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

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