The Future Generations Bill has completed its long and difficult journey through the National Assembly for Wales. This is a groundbreaking piece of legislation but it has had a troubled time. This is a Bill that can make a huge difference to us in Wales but it needs to deliver and we need to know why and what it will mean for all of us.
Listening to the debate yesterday afternoon almost every speaker noted the amendments that have essentially rewritten the bill. Even the Minister acknowledged that the bill bore little resemblance to that which John Griffiths first launched as a sustainable development bill all those years ago.
But will it make any difference at all to my parents in Pembrokeshire? Will it be worth the time, resources, energy and effort put into getting it on the statute book? Or is this simply legislating because the government had no other ideas? And do we have the structures, the people and the drive to deliver this across the whole of Wales?
As a specialist adviser for the environment and sustainability minister from 2008-2014, I was part of the thinking and drafting of the 2011 manifesto. At its heart was a clear ambition to put sustainability at the centre of all we do as a country. For too long our commitment to sustainability lay gathering dust only to be brought out and polished up for ministerial speeches. Central to this thinking was a strong commitment to legislate for sustainable development.
Sustainable development is not a fantasy or an unattainable aspiration, it can offer a focus for the everyday work of government, business and the wider civic society by taking the lead in acting for the long term. Putting sustainable development at the heart of our actions can help our economy, our communities and our environment prosper and grow. Global organisations such as Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, Marks and Spencer and Ikea are taking the lead and are seeing results. In a world with increasingly scarce resources it makes good business sense.
And we are seeing change on a global scale. The UN is developing international sustainable development goals to ensure the world acts together in an attempt to tackle poverty, guard against the effects of climate change and look to the long term. Governments, business and civic society are united in working towards defining these goals and many eyes are looking enviously on us as one of the first countries to bring in our own legislation. In Wales we now have an opportunity to lead the way, sending a powerful message to the world.
The primary problem with this bill is that it was unloved. With many different Ministers taking on its responsibility it lost its way. Ministers were not either signed up to the bill or in many cases disagreed with the philosophy or the vision. And if that’s true in the Bay what basis is that for driving the bill’s ambitions through the rest of the Welsh public sector?
The Bill didn’t have an easy start. The commitment on sustainable development was not something that received widespread political support within the government. When the March 2013 reshuffle split responsibility for sustainable development from the environment portfolio it started to lose its way. With a new name and change of tone and meaning, the Future Generations Bill deliberately shifted the focus from the “abstract” idea of the “environment” to the human and people or “socialist” agenda of addressing poverty and other social and economic issues. A further reshuffle saw the responsibility move once more and the focus changed again. From a poverty and economic-driven agenda was added well-being and a stronger focus on wider issues such as training and skills. The Bill was in danger of losing any coherence and was driven by a lack of vision and a lack of understanding of what the bill could achieve. These were dark days of long frustrating conversations and meetings and, frankly, rows.
As the Bill made its way through the legislative process, a robust response from the Environment Committee meant that the Bill gained greater clarity and intellectual coherence. In its final stages we have seen the Bill strengthened and improved with better defined goals and a clear reference to the international developments and to climate change and to the well being of future generations.
But it is up to us to make sure it delivers. It’s up to all of us to make sure that all of our parents and children see the impact of this work and effort.
The Bill changes decision-making in Wales. The references to the bill and its future place in decision-making in the local government white paper were welcome and the first sign that there is now a wider commitment to its vision in the government. We will now live in a country where the government and public sector have a strong duty and commitment to sustainable development, across all areas and functions. It is an attractive prospect for business. The Bill must enable corporations and industry to play their part and create the right conditions for businesses to succeed in a sustainable way.
But to succeed Government must offer support to companies in their transition, in a consistent way. This will put the country at a competitive advantage in the growing green economy, which already employs more people than the motor trade or financial services in Wales. It can also help all businesses in Wales be better prepared for a future of increasingly limited resources and heightened global competition. All of this demands an economic policy that is significantly different to that which we see at present and there are few signs that this change is happening.
But this Bill will not just help business thrive. It will contribute to the wellbeing of people in Wales by putting a value on the environment and addressing the poverty that exists in our communities. We need to ensure our communities are supported in making the changes they need to in order to look to the long term and create a more sustainable way of living.
With the right support, our Future Generations Bill can help turn around our economy and allow us to prepare for a low-carbon, resource efficient future as well as help tackle the inequalities that blight many of our communities, making Wales a better place in which to live, work, visit and invest. This is a crucial piece of legislation that can change the lives of all of us and for future generations. Let us not waste that opportunity.
Getting the bill on the statute book was the easy bit. Delivering that ambition is next. And that will be the real test..
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