Wales – where well-being isn’t just a buzz word, it’s the law – reflects on seven years of its world-leading Future Generations Act
A future-fit curriculum for our children, solar panels saving a hospital £1m a year in electric bills, a road building freeze and hundreds of people receiving a basic income – these are just some of the changes Wales is making thanks to its world-leading Well-being of Future Generations Act.
As the world’s first statutory Future Generations Commissioner prepares to come to the end of her seven-year term, Sophie Howe is reflecting on the impacts of the legislation on life in Wales.
The Well-being of Future Generations Act requires decisions in Wales to be made in a way which meets today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.
Wales became the first country in the world to legislate in the interests of future generations in 2015 – inspiring the UN’s vision for a Special Envoy for Future Generations and other countries from Canada and Ireland to Scotland and Gibraltar.
The Act places a legal responsibility on policy makers in Wales to create inter-connected solutions to improve cultural, social, economic and environmental well-being, via seven national goals, including ambitions for a healthier, more equal, an environmentally-resilient society and a well-being economy. In the legislation, the goal for a ‘prosperous Wales’ does not mention GDP, instead defining growth in terms of ‘an innovative, productive and low-carbon society which recognises the limits of the global environment’, with an emphasis on ‘decent work’.
Ms Howe, a mother-of-five, has led high-profile interventions around transport planning, education reform and climate change, challenging Welsh Government and others to demonstrate how they are taking account of future generations – and she’s reflecting on some of the practical ways people in Wales may have noticed the difference.
- The Act helped create a 10-year national strategy for healthcare, focusing on preventative measures and a long-term vision of keeping people well, not just treating illness, and recognising the impacts of poverty, housing, employment, environment, and education.
- A recent example is the UK’s first hospital-owned solar farm at Morriston Hospital in Swansea, due to save £1m a year in electricity.
- Swansea Bay University Health board is re-using emergency COVID-19 response beds to tackle child bed poverty, and councils and health and social services are collaborating on preventative health to prescribe exercise in nature or visits to museums.
- Wil Stewart is a warden at Breakwater Country Park in Holyhead, one of the spots where Isle of Anglesey County Council’s Countryside and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Team and Social Services work with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board to use the Act to offer walks as a form of natural therapy.
- Clients can be referred by their own local GP or through Anglesey’s Community Mental Health Team and Will, who has been a warden for 24 years, runs them at the same time every week.
- Will said: “It’s satisfying to sense people connecting with nature, and often connecting with themselves and for a significant number of walkers, they have become a very looked-forward to healthy routine. I’ve seen significant changes in people, from the gentleman who didn’t talk for weeks on the walks and was suddenly inspired by his surroundings to quote lines from his favourite poem, to the person who has started to come here to simply sit on a bench in nature. The positive effect that walking has on our well-being is unmistakeable and I’m immensely proud of the Well-being of Future Generations Act – it’s sanctioned people’s well-being and given official backing to finding new ways to help people improve their physical and mental health.”
- A report by the commissioner found a basic income could halve poverty, a root cause of poor health, and following a campaign of voices including the commissioner’s, Welsh Government launched a basic income pilot which is currently paying hundreds of care leavers £1,600 a month.
- In transport, where money that would have been spent on a motorway through a nature reserve is being invested in sustainable travel instead after the commissioner galvanised opposition to the road, with a pause on new road building, a 63% increase in active travel investment in the last budget, and a plan to increase public transport, walking, and cycling to 45% by 2045.
- In waste, Wales’ Beyond Recycling strategy, with a target for a zero waste Wales by 2050, was built around the Well-being of Future Generations Act.
- Welsh Government is banning single use plastics and has invested in repair cafes and a library of things all across Wales, and on the A487 near Aberaeron, 4.3 tonnes of used babies’ nappies were used to resurface a road in a bid to stop some of the estimated 143 million being thrown away in Wales each year. Plans are now in place to collect nappies across 15 local authorities in Wales.
- In education, the commissioner’s calls for a review of GCSEs lead to a revamp of the exams, and Wales has adopted a new purpose-driven curriculum with the Well-being of Future Generations Act at its core, with an emphasis on mental health and developing well-rounded ethically informed young people taught eco-literacy. “The Well-being of Future Generations Act helps us to think about the long-term. It’s made us all take a step back and ask what is truly important for our children.” Peter Evans Head Teacher at Ysgol Bro Banw, Ammanford.
Ms Howe said: “There is still a lot more work to be done but if you travel around Wales and talk to people about how decisions are being made, you’ll see the impacts of the Well-being of Future Generations Act, largely due to a movement of change champions using this unique legislation to create a better Wales.
“I’m hugely proud of what’s been achieved in its short life by what I often hear described as ‘common sense’ law– ie, making joined-up decisions, looking at transport through a healthcare lens, asking communities how they want to achieve cleaner air for their children to breathe, at the same time as reducing poverty.
“If every country had a Future Generations Act decades ago, we might not be seeing the devastating effects of the cost of living crisis. We have a long way to go to fully meet the ambitions of the Act but it’s crucial we do. In Wales, there’s a legal framework for planning for the long-term, and public services working in different ways, and it’s needed now more than ever.”
- You can view a video illustrating some of the ways the Well-being of Future Generations Act is making a difference in Wales, here.
NOTES TO EDITORS
What is the Well-being of Future Generations Act?
Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act is a world-leading piece of legislation which puts a legal obligation on public bodies in Wales (including Welsh Government, local councils and health boards) to act today for a better tomorrow via seven interconnected national well-being goals – for a Wales that is prosperous, resilient, healthier, more equal, of cohesive communities, with a vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language, and globally-responsible.
Passed in 2015 in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the WFG Act is about improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales. Each public body covered by it must carry out sustainable development – by meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.
Public bodies should use the five ways of working (long-term, prevention, integration, collaboration, involvement) to meet the ambitions of the Act, by thinking more about the long-term, work better with people and communities and each other, seek to prevent problems like climate change and inequality and take a more joined-up approach.
Wales is the only country in the world to have put the UN’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) into statute and in September 2021, Scotland announced it was joining Wales and appointing a Future Generations Commissioner.
UN Special Envoy for Future Generations
In September 2021, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, endorsed a proposal for a special envoy for future generations who will be tasked with representing the interests of those who are expected to be born over the coming century – taking Wales’ future generations approach to the world.
When it was passed into law, Nikhil Seth, then UN Assistant Secretary General, said: ‘What Wales is doing today, the world will do tomorrow.
Who is the Future Generations Commissioner?
Sophie Howe is the first Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. Her role was created in 2016, to act as the ‘guardian’ of future generations, by promoting the sustainable development principle, in particular to act as a guardian of the ability of future generations to meet their needs and encourage public bodies to take greater account of the long-term impact of the things they do.
A mother-of-five who lives in Cardiff, Wales, before this role, Sophie was deputy police and crime commissioner for South Wales, for four years. Sophie has previously worked for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and Equal Opportunities Commission where she led on sex discrimination and equal pay claims. Before that, she became the youngest councillor in Wales at aged 21.
Her TED Countdown talk, Lessons on Leaving the World Better Than You Found It, has been viewed more than 1.7 million times.
Her role will finish in January 2023, before a new commissioner takes up the role.