In the days of social media soundbites, it can sometimes seem as though government policies change from one day to the next, based on public reaction and political expediency. But what if every single decision the Government took had to be scrutinised against its impacts on future generations?
This radical proposal is currently under consideration in the UK Parliament, in the form of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. The Bill, introduced to the House of Lords by cross-bench peer and Big Issue founder Lord John Bird, pushes for long-term policy making to be embedded in the work of public bodies, imposing a duty to meet wellbeing objectives, publish future generations impact assessments, and account for preventative spending.
The Bill would also establish a Commissioner for Future Generations for the United Kingdom, a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Future Generations, and would require companies to consider the impact of their activities on the United Kingdom’s wellbeing.
Commenting on the genesis of the bill, Lord Bird says: “Observing our institutions at work during the years that followed [my nomination to the House of Lords] made it apparent to me that large swathes of Government time seemed to be spent dealing with only the symptoms of poverty, not the causes. Having founded The Big Issue almost 30 years ago, I was well acquainted with this way of thinking — taking someone socially engineered to fail and giving them a plaster to patch up their problems. Prevention, as a solution, began screaming at me — morally effective, but most importantly, cost effective.”
Wales leading the way
Lord Bird’s Bill is based on Wales’ 2015 Well-being of Future Generations Act, thought to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The Act requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to introduce preventative measures to tackle persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.
The UN has lavished praise on Wales’ innovative approach, and in September announced its support for the establishment of a UN Special Envoy for Future Generations, a Futures Summit in 2023 and a UN Declaration for Future Generations. Jayathma Wickramanayake, United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, said: “Our vision for a UN Special Envoy for Future Generations is inspired by the progress being made in some countries around the world, including Wales, which demonstrates that it is possible to legislate and take action to put the interest of future generations at the heart of government.”
Lord Bird commented: “as my Bill enters committee stage, it would be the perfect time for Westminster to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by being the first UN country to enshrine a duty to protect future generations into law — following the lead of our progressive counterparts in Wales.”
Critics, however, have suggested that the law is “toothless”, and question whether it will truly lead to significant change. Speaking in 2019 following an unsuccessful attempt to challenge a school closure under the Act, Rhodri Williams QC said it was a “particularly badly-drafted piece of legislation”.
A 2018 progress report on Wales’ Act found that there was a need for public bodies to be more ambitious if it was to lead to a significant improvement in long-term living standards. The report also gave examples of success stories, including a project between several organisations to prevent wildfires in the South Wales valleys, and Public Health Wales providing value for money by revamping their office by recycling and refurbishing as many fixtures and fittings as possible.
One area where the Act seems to be having a significant impact is decarbonisation, a policy area that is widely acknowledged to require longer term thinking. Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, says that the work of her office has contributed to the Welsh Government committing to the ambitious goal of making its public sector carbon neutral by 2030, to the alignment of carbon budget and financial budget cycles, and to a greater focus on wellbeing goals.
Future generations bill: UK public in favour of long-termism
Research conducted by Portland Communications in July 2020 found that more than two thirds of the public (69%) want the Government to do more to plan and prepare for long-term threats, rising to three quarters (73%) when looking purely at swing voters, and that the public want to see considerable reform to the political system to make this happen, with nearly two thirds (62%) calling for greater accountability of ministers.
Commenting on the findings, Sophie Howe said: ‘’Two-thirds of the UK public demand that the UK Government gets serious about long-term planning. The impact of COVID-19, combined with the climate crisis, requires long term solutions. As UK MPs consider passing a UK Future Generations Bill — they should look no further than Wales to see what a difference a Wellbeing for Future Generations Act makes. On climate, transport, planning through to waste, Welsh ministers are required by law to make decisions on policies today that will benefit future generations, in 10 or 25 years’ time.’’