Tests ahead for new Commissioner

Anna McMorrin explores the challenges facing the new Future Generations Commissioner for Wales.

Anna McMorrin was Specialist Adviser in the Welsh Government from 2008-2014 and is currently a consultant on external affairs, sustainability and tackling poverty.

The appointment of a Future Generations Commissioner for Wales marks a significant shift in how we want to move forward as a nation and create a globally responsible Wales. It is an opportunity to look beyond the short term pressures of daily life and focus on our long term legacy.

It may not mean very much to many and it is unlikely that the news will reach much further than the Cardiff Bay political posse. Critics may suggest this is yet another quango set up to deliver more red tape but if we get this right this is so much more.

As a nation we face many challenges. Climate change and threats to our scarce resources are reshaping our environment. Our economy is hampered by low employment, low growth and low wages and our people are living longer with a greater need for social care with rises in obesity and alcohol related problems. We need to make some fundamental changes if we are to make a difference.

The Well being of Future Generations Act has the potential deliver a fairer, stronger and more resilient nation. It can change the way we do business and the way we make decisions. And in doing so it can help eradicate poverty, share prosperity, promote growth and tackle the core drivers of climate change. The Act offers a focus for the everyday work of government, public services, business and civic society. It puts sustainable development at the heart of decision making and enables us to build a country that not only addresses the root causes of poverty but understands the universal need for development that works for everyone and is equitable and fair.

The UN sees this legislation as a leading example of how a national government can relate their own global goals to national action and is the first legislation anywhere in the world to include a direct reference to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It stands out on the global stage and according to the UN “captures the spirit and essence of two decades of United Nations work on sustainable development ….with action, more than words, the hope for our current and future generations.”

These are ambitious claims but none should be unattainable.

Delivering the ambition falls to the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. Ex-Labour special adviser and Deputy Police Commissioner for South Wales Sophie Howe has been appointed to take on the role which will be operational from next April. With a clear legislative framework in which to work the Commissioner will hold responsibility for ensuring the public bodies listed in the Act develop new ways of doing business and taking decisions.

This means thinking more about the long-term, working better with organisations, communities, businesses and each other, looking to prevent problems, tackling inequalities and taking a more joined-up approach. Get it right and it can help grow a sustainable economy, safeguard our natural resources and protect our vulnerable communities. Get it wrong and it threatens to be a bureaucratic white elephant that lies untried and untested on the statute book.

So where to begin? With such a broad remit it would be easy to be burdened by a myriad of red tape and processes or to focus too much on one area over another. Of course the Commissioner’s role is to ensure the public bodies specified in the Act comply with the legislation but in order to begin meeting the ambition the Commissioner needs to go further.

I believe there are three main areas on which the new Commissioner must concentrate if there is to be a fundamental shift in how we work and we live up to the UN’s claims.

Firstly to develop a strong focus for working and collaborating together across all sectors and industries. The new Commissioner must demonstrate early on that she is willing to bring representatives from every sector around a table to work constructively to develop new ways of working and begin to tackle the real risks we are facing. It will be essential to ensure that there isn’t a polarisation of the issues in one sector over another. This is an opportunity to radically alter how business and policy is delivered against a backdrop of some very serious challenges. The ‘Deep Place’ approach to equitable and sustainable places offers good example as to how this can be achieved.

A very real overarching threat within which to develop this sense of purpose and joined up approach is climate change. In December Paris will host the 21st UN global conference on climate change and member states are expected to reach an agreement towards a new, universal and legally binding climate regime, able to limit global warming below 2°C. It is now widely acknowledged that the action of countries like Wales is one of the key features for success with regional governments being seen as the key players to limit and efficiently tackle climate change. Almost 80% of actions necessary are implemented at this level. By collaborating, all sectors in Wales can work together to offer long term action and at the same time create and develop new ways of working to tackle this threat. This includes reaching out to those areas where the Act does not specifically focus, for example within industry and business to ensure the delivery of a strong sustainable economy.

The second real test for the Commissioner will be to demonstrate how this all works in practice. If we are to understand how the Act can bring about fundamental change we need to understand how it works. The legal structure is in place to alter how we balance our decision making but it will be important for the Commissioner to demonstrate early on how this can bring about positive change.

An example would be to change how we tackle the rising costs of caring for a steadily ageing population. High levels of community care are being delivered at great expense by our local authorities and are generally not providing the level of service expected with pay at minimum levels risking inhibiting quality care and the average level of provision under ten hours a week.  A restructuring of care services towards a social care cooperative could relocalise much of this activity, raise standards of care, and provide improved sustainable employment opportunities at higher wage levels. Solutions such as these need to be created by working across local governments and with the co-operative movement and business but can offer a very real and immediate social and economic impact on an area.

Finally – to be radical. Real change takes courage. It will take real courage to offer radical solutions to bring about the fundamental change that is badly needed and to stand up and speak out against some of the decisions being taken. We need to move away from judging developments on the basis of a potential conflict between the environment and the economy and move to a process where decision-making engages with local people to energise and empower. Whether this results in encouraging a more progressive taxation system which redistributes wealth rather than polarises it, whether it creates small scale renewables in every community across Wales, builds better transport links or invests in more flood prevention infrastructure, taking a radical stance and speaking out over how this meets the needs of everyone is key to understanding how the legislation can work and in leading its direction.

The role of the new Commissioner is one that offers us real opportunity. We have the legislation in place to provide real change but we need the Commissioner to deliver it. We need radical change that will set us apart from many of our counterparts. Change that will put us on a path to long term economic, social and environmental viability. By taking the lead in acting for the long term, making sure our patterns of production and consumption are sustainable, protecting the environment for future generations, speaking out for radical solutions and in working together to meet our biggest challenges we can help create a sustainable economy, community and an environment that serves all of us and our children for future generations.

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