Talk can be cheap, not least that about protecting the interests of future generations, but perhaps New Zealand can learn a thing or two from a country putting its money where its mouth is.
There are many similarities between Wales and NZ, Marie Brousseau-Navarro, director of policy, legislation and innovation in the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, said in a public talk hosted by the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
There’s the rugby, obviously, and the awe-inspiring landscapes.
More importantly, though, we’re both small democracies with populations of fewer than five million committed to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Maybe the Welsh experience could provide a model for politicians here to consider.
In 2015, the Labour-led National Assembly for Wales passed the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act — a unique piece of legislation that has attracted interest from around the world.
The Act obliges public bodies over which the devolved parliament has jurisdiction to commit to sustainable development “in a manner which allows the needs of current generations to be met whilst also allowing future generations to also meet their own needs”, said Brousseau-Navarro.
“The legislation also set out a vision — a description, an illustration — of what sustainable development should aim at. Which is to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing of the people of Wales. So it’s really important it’s focused on people.”
As well as these “four pillars of wellbeing”, the Act includes seven wellbeing goals: a prosperous Wales; a resilient Wales; a healthier Wales; a more equal Wales; a Wales of cohesive communities; a Wales of vibrant culture and Welsh language; and a globally responsive Wales.
It also specifies five ways of working toward the goals: long-term (defined as at least 10 years and ideally 25 or more, although “some health authorities tell us they plan for 100 days at a time so for them moving to 10 years would be a huge change”) and through integration, involvement, collaboration and prevention.
Public bodies must contribute to the goals by setting wellbeing objectives.
Doing so, they have to “consider the goals holistically and as one concept. They cannot pick and choose and say, ‘I will only improve resilient Wales and will leave alone the others.’ They must contribute to all of them,” said Brousseau-Navarro.
“In order to be sustainable, these public bodies must act in a specific way. First of all they need to think of the long term. They can’t take decisions any more for short-term reasons. The second way of working is that they seek to prevent problems from arising, and by that I mean by looking at the root cause of problems, not only putting a plaster on a symptom of something. Then they must integrate their work — internally throughout the organisation, talking to colleagues in other departments and teams; but also looking beyond the organisation and collaborating with others. We all agree that the big challenge that is already facing future generations cannot be tackled by anybody on their own.”
Finally, public bodies must bring other people into their decision-making. “Not at the end as consultation; the word that’s used in the legislation is ‘involvement’, which is different from consultation. As a lawyer, I love that one, because we have lots of case law as to what constitutes consultation; we have nothing yet on involvement.”
Forty-four public bodies are covered by the legislation — including the Government itself. “All of these have to set wellbeing objectives and take every reasonable step in meeting them. Legally, again, it is interesting to see what constitutes a ‘reasonable step’.”
The Act also established 19 Public Services Boards, which are based on local authority areas and include representatives from the authorities, along with ones from health boards, emergency services and other organisations. The Boards are required to produce a wellbeing assessment report for their areas and to set objectives in the same way public bodies do.
The Government, meanwhile, must produce national ‘future trends’ reports, and has looked at all the first area reports to find common themes to determine priorities — which include early years support, ageing well, and promoting healthier lifestyles, climate resilience and economic resilience.
As Commissioner, Sophie Howe acts as “the guardian of future generations”, and she and her office are there to advise (“we are becoming experts on giving unsolicited advice”, said Brousseau-Navarro), monitor, assess, recommend and hold to account, if necessary by conducting reviews.
“We are not sitting there like other commissioners and I think that really confuses people in Wales. We have, for example, a Children’s Commissioner and an Older People’s Commissioner who have very strong powers; we even have a Welsh Language Commissioner who can issue fines on the spot if you won’t translate things. And there’s us who are supportive, encouraging. I often say we are the coach not the referee,” said Brousseau-Navarro.
But this coach is not afraid to bench a player — or at least try to. Even if it’s the Government.
“We have a big debate now in Wales on the construction of a motorway which costs £1.4 billion […] The Welsh Government is saying they have an objective of connecting people in Wales, hence the need for the motorway. We are saying, ‘That’s a really old-fashioned way of thinking. Building motorways is not something which will contribute to the four pillars of wellbeing.’ They are telling us, ‘It will contribute to economic development and that trumps the other three elements of wellbeing.’ But wellbeing is a holistic thing. You cannot be well if you are only wealthy and your health is really bad and you can’t breathe because the air is so awful around you. So we are having already some quite interesting discussions, as you can imagine.”
Ultimately, said Brousseau-Navarro, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act is about ‘backcasting’.
“The Act is setting out the seven wellbeing goals, which is the desired future we all want to attend to. It’s not even want to; it’s we have to meet the goals. So what we are doing then now we have this desired future set up for us is work backward to try to find out how we will get there.”