The UN’s New Urban Agenda and the accompanying Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mark a significant milestone in raising understanding of the responsibilities of governments as leaders in sustainable development, but the voluntary nature of the initiative makes implementation a real challenge.
Wales puts sustainable development into action
Headway, however, was being made in a small nation. The devolution of powers to the National Assembly for Wales in 1999 was the start of a movement to create the Wales we want. The Assembly was set a duty relating to sustainable development. It was a fairly open duty but it introduced a mind-set across parties and the civil service.
This was further developed under the Government of Wales Act 2006 which states that: “Welsh Ministers must make a scheme setting out how they propose to promote sustainable development.”
It required Welsh Ministers to report annually on progress of the proposals and after every National Assembly for Wales election Welsh Ministers must also publish a report assessing how effective they have been in promoting sustainable development.
The tone was established.
Following a referendum in 2011, one of the priorities in the first Assembly was to deliver a sustainable development bill. The Bill was introduced by Jeff Cuthbert AM, then Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, and from September 2014, the late Carl Sargeant AM, then Minister for Natural Resources, became the Member in Charge of the Bill and oversaw its successful passage.
The power of legislation
The Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 became law on 29 April 2015. Marking this event, the late Carl Sargeant AM said: “This is some of the most ambitious and far-reaching legislation to go through the National Assembly and the level of international recognition by the UN and others further demonstrates the scale of our ambition.
“This pioneering Act will influence every aspect of the public sector in Wales, moving us towards achieving the Wales we all want to see. It places a duty on us all to work together to ensure that decisions taken today are made with future generations at their heart - we cannot keep leaving our problems for our children and grandchildren to solve.”
The Act provides the ambition, permission and legal obligation to improve social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being. It requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.
Seven goals and five ways of working
The new law was underpinned by seven long term goals developed by a year-long ‘national conversation’ involving around 7,000 people. These well-being goals are for a prosperous, resilient, healthy, globally responsible, more equal Wales, with a thriving culture and cohesive communities enabling everyone to work towards the same purpose.
Perhaps likely to have more impact are the five ways of working required by the Act for public bodies to achieve the well-being goals. Along with that, the Act makes it clear that the 44 listed public bodies must work to achieve all the goals, not just one or two.
The Act also requires each Local Authority area to assess the state of well-being locally, set objectives and produce a plan to improve economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being in their local area.
A Future Generations Commissioner
The Act introduces a statutory Future Generations Commissioner whose role is to “promote the sustainable development principle, in particular to act as a guardian of the ability of future generations to meet their needs and encourage public bodies to take greater account of the long-term impact of the things they do. To monitor and assess the extent to which well-being objectives set by public bodies are being met.”
The current Commissioner, Sophie Howe, is picking her battles, conscious of her resources but also the power of the legislation behind her. While generally resisting to use her role to influence planning outcomes, she has taken on the Government over the M4 relief road, currently at Inquiry. In February 2017 she stated: “Proposals to build a £1.1bn road to ease congestion on the M4 fail to set out how it will meet the needs of our future generations who will be burdened with paying for it.”
Lee Waters AM, who opposed the project, urged the Welsh Government to take on board her criticism of the scheme, saying: "If they fight her in the courts they risk undermining their very own landmark legislation".
RTPI Cymru playing its part
RTPI Cymru is committed to promoting sustainable development and working in its spirit. For example, when the Welsh Government consulted on how best to evaluate and appraise transport projects, RTPI Cymru made representation arguing the need for meaningful integration of the Act’s requirements. This was listened to and the final published guidance is far stronger in incorporating the requirements of the Act, demonstrating the step change organisations are starting to take.
The Act is attracting interest from countries across the world as it offers a huge opportunity to make a long-lasting, positive change to current and future generations. Nikhil Seth, then UN Director for Sustainable Development, said at the time of the Act receiving Royal Assent:
"The Wales Future Generations Act captures the spirit and essence of two decades of United Nations’ work in the area of sustainable development and serves as a model for other regions and countries. ‘One Wales, One Planet' captures it all. We hope that what Wales is doing today the world will do tomorrow. Action, more than words, is the hope for our current and future generations.”
The Act is not work completed
There is a long way to go until the five ways of working become the norm and the well-being goals are achieved, but it is a start and should be applauded. Pioneers of this work and the new way of thinking need to work collaboratively with others to gain momentum in embedding the culture to achieve the Wales we want.
Other countries should look to Wales and take the leap - future generations will thank us.