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How the World Can Follow Wales in Prioritising Sustainable Development

by Alex Leeds Europe Feb 4th 20216 mins
How the World Can Follow Wales in Prioritising Sustainable Development

Wales has come up with an extremely unique piece of legislation which seeks to incorporate sustainable development and collaboration across all of its public bodies in order to ensure the wellbeing of its future generations. It looks to improve four main areas: social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing. The Act includes a number of public bodies including the National Health Service, Higher Education Board, National Park Authorities, Arts Council for Wales, The National Library of Wales and Sports Council for Wales. The Act ensures that the public bodies listed in Wales will think about their sustainable development, improve their communities and work better with each other in a preventative approach in order to promote all the four pillars of wellbeing. 

Wales is geographically, politically and economically an integral part of Great Britain. It was once one of the main global producers of coal and steel that fuelled the industrial revolution. Since the collapse of these industries, Wales has continued to demonstrate its value mainly in trade, agriculture and tourism. Although a small nation with a population of only 3 million people, Wales makes up for it in ambition. Globally, the main measure of success and improved wellbeing has consistently been GDP and economic growth. But can we really say, with unprecedented climate change and extreme global inequality that using GDP as a measure of wellbeing and success has really made people’s lives better? Former United States Attorney General, Robert Kennedy warned of such an obsession with using this measure back in the 1960s, stating that “The problem with GDP is that it measures everything in life except that which makes life worthwhile.” 

Wales has created the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, a pioneering piece of legislation that looks to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of Wales, the first of its kind across the globe. The act places a legal duty on the main public bodies across Wales and its Government to demonstrate how these four pillars of wellbeing have been incorporated into their decision making process. By placing equal importance on all four pillars, the legislation ensures that the country moves away from “business as usual” and begins to make decisions for the longer term. The goals outlined in the act were streamlined in conjunction with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the legislation first came to light as a result of the Rio summit in 2012. The UN has praised the legislation, saying that “what Wales is doing today, we hope the world will do tomorrow.”

The public bodies involved include Welsh ministries, local health boards, the National Health Service (NHS), Fire and Rescue, the natural resources governing body, higher education body and the arts and sports councils.

In order for all public bodies to work together to achieve an overall improvement in wellbeing, in 2016 a country-wide conversation occurred with the general public to come up with sustainable development goals and what they meant to Wales. Seven goals and their definitions were created: more prosperity, more resilience, better health, more equality, cohesive communities, a vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language and a globally responsible Wales. This is unique, as never before have development goals been created and defined by those who will be most affected by their implications. 

The leading lady in this challenge is the Wellbeing of Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe. She took up the post in 2016 and has since been called one of the UK’s “Leading Changemakers.” Her interventions have so far created significant changes in line with the act, from major transport schemes, housing and land use policy, education and climate change. Her role is to encourage the government and public bodies to focus on longer term impacts and monitor and assess the extent to which the well-being objectives set by the Public Bodies are being met. 

Since 2016, some changes that have occurred as a result of the act include the biggest contract ever in Wales for rail and metro services. The £5 billion contract was signed by Transport for Wales, after it successfully petitioned to not only create faster, more efficient and newer trains but to also contribute to all seven of the Development Goals. Transport for Wales aims to have all stations achieve carbon neutrality and all Cardiff Valley lines to run electrically by 2023. They have significantly reduced fares for people coming from more deprived areas and have incorporated local businesses into their stations. 

Wales’ capital city has seen the most change as a result of the act, with targets for Cardiff to move from 80% use of cars to a 50/50 shift in public : private transport use within the next two years. A large investment has gone into creating cycle ‘superhighways’ and suitable infrastructure for Next Bikes, a UK-wide bike sharing system. In addition, Cardiff is the first local authority in Wales to invest in electric buses and to have provided a public health official whose main role is to map out a new public transport strategy to improve air quality and reduce the city’s carbon footprint. 

Since the act’s implementation, the public bodies involved set their first objectives in 2017, amounting to 345 well-being objectives set across the country. Excitingly, the Commissioner stated in a 2019 report that there was clear progress being made across the four well-being pillars. Unfortunately, however there has been some resistance coming from the government, in the form of insufficient resources being provided for the act to reach its full potential. Pressure on various public bodies as a result of austerity and changes to public services have made it difficult for leaders to focus on the long term. The report also stated that no one public body had ‘cracked’ the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act across all of its requirements. The act, still in its adolescence, has since experienced extreme setbacks in the form of COVID-19 and a major shift in policy as a result of Brexit, thus, putting strain on public bodies and their services who are being forced to operate in a reactive, short term manner in order to meet the demands of our current climate. 

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However, the global fear of returning to “business as usual” after the pandemic should not be a fear for Wales as this promising legislation will hopefully adapt and regain strength. A Welsh word, “ddysgu,” meaning both to teach and to learn, embodies the course of action this legislation is taking. Howe has been sharing, inspiring and gaining insight, promoting the wellbeing of our planet’s future by representing Wales at the UN, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Network of Institutions for Future Generations between 2018 to 2019.

Governments need to start thinking beyond GDP, without a prosperous and healthy planet how can we expect economic growth to continue occurring in the future? Since 2015, other countries, including Hungary and the United Arab Emirates, have also set in motion similar legislation regarding wellbeing. Bhutan were the first to modernise the idea of promoting holistic wellbeing, with “gross national happiness” being used as a measure instead of GDP back in 2012.  In 2019, Bhutan was measured as the happiest nation in Asia. In 2016, the United Arab Emirates introduced the position of Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing, responsible for harmonising all of UAE’s government plans, programmes and policies to achieve a happier society. The Japanese proverb rings true here, “Individually we might be a drop but together we are an ocean” and as the Wellbeing of Future Generations Commissioner has stated, “hopefully what Wales is doing today will ripple to the four corners of the globe.”  

Featured image by: Flickr 

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