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How Wales could save the world

Sophie Howe, the nation’s first-ever commissioner for future generations, on what it takes to prioritise well-being over GDP.

By Alona Ferber

This article was originally published in March 2023, it is being repromoted today (13 December) following the news that Mark Drakeford has resigned as Wales’ First Minister.

In February, the Welsh government announced a bold step in its transition to net zero: the cancellation of most major road-building projects. By channelling investment into public transport rather than tarmac, Wales hoped to encourage a shift away from reliance on private cars. The Conservatives said the policy was “anti-motorist”, while environmental groups hailed it as visionary. And it remains controversial: Last week, the Senedd passed a motion regretting the review’s “lack of engagement” with the public.

But this was no isolated policy decision. It was the outcome of a shift in governance some eight years in the making. In 2015, Wales passed legislation to make its politicians govern with future generations in mind. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which came into force in 2016, embedded the consideration of impact beyond the next election or current budget cycle across the Welsh government.

The act has made Wales a world leader in what policy wonks call “future generations thinking”. The legislation was “designed to make sustainable development the central organising principle of government and public bodies”, in the words of the Welsh government. It created a Future Generations Commission to “ensure decisions taken today meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. A commissioner was equipped with a proverbial carrot to “help”, “assist”, “monitor”, “assess”, and conduct reviews, but with no stick to sanction or fine. The legislation introduced “four dimensions” of well-being (environmental, social, cultural and economic), alongside seven “well-being goals”, and “five ways of working”.

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Sophie Howe, a former Labour councillor, deputy police and crime commissioner, and adviser to two Welsh first ministers, was Wales’ first-ever future generations commissioner. The 46-year-old mother of five ended her term on 31 January, and was replaced by Derek Walker, the former CEO of development agency Cwmpas.

After seven years in the job, “the underpinning problem” that still keeps her awake at night, Howe told Spotlight via video call, is that “governments continue to just ignore things that are coming down the track at them. So you could talk about that in terms of climate emergency and – maybe ignore is too strong, but no government has got a real grip of the action that needs to be taken to deal with the scale of the problem, and there we are literally talking about, you know, existential threat to humanity. So it’s… totally scary.” On many issues, from Covid to the destabilising potential of digital media, such as deepfakes and ChatGPT, “the world is… sleepwalking into… disasters that could have been avoided”.

When we spoke on her penultimate day in the job, Howe, in gold-framed glasses and a grey sweatshirt, was adamant that her term brought results, and was brimming with ideas for more. “Future generations thinking is now very much in the consciousness of how we do business in Wales,” she explained, as is “a big shift to prioritising well-being over GDP”. Sixty-four per cent of Wales’s programme for government is based on recommendations from the “Future Generations Report”, she claimed.

As commissioner, Howe was instrumental in the government’s cancellation of the M4 relief road in favour of investing in public transport (which preceded last month’s road cancellation decision). She also noted Wales’s commitment to a universal basic income pilot (“seen as being completely impossible just a few years ago”) and a new school curriculum that is “less Latin and more life, which is a little bit of a dig to Michael Gove when he was education secretary”.

[See also: How do the SNP and Welsh Labour compare with the Tories in England?]

Wales is not the only country to prioritise well-being over GDP. Bhutan’s gross national happiness index is decades old. In 2016 United Arab Emirates launched a national programme for happiness and well-being. Alongside Wales, Scotland, Finland, New Zealand, Iceland and Canada are members of the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership. Even David Cameron, when he was prime minister, made short-lived attempts to measure an index of national well-being.

But Wales is the first country to set out in law what it wants to leave behind for future generations, explained Howe. The aim was to shift away from the short-termist thinking of party manifestos and budget cycles that “all of our public sector leaders have been brought up with”.

What made this experiment in progressive policy possible in Wales? The country’s relatively small size (with a population of just over three million) is one factor, Howe conceded. “Everyone knows everyone in Wales and it’s easier to get things done.”

Politics explains it, too, of course. “Wales has always had this… quite progressive policy agenda,” said Howe. “The politics of Wales are… left of centre, and have been, well, forever – since devolution really.” Plaid Cymru, Welsh Labour, even the Welsh Conservatives, “are often in this more progressive space”.

[See also: What Scottish nationalists could learn from Wales]

Since the Welsh National Assembly first met in 1999, Wales has developed a “social partnership” approach, Howe explained, in which local authorities work with public services, eschewing the top-down central government approach that is the chagrin of local leaders across England. The Social Partnerships Bill, still going through the Senedd, will establish a council whose members will include the head of the Confederation of British Industry in Wales and the general secretary of the Wales Trades Union Congress. “On many issues you can’t put paper between them,” said Howe. “Now, that’s fascinating, I think, in terms of the cultural context in Wales.”

Welsh nationalism is a factor – “People are undoubtedly proud to be Welsh,” believes Howe – but another Welsh characteristic is significant, too: the pathological modesty that Rhodri Morgan, the former first minister of Wales, ascribed to his compatriots.

“I think that he’s right there,” said Howe. “The people of Wales created the goals in [this] act and this vision for Wales… but then I think I don’t sometimes realise how internationally significant that is.” Howe was, after all, representing Wales at the United Nations and advising the UN secretary-general on reforms in line with the Welsh approach. And Wales is not even a member state, she pointed out.

“There are these countries all over the world looking to what we’re doing,” added Howe. “And it’s only in the last year or so that people have… gone, ‘Wow, we are doing something really cool here,’ and it’s almost like you’ve just been getting on with it and hiding your light under a bushel.”

Aside from the UN, the Welsh approach to the future has garnered fans in UK policy circles. Scotland has committed to its own version of the future generations commissioner, and Northern Ireland has expressed interest too. In England, John Bird, a peer and founder of the Big Issue magazine, introduced a future generations bill, inspired by Wales, but the legislation has yet to pass its second reading in the House of Commons.

The Labour shadow cabinet also has its share of admirers, said Howe. The shadow climate change and net zero secretary Ed Miliband is a “big fan” and she has met with the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting’s team, as she did with his predecessor, Jonathan Ashworth.

“I think they’re really interested in it for what it’s achieved,” said Howe, “but also I’m guessing… electorally, because… Labour’s Mark Drakeford [and Wales’s First Minister]… has been doing these progressive things and is an electoral asset.”

Addressing Welsh Labour’s conference this month, Keir Starmer spoke of “a fairer, greener Wales”. Does Starmer evince future-generations thinking? Howe is not convinced, “given [how] many of the major challenges facing British people – energy, food security, health and cost of living – could have been prevented or mitigated by investing in long-term approaches,” she told me via email after his speech. “Prominent members of the shadow cabinet such as Ed Miliband are fans of the Welsh approach, so maybe now is the time for UK Labour to follow Welsh Labour’s election-winning progressive agenda.”

Indeed, what could this approach mean in practice for Labour? What happens, for instance, if you apply future-generations thinking to childcare, increasingly a political priority for the next election? Aside from seeing it in economic terms, as the opposition has so far pitched it, Howe believes “you need to think about childcare in the context of [being one of] the most significant interventions that you can put in the early years… It needs to be really high quality and valued.”

Last week’s motion on the roads review and its cancellation of new works is a reminder of the difficulty of getting future-generations thinking right. I ask Howe how Rishi Sunak’s government rates in this regard. “I think they’d fail some fundamental tests… we don’t see a lot of long-term thinking,” she replied, and noted the Future Generations Commission’s “five ways of working”, its principles for decision-making that help organisations show they understand the long-term consequences of policy decisions. “I’m not seeing a huge amount of that in Westminster.”

[See also: Did Blackpool South’s gamble on Scott Benson and the Tories pay off?]

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