Sunday, 13 July 2014

Wales : The Next Generation

"Make it so".

What could be one of the most significant pieces of legislation this Assembly term was introduced earlier this week by Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly) to "great fanfare" : the Well-being of Future Generations Bill.

When I try to summarise a new law I usually read the text of the Bill (pdf) and then use the explanatory memorandum (pdf) to either confirm my own understanding of what's written or clear things up.

This was a challenge. I was pinned down by jargon. Charlie tossed a few buzzword grenades and through the dense vegetation of management speak all I could hear were voices calling out, as English was abused with all the enthusiasm of a 1970s national treasure. I developed the thousand yard stare of legislative shell shock.

That's the sort of living hell I have to put myself through to bring you blogs like this. You don't know, man! You weren't there!

I guess what I'm trying to say is this is a very dense – dare I say it – slightly bizarre law. Having said that, the National Assembly's Members Research Service have done a good job of summarising the underlying principles of the Bill over at their In Brief blog.

The Goals of the Future Generations Bill

(Pic :
I'm not fibbing when I say that if you wanted to sum up the Bill in one sentence it would be that it's "trying to improve everything by gently predicting and guiding future events". You name it, the Bill sets goals to improve it. All this is under the umbrella of "sustainable development" – something the Welsh Government and National Assembly are obliged to factor into their decisions by statute.

I suppose the clearest definition of "sustainable development" would be actions that would meet current human needs (like economic development, housing, transport) without putting pressure on the natural environment, and - importantly - being able to maintain that balance indefinitely.

The Bill was joined by a high-profile national conversation - launched by Michael Sheen back in February - called "The Wales We Want", which intends to outline what the people of Wales, of all ages, want the country to be like in 2050. An interim report (pdf) was published alongside the launch of the Bill.

The findings highlighted that the biggest single concerns were : climate change (26% of respondents), skills & education (16%), natural environment (14%) employment (13%) and governance (7%).

Here's a word cloud of the responses from postcard submissions :

(Pic : The Wales We Want interim report - click to enlarge)

Notice that "sustainability/sustainable" and "social justice" are tucked away. It's worth pondering whether "sustainability" is the Wales they (government and associated groups) want, not the Wales we (the public) want.

"Sustainable" is the single most annoying buzzword in Cardiff Bay. It's used so often, you would think AMs were piously green woodland creatures that make absolutely no impact on the planet in action or thought.

If you take statements and Senedd debates at face value, everything our AMs propose or support is "sustainable"; whether that's building a race track on an upland moor with no races, building houses in the middle of nowhere, prioritising a whacking great big motorway across the Gwent Levels over public transport or supporting a nuclear power station Wales doesn't even need - at present or in the future.

Don't get me wrong, everyone behind this – including the Welsh Government – has gone into it with the best possible intentions, but it's built on soft foundations. We never seem to get aggressive actions, only aggressive talk in an attempt to make "sustainability/sustainable development" mean whatever decision-makers and opinion-formers want it to mean.

I don't see that changing, and here's why....

What the Future Generations Bill proposes

There are six very important long-term goals the Bill aims to focus attentions on
- but the rest of it is all too familiar.
(Pic : The Wales We Want)
The broad aim of the Act will be to place a duty on all public bodies in Wales (Welsh Government, local health boards, local councils, national parks, fire and rescue services, directly funded government bodies like National Museums Wales etc.) to improve the well-being of the population by following the "sustainable development" principle : meet today's needs without compromising the needs of, and resources available to, future generations.

Well-being Goals

The Bill sets out six core well-being goals it expects every public body in Wales to pursue.
  1. A prosperous Wales – A low carbon, innovative economy that creates jobs, wealth and provides skills to the workforce.
  2. A resilient Wales – Healthy ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and can adapt to change.
  3. A healthier Wales – A society where physical and mental well-being is maximised and behaviours that improve future health are understood.
  4. A more equal Wales – A society that enables people to fulfil their potential regardless of background.
  5. A Wales of cohesive communities – Attractive, safe and well-connected communities.
  6. A Wales of vibrant culture and a thriving Welsh language – A society that promotes, protects and encourages participation in culture, sport, heritage and the Welsh language.
  • These goals may be added to, removed or amended by the Welsh Government (after consultation and Assembly approval).
  • Public bodies and Welsh Ministers must publish their own objectives to achieve these well-being goals in accordance with the sustainable development principle.
  • The Welsh Government must publish indicators to measure progress towards achieving these goals and lay a copy in front of the the National Assembly. They'll also have to publish an annual report on their progress.
  • Within 12 months of every Welsh General Election, the Welsh Government will need to publish a "Future Trends Report" that outlines future trends in the economic, social and environmental well-being of Wales – including relevant statistics where appropriate.

Future Generations Commissioner

The Bill :
  • Establishes a Sustainability/Future Generations Commissioner (which already exists but as a non-statutory position).
  • Outlines the broad role of the Commissioner as :
    • Promoting the "sustainable development principle" by safeguarding the needs of future generations.
    • Encouraging public bodies to take the long-term impact of their decisions into consideration.
    • Monitoring how public bodies are meeting their well-being objectives.
    • Encouraging best practice amongst public bodies and promote awareness of sustainable development.
    • Undertaking research or studies into sustainable development.
    • Making recommendations to Welsh Ministers and public bodies on sustainable development goals. Those bodies will have a duty to follow any recommendations from the Commissioner unless they have good reason not to, or they come up with a better alternative.
  • Places a duty on the Commissioner to publish a Future Generations report outlining what actions public bodies can take to meet their well-being objectives, after consultation with public bodies, the advisory panel (below), trade unions, businesses and anyone else the Commissioner deems appropriate.
  • Establishes an Advisory Panel made up of other Commissioners (Chlidren's, Older People's), chief officers (i.e Chief Medical Officer) the chair of Natural Resources Wales and other members appointed by the Welsh Government.
  • Bars elected representatives or peers from being appointed as Commissioner.

Public Service Boards

The Bill :
  • Establishes Public Service Boards in each local authority area (post-merger?) made up of the local council, local health board, fire and rescue authorities and Natural Resources Wales.
  • Places a duty on these new boards to invite other key participants, like Welsh Ministers, chief constables, Police & Crime Commissioners and bodies representing voluntary organisations ("Third Sector"). Other partners include community councils, Community Health Councils and Assembly-sponsored bodies (i.e Sport Wales).
  • Grants powers to the hosting local authority's overview and scrutiny committee to review and scrutinise the public service board's functions and governance, and also grants them the power to report failings to the Welsh Government.
  • Grants powers to Welsh Ministers to merge public service boards or direct them to collaborate if it would be beneficial.

The functions of the Public Service Boards are :
  • To improve the economic, social and ecological well-being of their local area in accordance with the sustainable development principle.
  • To publish an assessment of the well-being of their local area within one year of establishment.
  • To develop local well-being plans to meet any decided local well-being aims in accordance with the sustainable development principle.
  • To fully include community councils which have an expenditure of over £200,000 per year, which will – in turn – have to play a role in meeting the well-being aims set by the public service boards at a community level.
How much will the Future Generations Act cost?

The explanatory memorandum provided a very detailed breakdown of the potential costs based on various policy options. I'm only basing this off the Welsh Government's preferred option in each case.

The costs of the new levels of reporting, as set out in the Bill, will be just under £1.8million per year between 2015-16 and 2019-20, with an initial upfront cost of around £1million. The total costs will be spread across all the public bodies involved, ranging from £600,000 to the Welsh Government, to £40,000 (combined) for 73 community councils affected by the Bill (~£550 per council). The total cost of the reporting/monitoring well-being goals, between 2015-2020, will be around £10million.

The Future Generations Commissioner will cost £1.46million per year. This includes payments of up to £350 per day to members of the advisory panel, staffing costs (£948,000) – which will include plenty of "officer level" appointments - and general office running costs. Over the five year projections that's a total of around £7.3million.

The Public Service Boards will cost between £2.3million and £2.93million per year for the five years after the passing of the Act. Most of that will go towards partnership support and developing well-being plans themselves. It's expected each of the service boards will lay out around £414,000 per year on public engagement. Based on the figures provided, the total cost of the Public Service Boards between 2015-16 and 2019-20 is around £13million.

So the total estimated cost of any Well-being of Future Generation Act, over five financial years, is at least £30.3million.

A sustainable water-saturated miniature pyrotechnic device

An all too familiar Welsh way of doing things : talk in offices, ticks in boxes.
The launch of a flagship law should've been a cause for celebration,
but the response has been near-mute.
(Pic : Sustainable Cities Collective)
This is – Human Transplantation Act 2013 aside – the Welsh Government's flagship law of the Fourth Assembly. I suppose you can say it's been set up to be the lasting legacy of this generation of Welsh Ministers, and what they want to be remembered for once they retire, hence the Bill's title.

I presume this was supposed to be the Welsh Government's "big announcement"
before going into recess (along with the local government white paper), its intention being to leave us all wanting more and to get the chattering classes pondering it over the summer.

This is supposed to be a radical, progressive, generation-defining law that "Wales is going to be famous for in the future".

If it really were that though, it would be everywhere right now. The world's media would be paying attention to little old Wales, while those at the other end of the M4 will be actively trying to learn from what we're attempting to do here.

In a way, this is another victim of the Alun Davies scandal. It hasn't been Carwyn's week, has it?

Aside from Click on Wales articles (here, here) and this blog today, it's barely made a ripple. The Western Mail had a negative spin, but was truthful - their Assembly correspondent Graham Henry (who, like myself, is no fan of Assemblese) described the Bill's launch event as "the closest we will come to a jargon nirvana" on Twitter. BBC Wales focused on the Wales We Want public attitudes survey. ITV Wales – as far as I can tell – didn't even bother. There are pretty good reasons for that.

Let's review what we get from this Bill : a Commissioner (whom already exists but is being put on the statute books), another collection of unelected patronage-based committees hovering above local government (with obligatory involvement of the Third Sector), and a set of rather broad catch all goals that you would expect any government in any liberal democracy to want to work towards.

Yeah, this is definitely Welsh Labour's baby alright.

A focused sustainable development law might've been boring, but it would've been a bit more intellectually honest than this.

That doesn't mean it's all bad. I like the idea of a once-a-term "Future Trends Report", for example. That could be incredibly useful. It looks like community councils are going to get a beefed-up public role too, and I don't really have a problem with another Commissioner.

If you're bored now though - it's not as if many of you are going to plough through everything written above - I'm going to make this a bit more interesting.

You could, in a twisted way, interpret this Bill as being an embryonic written Welsh Constitution. It sets out clear long-term goals and establishes a set of core principles "the Welsh state" will be obligated to work towards.

However, while constitutions and long-term goals are nice, they're not policy and they often don't warrant legislative measures.

The Bill could potentially throw up some very nasty situations if passed too. There's the question of what would happen if two or more of the well-being goals clash - housing (communities) and the Welsh language (culture) for instance? Which would win out? Are some of the six well-being goals more important than others?

"Klingons off the starboard bow"
It's all very well the Welsh Government setting well-being goals, but they've
completely neglected the impact this lot can do to torpedo those goals.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Also, while the Welsh Government and public bodies are going to be subject to this law, it doesn't seem to take into consideration actions by the UK Government or private sector which could have a negative impact on the six Welsh well-being goals. Westminster's primacy says hello.

For example, most energy powers rest with the UK Government, so they could - theoretically – unilaterally dump nuclear waste from around the UK in Wales if no community comes forward, or open up as much land as possible for fracking. That could, in the worse circumstances, trash many of the Welsh well-being goals (like ecological resilience and health). Yet the UK Government or private companies wouldn't be subject to this law because areas like defence and nuclear energy are non-devolved.

The Welsh Government would in a farcical position of being bound by this law not to do the same thing in their own territory, nor would they be able to prevent another government running roughshod over it. It's the equivalent of a "No Bombing" sign in a swimming pool.

What would happen if there's another round of welfare reform which would negatively impact the well-being goal to improve equality of opportunity? Would the Bill - from a subordinate legislature - override Westminster's sovereignty and force Whitehall to reconsider their actions? It wouldn't, would it? In that situation, sadly, the Bill's completely and utterly worthless. The very unbalanced nature of the Union - something Labour are keen to protect - could sink the Welsh Government's own "legacy law".

So in one swoop the Welsh Government might've just made the best legal and social justice argument for Welsh independence. They didn't think of it like that though, did they?

You would expect me to be pleased with that, but – alas - in its current form, the Bill should be rejected. It needs to go back to the drawing board and become a straight-up Sustainable Development Bill, or possibly merged with the proposed Planning Bill.

That's not because it's poorly thought through, but because - aside from more committees and a new Commissioner - there's absolutely no way in hell any Welsh Government, of any colour, will ever live up to the well-being goals.

It should be rejected because - until they can prove that they can back words with deeds - it's too optimistic a vision of the future for our politicians to work towards. That's a sad thing to say, but it's true. And believe me I wish it wasn't so.


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