being proposed should be established by the legislation, should have a role, set out in the legislation, to follow through recommendations made by the Wales Audit Office in its scrutiny of public bodies.
  6. The Sustainable Development Commissioner should be appointed by, and be made answerable to, the National Assembly rather than the Welsh Government.

In simple terms, if those are possible in this discussion, the Sustainable Development Bill should:

  • Set up a new Sustainable Development Body which would have a duty to develop and recommend our national SD Goals and key measures of progress – based on wide public engagement and in the context of the global goals, as laid down in the Ri0+20 summit. This could be done on a basis linked to electoral cycle.
  • Set a duty on Government to lay these recommended goals and measures in National Assembly for debate, amendment, and adoption.
  • Set a duty on Government and public sector to ensure that policies and programmes contributed to the achievement of these goals.
  • Require the public sector to report on their contribution towards these goals as part of their annual reporting under ‘Accounting for Sustainability’ standards.

In addition, and probably outside the terms of the Bill, the Sustainable Development Charter already being promoted by the Welsh Government, could be reconfigured to provide a voluntary mechanism for private and third sectors to sign up to the same process – so providing a national focus on achieving key long term goals.

The new Sustainable Development Body, headed by a Commissioner with statutory powers – as is already the case with the Older People and Children commissioners – would review the goals and measures, report on progress annually and undertake a full review to amend goals and measures of progress, say every four or five years

All of this would address the current situation where the Welsh Government’s policy and legislative programmes are completely disconnected from the sustainable development indicators. As a minimum the Sustainable Development Bill should aim to bring the two into line. Then we would be getting somewhere.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

7 thoughts on “Wales tackles wicked environmental issues

  1. Whereas everyone can embrace the concept of Sustainable Development because it is self defining, it seems there is a danger of over elaboration and beaurocratic waffle. Setting up of committees etc. Surely any responsible governing body should take as read the need for responsible development in all fields of national life.
    I shudder at the thought of the vast cost that will emerge as we set up another beaurocracy to monitor common sense.

  2. With this collection of red-green dreamers in charge you’d better put hunting, shooting, and fishing on the Welsh curriculum for when the lights go out and there’s no food in the supermarkets…

    You can’t build a future by destroying the present – but that is precisely what you are in grave danger of achieving…

  3. The proposal to establish a Sustainability Bill presents a challenge not only in terms of what should be included, but also in its administration. It pays to keep things straightforward In matters of this kind and to consider the experience of other jurisdictions.

    To comment briefly on the ‘consensus’ recommendations. A definition of “sustainability”? Possible as long as the lawyers don’t mess about with it too much when drafting the bill. Indicators? Give the government powers to have the indicators prepared rather than prescribing them in law. Core curriculum? Great idea, but raises the question as to whether or not the education system is able to develop and deliver a course, and have the staff to teach it within a reasonable period of time after the act is passed. Universities in Wales should also be tuned in to this aspect of the proposed Bill.

    Sustainability Commissioner. Another good idea, but consider the track record on such institutions in the UK and elsewhere. In the heady days post-Rio 1982 several countries, including Canada, established commissioners and round tables with varying degrees of influence and effect over the long term. The Canadian federal government Canada phased out its advisory Round Table last year, but retains an Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development attached to the Office of the Auditor General. The Commissioner’s reports are excellent fare but beg the question as to their long term effect on government policy and the practices of government departments.

    The same might be said for the Environment Commissioner in Ontario, although his legislative mandate is narrower than the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. Nevertheless, the Commissioner serves the Legislature as its environmental conscience, or as a thorn in the side of the bureaucracy, depending on your outlook. The Commissioner’s recent report is instructive in this respect,

    Two other things need to be kept in mind at this juncture. First, the outcome of the case in the UK Supreme Court, and its potential effect on the drafting of Sustainability Bill. Second, the ongoing discussions regarding the proposed Natural Resource Body, which will be a key agency in the implementation of the proposed Sustainability Bill. There has been a tendency here to throw words at an issue, rather than to think things through logically, particularly as regards the intergovernmental aspects of the new department. I note that Dr Emyr Thomas was recently appointed as Chief Executive of the new agency, and was Director General of Education and Skills. Now that’s an interesting background to influence the incorporation of sustainability into the educational curriculum!

  4. Yet more ‘waffle’ from WAG as it goes along merrily creating a ‘myth’,that anyhting that little Wales does matters one jot in the big scheme of things. It is common sense that people should have a regard for the world they live in,however there are also very hard economic devisions that need to be taken if we are to maintain our current standard of living,or even improve upon it. Thr rising cost of energy is a major problem,,particularly in a region like Wales with its climate/topography/scattered popu;lations.The drive for ‘green’solutions is going to be very,very expense due to capital costs,particularly wind which is not ‘guaranteed’ to work 100% of time. These very big issues are for the UK to get control of,and tell people the truth,and then get on with the work,and not another welsh ‘hot air’ talking shop of the usual suspects. Self aggrandisement is not a particularly attractive trait,but its the one thing we aint short of in this region of the UK.

  5. John,

    As I’m sure you are aware, consensus can obscure the ambiguity that prevents collective action.

    As a study into WAG/NAW said, back in 2004, we need to move from a general level of consensus to a more specific level if we are to make progress. Sadly we are failing to make such progress. In fact this latest consultation paper is a step backwards in that it refers to a definition, and ways of thinking and behaviour as a way of affecting change. This is nothing more than ‘belief based’ legislation and policy making, and will lead to very little progress towards a sustainable society simply because it relies on discretion and a voluntary code of conduct.

    A step backwards because in 2008 the Welsh Government produced an advice note to local authorities: ‘Sustainability Appraisal and Community Planning’ which advocated the adoption of the 5 Sustainable Development Principles advocated by the UK SD Commission. These have ‘gone missing’ in the latest consultation paper, no doubt because of the changing economic circumstances. This is a missed opportunity as the adoption and implementation of the SD principles, supporting a green infrastructure and renewable energy as well as bio-diversity enahancement and social justice, would do much to restructure and revive the Welsh economy.

    What we have in this consultation paper is an outdated definition (Bruntland), with no reference to the issue of resource depletion, and a set of ‘ways of thinking and behaving’. This creates as huge policy vacuum: the lack of any clear principles on which to base decisions and action. As T Leahy has said “Organisations need to articulate the principles that guide decisions”. For whatever reason the Welsh Government is reluctant to do this. My guess is that the paradigm shift needed to adopt sustainability is simply to threaten the status quo.

    This failure, or reluctance, is even made even more stark by the, alleged, consensus to embed SD principles in the school curriculum. Obviously a commendable idea in itself but it simply amplifies the abdication of responsibility by the Welsh Government. Put more simply: why aren’t adults, civil servants, policy makers and decision-takers being required, by law, to adopt the 5 UKSDC sustainable development principles and to apply them to policy and implementation? Is this another case of passing responsibility for those circumstances that we feel uncomfortable about to future generations? This is a recipe for inter-generational conflict as us ‘baby boomers’ pull up the ‘draw-bridge’.

    Finally, and hopefully not too dramatic, in avoiding the first fundamental steps to constructing the basis for a sustainabe society the Welsh Government is delaying a response to the ‘perfect storm’ of global warning, energy insecurity, bio-diverity loss, increasing economic inequality, resource depletion, etc. At some point a managed response will be beyond our capability and resources, and we will be left with crisis management, not an attractive prospect.

    In conclusion, I would hope that the IWA would use its position and influence to promote and facilitate discussions in order to build the new, more specific, consensus that we desperately need.

    Charlie Mason.
    Chair, The Environmental Network for Pembrokeshire.
    Co-organisers of the Pembroke Dock Consultation event.

  6. Legislation of a declarative kind like this is of very dubious utility. It is much better to pass concrete legislation that obliges people to do specific things or forbids them from doing certain things. Passing laws to show you care by creating general, vague and therefore unenforceable obligations (even backed up by new committees or panjandrums) just shows in fact that you don’t care. At least you don’t care enough to work out concretely what you need to do and then just do it.

  7. I am glad that John found the workshops he attended valuable and WWF would agree with some of their conclusions. However, I must challenge the way you have represented the contributions from our supporters. Over 3000 people took some of their personal time to consider an issue, which Welsh government and others suggest is hard to get people to engage with. I am very proud that they can see the significance of sustainable development.

    I also feel John has downplayed the content of those responses, as indeed have Welsh government in their summary.
    People were asked to call for a Bill to place a stronger duty on the government and the public sector to ensure their activities work to achieve sustainable development and in doing so to respect environmental limits.To characterise these as if they only spoke of issues like fair trade is to seriously underplay the matter.
    The really important issue here is one which is of great concern to Welsh government -. how do we get people to engage with this agenda? I would suggest that WWF Cymru and Oxfam have made a start. We tried to explain the issues and the significance, asked people to consider that and respond to show they do feel these issues are important. Maybe next time, a bit better informed, they may engage more deeply.

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