Every major public body in Wales will soon have a duty to maximise sustainable development. But will it simply be wise words or could it transform a nation? Alex Marshall reports
Since the first Welsh Government formed in 1999, the country has claimed to lead the UK – the world, in fact – on sustainability. But, more often than not, that claim seemed to be based on words rather than action. And a lot of words at that. In 2009, the government produced One Wales, One Planet, a 78-page document setting out the strategy for making Wales the first truly sustainable country. Its main target? To reduce Wales’s ecological footprint to ‘1.88 global hectares per person’ so it was living within ‘the global average availability of resources’. This was admirable, certainly, but it was also a target few policymakers, let alone members of the public, understood. As a result, the strategy stalled.
But change is in the air. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act received royal assent in April 2015 and this has the potential to turn the country into an indisputable sustainability leader.
43 public bodies
Under the act, 43 public bodies – from local authorities to Natural Resources Wales, and NHS trusts to fire and rescue services – are being given a duty to promote sustainable development. This is defined as maximising their contribution to the economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing of the country.
The legislation also establishes seven wellbeing goals – from a resilient Wales to a healthy Wales – some of which include strong environmental elements. The main economic goal, for example, defines ‘a prosperous Wales’ as ‘an innovative, productive and low-carbon society which recognises the limits of the global environment’. Each of the 43 organisations must set its own targets under these goals; a forthcoming set of indicators will feed into this process.
Accompanying guidance, meanwhile, expects organisations to adopt five ways of working to guarantee their decisions are always sustainable. These include ‘looking to the long term’, preferably 10–25 years ahead, and focusing on the causes of problems to prevent them reoccurring.
Finally, the act forces organisations to work together by creating public service boards for each of Wales’s 22 local authority areas. These must carry out assessments of an area’s wellbeing by 2017 and set goals to improve it within 12 months of establishing them.
A future generations commissioner will oversee this whole system with the help of the Welsh auditor-general. The former deputy police and crime commissioner for south Wales, Sophie Howe, was appointed to the post in November.
Together, all this sounds impressive and it is unsurprisingly easy to find cheerleaders for the act. ‘It’s one of the bravest pieces of statute I’ve seen,’ says Dr Alan Netherwood of consultancy Netherwood Sustainable Futures, which co-ordinated an early adopters programme involving 11 councils and three national parks. ‘It will really challenge the core approach of the public sector in getting them to think long term and out of silos.’
But what it means in practice for the organisations affected depends on to whom you talk. To some, the legislation will change little – it will simply require a tweak here and there, a rebranding of goals already in place to ensure they are couched in the act’s language. But others believe it could alter everything they do.
Getting to grips
The organisations that appear to have done most to understand the act’s implications are local authorities, although the final report from the early adopters programme admits some still have their ‘heads in the sand’ about it.
Several are already sustainability leaders and the act should pose few problems for them. Swansea Council, for example, has had a sustainable development unit since 1997, and already commissions future trends reports, looking 25 years ahead, to identify long-term needs. It also asks departments to work together, as the Act envisages. This has led to programmes such as the one between its social services and environment departments under which people with disabilities clean urban areas that would otherwise be left to ruin.
However, Suzy Richards, a member of the unit, says the act has made Swansea realise it needs to engage its senior management more in sustainability issues to change the organisation’s culture. As a result, the authority has created a future generations board to sit directly below the executive board and discuss wellbeing targets and possible areas for collaboration with other organisations.
In a similar vein, Vale of Glamorgan has become the first local authority to bring the act into its corporate plan to 2020, the document that sets the tone for everything the council does. ‘Before, our plans would have a couple of paragraphs saying we’re committed to sustainability,’ says Helen Moses, the council’s strategy and partnerships manager. ‘But we’re now talking about it explicitly: the legislation, the need to adopt new ways of working, the need to set objectives that fit across the seven goals and so on.’
A draft of the plan certainly does refer in detail to the act, although the continuing impact on the council’s operations of central government-imposed austerity is mentioned too. Moses does not try to hide the fact that budget cuts present a challenge in implementing the act. ‘The need to think in the long term does present us with challenges and trying to look at a 10- to 25-year horizon is probably the aspect of the act we’ll find most difficult as we know plans can be impacted by changing budgets.’
The Welsh Local Government Association has long called for the government to give councils six-year indicative budgets rather than setting them annually, but that looks unlikely to happen.
Moses points out that the act’s focus on collaboration and innovative ways of working could save councils money and should spur people to adopt its ideas, but she admits there are other issues ahead that could divert attention from the legislation, not least the government’s plan to slash the number of councils in Wales from 22 to eight and elections in May.
An in-depth look at her council’s draft corporate plan also suggests much work will be needed before the act truly changes what authorities like the Vale of Glamorgan does. Most of the actions the document contains are similar to those found in any corporate plan but include developing a digital inclusion strategy and one for transport to reduce local air pollution. The only difference is they have been grouped to show how they contribute to the seven national wellbeing goals.
Moses says this is unsurprising because the act does not change ‘the core business of what the council is’. But the new ways of working embodied in the legislation should change how the council does that business. ‘Of course the success of the plan will not be seen in its drafting but in the delivery,’ Moses adds.
Natural Resources Wales
Outside councils, the organisation that is most open about how significant the act could be is Natural Resources Wales (NRW). ‘It’s a big challenge,’ says Ruth Tipping, team leader for future generations, climate change and landscape. ‘We’re a relatively new body. NRW was created to bring together Environment Agency Wales, the Forestry Commission and the Countryside Commission for Wales, but it’ll be a step change to do more and be collaborative outside our areas.’
‘It’s a widening of approach,’ adds Sarah Williams, manager of NRW’s natural resources and ecosystems group. ‘We need to make a contribution to all seven goals, not just the environment ones. So if we’re building a flood defence we need to ask ourselves what more we could do to get a wider benefit from it in terms of leisure or health, such as by adding a cycle route. It’s about maximising contributions.’
An added complication for NRW is that it will be implementing the legislation at the same time as it prepares for the enactment of the Environment (Wales) Bill, which has been submitted for royal assent. This will give NRW the responsibility for managing and improving Wales’s natural resources. It will also have to assess the nation’s natural resources much as public service boards will have to assess local wellbeing.
NRW has started running training programmes to ensure all staff realise the changes the act and bill will cause, although uncertainties are likely to remain for some time given the host of new responsibilities to be absorbed without extra finance. NRW has not clarified what the change in approach will mean for the businesses it regulates, Tipping adds.
However, NRW does like the concept of the public service boards. It is a statutory member of all 22 and will be relied on to provide much of the data for wellbeing assessments.
Although that sounds like a burden, Williams says the boards will provide a forum on which NRW can try to persuade other organisations to move away from discussing micro-issues to bigger ones like climate change. ‘So if we were discussing flood prevention in a town we’d be wanting people to realise flooding is due to activities in a whole catchment and perhaps what’s needed is action to improve land management upstream [rather than a new defence]. But that’ll be a massive challenge as people always focus on their patch.’ As soon as Williams says this, she insists that flooding is only one example – that being her area of expertise – and towns should not start panicking about future flood defence provision.
Other organisations regard the boards as similarly crucial. Shan Morris, corporate planning manager at North Wales Fire and Rescue Service, says one feature of the act that the services welcome most is their statutory membership of the boards. They can then be listened to and should be able to encourage more collaboration. Existing local service boards tend to be dominated by councils with little input from other organisations.
However, Morris admits the development of such joined-up programmes will depend on the enthusiasm of other board members: ‘Some seem to be taking the view that we already do needs assessments for an area and just continue as we are, but others are taking the view we need a complete rethink. I do think the act could be transformative. There just needs to be time for the dust to settle.’
Checks and balances
One thing everyone agrees could decide the success of the act is the potential checks it contains, principally whether the auditor-general and the future generations commissioner can name and shame organisations that do little.
Howe took up the role as future generations commissioner on 1 February, but is already clear on the challenges ahead and how she will overcome them. ‘The biggest issue will be asking bodies to focus on prevention of problems and taking a long-term view to solving them,’ she says. ‘Public sector bodies have been collaborating for years, so that requirement and the [introduction of the] public service boards are not big changes, but I think a lot of bodies are caught up in crisis management – the here and now of keeping their day-to-day services running – so it’s understanding they need to shift away from that.’
Howe’s background as a deputy police commissioner has shaped that view. ‘While I was in the police, we had an issue with the maintenance of vehicles and created a joint facility with the council to maintain theirs too,’ she says. ‘It was a great example of collaboration, but we didn’t think about including renewable energy in that project, and that was a missed opportunity.’
One of her main roles will be to identify and share best practice, but her remit will extend to highlighting ways to achieve culture change in organisations, such as identifying champions.
However, she wants to go beyond that by trying to remove burdens on public sector bodies that could stop them focusing on the act. ‘I do have sympathies with people who say there are too many requirements on the public sector and too many plans everyone’s asked to do, all to different timescales,’ she says.
Ultimately, though, it will be the responsibility of public bodies to understand the act and ensure it is what the Welsh government intended: something that genuinely makes the country a leader, the first to put sustainability at the heart of everything it does.
‘We’ve started looking at council plans [for dealing with the act] and the words are normally all there, but my litmus test will be, “What changes?’’,’ Howe says. ‘I want to see bodies changing the way they deliver services and how people receive them. It can’t just be nice words again.’