There’s the hint of political change in the air. I don’t mean a resolution of the Brexit agony, or the result of the Tory Party leadership election. Although there is a link. It’s hard to believe that the current chaotic system that led to an enormously divisive referendum, and the opportunity for a tiny number of party members to decide the fate of a country, can prevail.
That change might come from a political earthquake, most likely a general election which produces a root and branch reform. Or it could be could be a number of small but important steps, building up in the years to come.
Whatever happens, the welcome initiative by Lord Bird (John Bird, founder of The Big Issue), who has arranged a “balloted debate” in the House of Lords on June 20th – (a debate on subjects raised by backbenchers) on the case for better protecting and representing the interests of future generations in policymaking. is a promising start.
Such debates rarely change policy, unless they serve the government’s agenda, but this debate will, at least, bring welcome publicity to the pioneer work of what is still the world’s first Commissioner for Future Generations, Sophie Howe, in Wales. And it could be a timely reminder that we cannot continue with the short-termism that has been the cosy dogma of so many politicians down the years.
The sentiments and aspirations behind Lord Bird’s debate are certain to return to the political dialogue. Writing in Politics Home, John Bird said he was “banging the drum for prevention, for early intervention, for upstream thinking. For future forecasting and acting in the long-term; and for shifting our time, energy, resources and thinking from responding to the rolling crises of today, to preventing the problems of tomorrow.”
The template for change in the rest of the UK will be the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 which gave the commissioner (Sophie Howe is the first, in post for 3 years now) permission, and a legal obligation, to shake up ‘business as usual’, requiring public bodies to think about the long-term impact of their decisions.
Until this month (June, 2019), Ms Howe’s appointment might have been seen (unfairly) as no more than a political equivalent of the poet laureate, with politicians nodding approvingly at her wise words before consigning them to dusty shelves, with the public, perhaps a little bit vague about what she actually does.
Then came the Wales government transport minister’s rejection of the £1.5 billion M4 relief road around Newport in South Wales, which only months earlier had gained the approval of an independent planning inspector after a long public enquiry.
While the main stated reasons for turning down the road were the cost and its damage to a precious wildlife area, there’s little doubt that the adverse comments of Ms Howe in her report on the project counted too.
With her legal duty to advise ministers on the long term impact of Welsh government projects, she criticized the scheme and called instead for ‘further and faster’ public transport improvements which make people healthier, reduce income inequalities, noise and air pollution and help cut carbon. She believes these measures could be achieved for a fraction of the cost of the proposed new motorway.
Rejecting the road has not been a universally popular decision. There has been widespread criticism from industry, the commuting public, and some elements of the political opposition, but with the Wales transport minister taking most of the blame. Nevertheless it shows how politicians, suitably prompted, might be capable now of quite radical decision-making, where earlier they would have played entirely safe. (In this case, approving the road, as so many ministers have done in the past.)
Lord Bird said he was ‘calling on parliamentarians from all parties to join forces in understanding how we can learn from Wales’ leadership and ensure that the principle of safeguarding the interests of future generations can be woven into every level of our [the UK’s] decision-making.’