Land of the pulled punch? A response to the CBI

Steve Brooks responds to CBI Wales recent criticism of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Future Generations Commissioner

There are two points behind the CBI’s criticism of the Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe.

The first is that the commissioner is being overly negative and prioritising the environment over jobs, particularly in her assessment of the M4 bypass.  The second is that the commissioner hasn’t sufficiently engaged business.  I disagree with both points but nevertheless welcome the CBI’s public contribution to the debate.  In the land of pulled punches it is too easy to avoid controversy, yet more often than not challenge promotes progress and should be encouraged.

So in that spirit, let me challenge the CBI.  On the first point, about Sophie Howe’s approach to sustainable development and her stance on the M4, that in itself proves the point as to why the Well-being of Future Generations Act was necessary.  The CBI is wrong when it says the commissioner is prioritising the environment above jobs.  For a start, the two are not mutually exclusive; but this argument misses the point the commissioner was making on the M4.  Many of the opponents of a new bypass (Sustrans included) oppose the proposals on economic and social grounds.  We think it will be bad for the economy.  We know that more roads create more traffic, fuelling increased congestion that will be bad for business and commuters.  There are more useful things Welsh Government should invest in if it wants to boost prosperity.  

On the second point, it is for the CBI to say whether or not it feels engaged, but we must recognise the job which the Act set the Commissioner.  In the early years of devolution, the National Assembly (and then the Welsh Government) had a statutory duty to promote sustainable development.  At the time many of us saw it as ground breaking, but in reality without a political push the duty could be meaningless.  

I worked at the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), a UK-wide predecessor of the Future Generations Commissioner.  When the UK Government pulled funding from the SDC in 2011, Welsh Government rightly decided to look again at what external support and challenge it needed.  I worked closely with the commissioner Peter Davies and the then minister Jane Davidson, and out of that process the idea of a Future Generations Commissioner was born.  The whole point of the Act was to embed sustainable development across the public sector in Wales.  That is not to say that business doesn’t have a crucial role in sustainable development: it absolutely does; but there is much the public sector needs to do and that is what the Act sought to tackle.  The Commissioner was empowered with a remit that would naturally see her work focused on public bodies.  Her remit is different to that of the old SDC.  The SDC was a scrutineer, an advisor and a convenor.  It performed an important role bringing together different sectors and different views to tackle knotty problems, creating a space where the CBI could sit down with the IWA and Friends of the Earth to discuss green jobs.  Given the task in hand, there is limited space within the Commissioner’s current remit for convening stakeholders and building consensus.  

That shouldn’t lead us to fundamentally review the role of the Commissioner.  Public bodies are still busy setting well-being objectives and require support. We must resist the temptation to tinker.  Any fundamental review of the Commissioner would be an unnecessary bureaucratic burden.  That said, the CBI does rightly identify a need for cross-sector engagement on sustainable development, and that is the point I think Welsh Government should focus on.  By not explicitly empowering the Commissioner to perform this role and by disbanding the Climate Change Commission for Wales there is now limited opportunity for that kind of engagement.  In the short term, the Commissioner’s role could be enhanced to enable her to perform that much needed convening role, or other avenues like supporting the establishment of a Welsh branch of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development should be explored.

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Steve Brooks is National Director of Sustrans Cymru and Tweets from @stephenbrooksUK

5 thoughts on “Land of the pulled punch? A response to the CBI

  1. I remain somewhat puzzled as to where all this new traffic is going to come from to clog any new M4 given that those who oppose it on those grounds also argue that the traffic data is inaccurate. They can’t have it both ways, no matter how hard they try.

    Also when you look at other new roads in Wales. The Camarthen bypass for example, no new traffic has appeared in over a decade to clog it up. Strange if you follow the logic that more roads equals more traffic.

  2. Some businessmen and politicians still claim global warming is a myth. We are just going through a natural warming cycle. Their argument, pumping large volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere just coincides with a sudden warm period. I don’t think equating an increase in greenhouse gases with global warming is bad science. If you do something and there is a corresponding increase the two are probably related. Maybe a scientist would disagree, and some in the pockets of big businesses do.
    The “futures minister” is a good idea, we should ensure future projects are sustainable and don’t harm the environment. Having said that and believing in global warming, there should be a balance. Okay Newport is not an important business hub. Actually, it’s a pretty dismal and depressing place, if I was a businessman it would be the last place I would set up shop. Embarrassingly Newport and Gwent are economically lagging. Even Powys has more new businesses than Newport. No offense meant to the citizens of Powys and more power to them for getting off their doodahs, it’s a pity Newportians don’t follow suit and get off their doodahs. But every time there is a prang on the M4 Newport gets grid locked for hours, and it isn’t brilliant in rush hour either, which seems to be most of the day now. Improving the infrastructure over damaging the environment is a no-brainer to most people in Newport. I have seen the areas of “interest”, the Gwent wetlands that could be damaged and I have seen some good pictures of them in the media, they look really pretty. Sadly they do not look the same in real life with the abandoned debris of civilisation, or Newport’s version of civilisation, littering the place as far as the eye can see.

  3. The M4 as it stands in that stretch is buckling under the current level of traffic never mind new. It’s a miserable stretch to commute most days but Fridays and throughout the summer west bound traffic is too much for the highway. Take away the toll plazas and that will increase. It’s the artery of the S Wales economy and something needs to be done…soon! We are looking to attract big business through the city region, which should mean more for Newport etc but the current M4 and airport are real barriers to attract that business and growth. In terms of Commissioners, they should all be scrapped and WG and Cab Secs should be doing the jobs their paid to do…make decisions! WFG legislation? Will be eventually scrapped my bet is inside 10 years.

  4. I think Steve is forgetting Cynnal Cymru in all this reasoned argument who are effectively engaging and collaborating with businesses now that they are no longer publicly funded. The CBI should take note of how Cynnal Cymru’s business members translate the principles of sustainable development.

  5. I would like to see the best solution before adopting a large scale project like the M4 relief road. I understand the high cost to the relief road owing to the complex junction works where the road needs to tie in to the M4 at the eastern and western ends (the M48 to Cardiff, and the M48 to the Old Severn Bridge respectively).

    At present, I am yet to be convinced by the case for the new road; principally on the grounds of (I) cost of a relief road, and (ii) have we really exhausted the options available? For instance, Prof Stuart Cole talked of an intermediate route using an upgraded SDR. Also, what about looking hard at the low-cost option of investigating smarter travel choices? There is spare capacity in the current road network if smarter travel options are introduced: staggered working hours, car share etc. Admittedly they need to be promoted heavily, but a relatively small take up can make a real difference.

    Transport is changing: Intelligent truck platooning is to be trialled soon on a section of the M6, and resultant studies will reveal the degree to which capacity on these sections is improved. Cars will follow suit, and in this changing transport climate I am reluctant to see a road of this cost being built. It smacks of a road too far for me; the ‘predict and provide’ attitude to road construction was a mantra at the peak of the government in the 1980’s, which Prof Peter Headicar of Oxford Brookes University described as ‘the high water mark of unsustainable transport planning’.

    PS as an aside to the above – I don’t agree with the dreary and depressing tag to Newport: I am a total fan of the place, it’s got a real historical character for me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 😉

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