“We hope that what Wales is doing today, the world will do tomorrow.”
In 2015 Nikhil Seth, a leading UN representative, hailed the Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations Act as a pioneering piece of legislation, saying it captured the essence of two decades’ worth of UN work in the field of sustainable development.
Two years on, and the Act is still considered somewhat groundbreaking. The seven well-being goals that underpin it link directly to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and as such, the Act effectively sets an example as to how governments across the world – not just Wales – could implement and deliver on the SDGs.
“If SDGs are a global strategic framework, then this Act is one way of delivering legislatively on that framework so that we meet the SDG goals by 2030,” Dr. Jane Davidson, pro vice-chancellor for external engagement & sustainability at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, told Sustainable Brands in a recent interview.
Davidson is considered to be the original architect of the Well-being Act. She held office in the Welsh Assembly and from 2007-11, was the country’s sustainability & environment minister. Since 1999, under the Government of Wales Act 1998, the Assembly has had a duty to promote sustainable development, but Davidson says during her time in government it became apparent that this wasn’t happening in practice.
At the time, the duty wasn’t described in law nor the promotion of it defined – key failings according to Davidson.
“I really wanted to see that visionary commitment in the Government of Wales Act 1998 taken forward and delivered,” she said. “What I found, testing it with external evidence … was that not only were we not delivering it, but that we were saying we were doing more than we actually were.”
The Well-being Act looks to remedy this, and Davidson helped define some of the key elements that underpin the document: Its ultimate purpose is to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales through the setting of the seven well-being goals – goals that apply not only to the Welsh Government but to all national devolved public bodies.
Significantly, the Act puts in place a sustainable development principle that advises obligated organizations how to go about meeting their well-being duty under the Act. In addition, all public bodies will be held to account through an independent commissioner, who has powers to intervene, if necessary.
Davidson believes the Act will be “hugely challenging,” as the seven goals need to be treated as an integrated whole – this will effectively force public bodies to collaborate more with each other in order to deliver the level of joined-up thinking required.
“There’s a new democratic opportunity in the context of engaging people more,” she says. “This year, all public-sector organizations had to create a baseline assessment for well-being in their areas. This has to be a single, integrated plan involving the core public-service members in each local authority area.”
Assessing how Wales performs on its new obligations could also be tricky. How exactly does a nation measure its progress in terms of well-being? Davidson says that current metrics – notably 46 national indicators published only last year – are no longer fit for purpose.
“There does need to be statistical evidence,” she says. “Indicators have traditionally measured GVA in the economy. In the context of thinking about low-carbon, circular, closed-loop economies, there will need to be new indicators. But this will take time.”
In some cases, it’s just about getting back to basics. Improving individual and community well-being can be as simple as creating more public green spaces and better-maintained public buildings, better public access to services, and tackling anti-social behaviour such as littering and graffiti.
“A relatively small amount of public expenditure could tackle these issues in a country like Wales, which has a huge amount of green space,” Davidson says. “Enabling more expenditure on what previously might have been seen as peripheral issues is actually a huge beneficial opportunity. It’s about cohesive communities working together.”
As Wales works towards its well-being objectives, I asked Davidson how influential she thinks the Act will become in future years. Could other countries follow Wales’ lead?
“We were the first in the UK to introduce the carrier bag charge, and within two years that was rolled out across the UK,” she says. “Sometimes a small country is better placed to be a leader. I’m very proud that I live in a country which has been prepared to stick its neck out in the context of sustainability, and has sustained that commitment since the mid-1990s.”
She paused, before adding: “I’m hoping the Act becomes Wales’ conscience. By actively embracing the Act, Wales could become a sustainable brand in its own right.”