“Let us be the ancestors our descendants will thank”
Professor Owen, Director of Swansea Law Clinic and Professor of Legal Studies, recent lecture on the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 provided an insightful introduction to the Act; in relation to its international recognition (hailed by the UN as ‘world-leading’), its impact in Wales to date and the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law (Swansea University) actions in implementing the Act.
Professor Owen aptly suggested the Act was ‘marmite’ amongst the legal profession – “you either love it or you hate it!”. This unique legislation aims to safeguard the ‘cultural well-being’ – a relatively new concept – of tomorrow’s Welsh citizens. It focuses on seven ‘well-being goals’ – prosperous, resilient, healthy, globally responsible, more equal Wales, with a thriving culture and cohesive communities. It is the first in the world to give statutory powers to the Future Generations Commissioner (including advice & promotion, research, carry out reviews and making recommendation).
Although ‘world-leading’ Professor Owen called on the importance of recognising the full quote made by the UN. Nikhil Seth, Director of Division for Sustainable Development, United Nations said ‘We hope what Wales is doing today the world will be doing tomorrow. Action, more than words, is the hope for our current and future generations.’ Legislation by itself is just rhetoric. How do we hold people to account and make notable behaviour change? Much forward thinking Welsh legislation focuses on ‘behaviour change,’ which to some feels optimistic in relation to legislative impact. However, Hoffman’s recent research illustrates the positive impact of Welsh legislation on behaviour change within government, public sector and more widely in recent years.*
Critics of the Act say it is trying to be ’something to all people’ and that it is a watered down version of the vision presented in the initial sustainable development scheme, ‘One Wales, One Planet’ which outlined a strong view on the ‘sustainable development principle’. Questions have been asked such as; who are we talking about when we say ‘future generation’? And what are the main issues it aims to address?
There are also a variety of tensions within the Act itself. For example: the debate surrounding the M4 relief road illustrates the tensions between ‘A Prosperous Wales’ and ‘A Globally Responsible Wales’ – what may be best for Wales’s economy may be detrimental to Wales’s carbon footprint. There are also questions to be asked in relation to future issues that we do not yet understand. What impact, for example, will electric cars have on this scenario?
Despite some concerns, the innovative and positive nature of the Act is already being felt in many sectors. The transparency of the production of a well-being statement by organisations bound by the Act places emphasis on the notion of evidence and allows for the Future Generations Commissioner to call institutions to account.
The Act also outlines 5 best practice ways of working; long-term, collaborative, preventative, participative, integrated and participative. This suggests a welcome shift away from short-termism (budget and project planning based on political cycles) and a focus on participative and collective understanding of identity. No longer should public services be done to the individual. The individual should be an active participant in their own life.
Reflecting on the impact the Act will have on university operations, Professor Owen noted the university isn’t bound by the Act however the institution that funds the university, The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, is. This therefore provides a challenge for the educational sector as to how to best utilise the Act? University of Wales Trinity St David’s, for example, now offers a Sustainable Development and the Well-being of Future Generations Certificate to students and staff.
Within Higher Education, Law specifically is an interesting case. Law individualises problems, whereas the Act supports a shift towards a more collective view of identity, and therefore problems relating to community rather than the individual become the focus. Swansea Law Clinic has started work on this by using heat mapping technology to identify unmet legal need. Professor Owen also gave an excellent example in which a housing association couldn’t understand why the tenants weren’t pleased with the new, and perceived lovely garden. But the tenant just saw it as a windy path that allowed for potentially illegal activity to happen out of sight!
In conclusion, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 provides a ‘blue sky’ ethos for how we would like Wales to be in the future, making us ‘the ancestors our descendants will thank’. However, there are multiple tensions and questions that still need to be considered. The rhetoric is now embedded in law but action needs to take place to make the well-being goals a reality.
* Hoffman, S. (2019) The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Decentralisation and Legislative Integration: A Case Study from Wales. International Journal of Human Rights.