The Welsh Wellbeing of Future Generations Act has lessons for us all

February 28, 2023  

Polly Lord celebrates St David’s Day by looking at the five key lessons that England could learn from the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act.

Today is St David’s Day (Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus), a celebration of Welsh history, culture, arts, and landscapes told through the stories of our patron saint. Among those stories, legend has it that David was asked by villagers to slay a nearby dragon, as St George had done. But David refused, instead visiting the dragon to learn more about the creature’s predicament.

The Welshman considering the wellbeing of another before acting is a parable for today’s times. Because, while not quite as fire-breathing, the Welsh Wellbeing of Future Generations Act stands to be almost as momentous as the legend itself.

A bold claim? Perhaps. But this legislation is ground-breaking, leading to the creation of the world’s first (and currently only) future generations commissioner. It sets out a framework to protect communities now and in the future, requiring public bodies to consider the long-term impact of their decisions on the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.

Wales certainly isn’t the only country with legal commitments to empower communities – its Celtic neighbour in Scotland being an obvious example. But it is ahead of England, whose version is currently stuck in the recesses of Parliament.

We should celebrate the Act for what it is: a vision for the future of Wales of which St David himself could be proud.

So it seems a good time to draw out five key lessons from the Welsh precedent for England to consider:

  1. Start with first principles. The Act is based on achieving seven goals, drawn from extensive consultation, where Wales is prosperous, resilient, healthier, more equal, globally responsive, with cohesive communities, and a vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language. These are supported by five underlying principles: long-term thinking, prevention, integration, collaboration, and involvement. These principles are the heart and soul of the Act which provides the direct connection to empowered communities.
  2. Don’t evaluate progress by GDP, measure it by wellbeing. Every year, the Welsh Government sets out how well it’s doing against its national indicators. In this monitoring, the word “prosperous” – often linked to GDP – has been reimagined. Now, it is defined as having decent work, a low-carbon society, fair and local procurement, local economies, skills for the future and using resources efficiently. This means progress is measured by societal impact not revenue generation.
  3. Complement aspiration with implementation. The Welsh Act, while monumental, is not without fault. As various reports have noted, its ambition is not matched by action due to a slow culture change in public bodies. We must recognise the immense pressure on local public bodies. Targeted resource is needed to build capability and capacity in long-term thinking and planning techniques. The Act provides an important first step in framing a vision of wellbeing objectives, but more support is needed to make these happen.
  4. Transparent decision-making. The Act was never designed to protect community assets, so several legal challenges by communities trying to do so have failed. Instead, there needs to be greater transparency over what the Act is intended to do, and how its principles have been embedded into decision-making structures. This starts with the Welsh Government itself.
  5. Expand the role of the commissioner. The Commissioner’s Office has lots to do: advise on the Act’s application; produce resources to support decision-making and promote the legislation and office. With a properly resourced team, the Commissioner could offer sector-specific regional advice, support public bodies on local issues, increase public engagement and more. While the Commissioner must be sensitive to the day-to-day pressures that public bodies face, a positive relationship has the potential to embed the required culture change and improve public services. It is worth investing in this relationship.

Any English Act will need a bit more firepower to make a significant impact – a firepower drawn from community power.  But it’s worth remembering the old Welsh proverb Deuparth gwaith yw ei ddechrau (Starting the work is two thirds of it done), and celebrating the Act for what it is: a vision for the future of Wales of which St David himself should be proud.

Photo by Catrin Ellis on Unsplash.

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