Interview: Jane Davidson on Wales' sustainable development for future generations

29th January 2021

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Harriet O'Brien

Jane Davidson tells Chris Seekings how one small nation is harnessing the power of politics for sustainable development

Jane Davidson’s career has always been centred around caring for future generations, whether as minister for environment, sustainability and housing in the Welsh government, or as the nation’s education secretary.

The former politician was instrumental in delivering the first piece of legislation in history to place regenerative and sustainable practices at the heart of government: the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 – blazing a trail for the rest of the world.

Her latest book, #futuregen: Lessons from a Small Country, details how the ground-breaking Act came to be, and how other countries can move towards a more sustainable future.

A lightbulb moment

In July 2010, the UK’s coalition government announced that it would stop funding the country’s Sustainable Development Commission, despite having promised to be the “greenest government ever”.

The move attracted widespread criticism from politicians and NGOs, with environmentalist Jonathon Porritt describing the decision as an “act of ideological vandalism”. Davidson was equally outraged. “It was the 10th anniversary of the commission, which was such an authoritative body, totally non-political, and so well respected – for it to be dispensed with overnight was just an extraordinary wake-up call for me,” she explains. “The means for achieving the best evidence-based outcomes was removed, and it was at that point that I realised we needed legislation to protect the very idea of thinking sustainably into the future.”

Devolution of powers 12 years earlier had led to the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, which proposed embedding sustainability in all of its activities through the Government of Wales Act 1998. “It always felt to me like a founding constitution, a constitution for devolution, for a new Wales, so I was incredibly proud that sustainability was at the heart of that,” Davidson says. “If it had been successful, you may well have been having this conversation not with me, but with the architects of that original proposition.”

“If democracy is going to be sustainable, it needs to find a framework that encourages future generations to vote and engage”

Failing to deliver

Davidson was one of the first members of the assembly, where she served as deputy speaker – a role she describes as “extraordinary”. “We were the people creating all the laws of this new body, and we had fewer laws already in place than Scotland or Northern Ireland. We adopted the Brundtland definition of sustainability, and for over seven years wrestled with how to deliver while working with civil society.”

After seven years as education minister, she became minister for environment and sustainability in 2007, and two years later was responsible for the Welsh government agreeing to make sustainable development its central organising principle, enshrined in the One Wales: One Planet scheme. “Once the proposition was agreed by the cabinet, I thought my job was done – but I was wrong; it didn’t feel it had changed anything,” Davidson says. “A report from the Wales Audit Office said that the civil service had not disseminated our political commitment throughout the whole organisation, and that we were still actively adding to Wales’s ecological footprint, even though we had never technically failed in our duty to promote sustainable development in everything we did. I realised we were on the wrong playing field – we could technically comply with our duty, even if we didn’t deliver effectively.”

A new approach

The problem, she explains, was a lack of clarity when it came to what was to be delivered, how it was to be delivered and who was to deliver it. These lessons were learned during the next six years, finally culminating in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. “The ‘who’ is all the public services for the Welsh government, including the Welsh government itself, while the ‘what’ is our Seven Well-being Goals and how they are mapped against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” Davidson explains. “Finally, the ‘how’ was getting the mechanism for delivery into law – the Five Ways of Working: long-term thinking, collaboration, integration, involvement and prevention.”

The Act explicitly instructs the Welsh government and all its public services to integrate the seven goals and the five ways of working, looking always to maximise opportunities for sustainable outcomes for future generations. “It is a total break from the traditional way of thinking for government and public services – it’s all about thinking upstream rather than downstream.”

Davidson ended her ministerial career four years before the adoption of the Act, as she had planned, but her role in delivering the legislation is hard to overstate. “I think the best thing I did was to leave government, because the agenda had become so associated with me,” she says. “When agendas become associated with individuals, there is a danger that that automatically sets up some kind of resistance. It’s about using the opportunity of being the right person in the right place at the right time. It was civil society that originally set up the proposition that Wales promote sustainability in all of its activities, and proposing a more comprehensive piece of legislation felt like we had a carpe diem moment with the Act, after years of groundwork.”

Uniquely Welsh

Wales remains the only country in the world with a legal mechanism to deliver on the SDGS, and Davidson believes size may be a contributing factor. “It might be because Wales is a nation within a nation, and that small countries can be more flexible – we have much more in common with New Zealand or Iceland than many larger countries.”

She says that large nations or blocs such as the US or EU are in a much better position to deliver outcomes that will be beneficial for the whole globe, but that “there is something about being large enough to matter, and small enough to be flexible”. Her work as minister for environment and sustainability saw the introduction of the plastic carrier bag charge in 2011, adopted by the rest of the UK four years later. Similarly, the recycling targets she introduced in 2009 are among the best in the world, with many other countries looking at similar proposals. Davidson was the third most influential environmentalist in the UK for the Independent on Sunday in 2009, and was Resource magazine’s number one and two individual in 2009 and 2010 for her work on waste.

“You can be a testbed when you are a country the size of Wales,” she explains. “Scaling up can be a different proposition, but it’s been interesting to see Canada, New Zealand and Europe move to the language of future generations – and president Biden in the US, too.”

Culture, along with ecology, economy and society, are the central pillars of the Well-being of Future Generations Act, and Davidson believes this was key for attracting cross-party support. “The Act is a vision for a harmonious society that plays to the strengths of Wales, its people, languages, culture and landscape. There are many natural opportunities for new sustainable industries,” she says. “Wales’ legacy might be coal, iron and steel, but there are now major opportunities for wind and water; it was one of the first UK sites for major offshore wind, is already at the cutting edge of hydroelectric power, and has major opportunities for tidal power. These natural low-carbon advantages need to be played to.”

“Wales is a nation within a nation, and small countries can be more flexible”

A good ancestor

COVID-19 has shown the importance of long-term thinking and the dangers of failing to take preventative action. The NHS adopted a pandemic simulation exercise in 2016, but no follow-up document was written detailing how to deal with such an outbreak. “The current reactive short-term role of politics is broken, and if democracy is going to be sustainable, it needs to find a framework that encourages future generations to vote and engage. Before COVID-19, when you looked at polling across the world, the most important issue was climate, and yet governments are still not doing enough.

Davidson’s 90-year-old mother has been living with her since the start of the pandemic, and her daughter-in-law gave birth in lockdown last November. “If my granddaughter lives as long as my mother, we are looking at almost two centuries of life between them. Look at the damage we have done to the environment since the Industrial Revolution..

If we don’t change our behaviour now, the prospects for my new granddaughter – and every grandchild anywhere – are not good, which is why we must factor in future generations into law and policy now,” she says. “The younger that people are taught about climate change, the angrier they will rightly be with older generations. I want to be a good ancestor.”

Davidson believes that the single most important thing the UK government can do, once agreeing to the Committee on Climate Change’s sixth carbon budget, would be to create legislation to protect future generations. Leading on nationally determined contributions is also critically important, which is why she says the UK must seize the opportunity that comes with hosting the COP26 climate summit later this year. “The best thing to happen to the climate change debate in the UK is us being the host of COP26 – it could be another carpe diem moment, but we must turn rhetoric into rumbustious action.”

Image credit: Aled Llywelyn

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