Sophie Howe looks back as she reaches the end of her term as Future Generations Commissioner for Wales
As someone who has spent the last seven years thinking about what is to be, it is somehow peculiar to look backwards to what has been. Coming to the end of my term as Wales’ first ever Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, it feels more comfortable that my reflections curate my understanding of what this means for the future, for Wales’ future.
I like to think that the past years have consolidated the Well-being of Future Generation Act’s place as a cornerstone of Wales’ moral code. It has laid a foundation for a nation which strives for children with full bellies and curious minds, where we care for and share with others, where we act for those in need and speak up for our neighbours, and where we count the earth beneath our feet and that of faraway lands as equals. We haven’t perfected this vision, the job is not done, and for reasons such as Covid, the effects of the Ukraine conflict and the cost-of-living crisis, we have a steeper mountain to climb. But as I step away from my role, I am confident that, increasingly, Wales has well-being running through its veins.
From transport to education, Wales has swum in waters that others have felt too deep.
The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 has turned the way we work here in Wales on its head. The Act brought a new challenge to the status quo – instead of profit, now we’d be working on a goal of well-being. And not just individual well-being, but the environmental, cultural, social, and economic well-being of our people and planet. The Act made it a legal duty for our public bodies to achieve seven connected, sustainable well-being goals. Decision makers now have the obligation to make our nation healthier, more equal, resilient, and prosperous; A responsibility to the rest of the world and the communities and cultures within it. The Act created my role, the ‘guardian’ of future generations, with the responsibility to hold our decision makers to account.
The big wins
I am proud of the ‘big win’ moments we have seen here in Wales. From transport to education, Wales has swum in waters that others have felt too deep.
The Act’s role in the Welsh Government cancelling plans to spend all of Wales’ borrowing capacity building a 13-mile stretch of motorway was the first ‘big’ moment. The road, which would run through environmentally sensitive wetlands, was a done deal. It was an economy versus the environment argument, and usually in those situations, the economy wins. Yet, the new framework of the Act bound politicians to make the decision in favour of communities and the environment instead.
This U-turn was the first time the Act was utilised to backtrack in favour of a new way of doing things. It was a watershed moment in the way we think about our built environment. Following the decision, Wales built a transport strategy which places most emphasis on active travel as we make space for bikes in our cities. So far, 55 road schemes have been halted in line with the Act to explore more sustainable options, and record numbers invested in active travel and public transport.
In other areas, Wales is taking bold steps to reduce our cost-of-living for a healthier population. Recent announcements of a publicly owned renewable energy company in Wales were testament to Welsh Government’s commitment to put the well-being of our communities above the profits of the few. This new company will assist with our transition to green energy, reduce our reliance on global energy markets, and put money back into the pockets of the people.
Last year, I released my report ‘A Universal Basic Income for Wales’, urging the Government to introduce a lifesaving, unconditional payment to everyone in Wales to cut poverty levels by 50% and save our NHS billions of pounds in the long run. I was pleased to see Wales launch a Basic Income pilot for care-leavers, and although we are not there yet, I am proud that Wales is on the journey to a UBI and potentially, a shorter working week.
In addition to the health of our communities, Wales has been acting on the health of our planet. Wales continues to lead in waste, coming in at 3rd in the World for recycling. We also have a Climate Change Ministry and were the first parliament in the World to declare a Climate and Nature Emergency.
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Our children are our future leaders. My youngest children, my own future generations, are reaping the rewards of our purpose-driven curriculum. The new framework, designed for well-rounded, innovative citizens includes mental health education and eco-literacy, whilst encouraging our young people to follow creative pursuits. We’re also moving away from traditional exams and moving towards learning for learning’s sake.
‘The Small things that are actually big things’
It is very easy to point to the ‘big wins’ of the Act- the headline grabbing changes. But what I think is more effective for cultural transformation are the small things (that are actually really big things).
I’m talking about the movement for real change within our communities. Every conversation at a primary school or a food bank, at a community garden or an upcycling café, are often more meaningful than an address to the United Nations or a keynote speech at a corporate event. These are the conversations that make a local difference, sow seeds for the future, and that create a network of well-being roots in our very soil. They are the conversations that inspire hope in a World that could do with a little more…hope. And that’s because these small moments build to become a powerful force for change from the core.
The role of the Commissioner is to help the lessons of the Act flourish, guide us to make brave decisions for our futures, and help Wales be moulded by our communities.
These moments help us tackle the biggest challenge of them all: unpicking the systems of old. We’ve created this inspirational legislation but most of what came before it was contradictory. Before, we prioritised cars, we invested in fossil fuels, we had a narrow view of what education should be, we poured money into acute healthcare, and profit was our measure of success. The Act asked us to change regulations, frameworks, and funding. Many people were unconvinced of this new way of doing things. It’s not surprising. For so long we were rewarded for operating on the short-term and grew up with quick fixes to our problems; It would be naïve to think this could have changed overnight when it was so ingrained in our culture.
Our team recently helped to tell the stories of just some of the real guardians of future generations who have challenged our old way of doing things – the teachers, local leaders, school children, and activists who put the Act into action every day. The creation of the Act tackled the initial structural challenge, but the Welsh people have ignited the cultural transformation. The people of Wales have won the hearts and minds of the people, they have sewn well-being into our DNA; the ‘big wins’ are the evidence of this fight for a different future.
The Act of the People
I may be the first of many statutory Future Generations Commissioners, but this act has, and always will, belong to the people. The role of the Commissioner is to help the lessons of the Act flourish, guide us to make brave decisions for our futures, and help Wales be moulded by our communities. I’m excited for the future that Wales will build. I have a feeling that we’re only getting started.
- On Tuesday, January 24, Sophie Howe will host Future Generations Changemaker 100 – a celebration of some of the people taking positive action for a better Wales.
- You can join the free event online for the reveal of the #FGC100 here.
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