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Wales’ green image risks becoming an illusion

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It’s time we faced up to the reality of Wales’ progress on sustainable development.

Terraced houses at Six Bells, near Abertillery, WalesTerraced houses at Six Bells, near Abertillery, Wales © Keven Fitzmaurice Brown / Photolibrary Wales

On the afternoon that I met environment minister John Griffiths at the launch of the Sustainable Development Bill white paper in Blaenavon, he left for Doha to attend the international climate change negotiations.

The minister told the Guardian that this bill would be “a legal first”.

This isn’t the first time the Welsh government has made impressive-sounding claims about their record on the world stage.

After the Rio+20 conference last June, John Griffiths speaking about the bill said “It is clear that smaller countries, like Wales, can show a lead and set examples in how to create sustainable places and practices. In Wales, we now have the opportunity to further demonstrate this by creating our own ground breaking legislation on sustainable development.”

He was echoing the first minister Carwyn Jones, who said that his government “will set Wales apart as a sustainable nation, leading from the front”.

Welsh first minister Carwyn JonesWelsh first minister Carwyn Jones at speaking at a WWF Cymru event. © WWF-Cymru

This narrative – of Wales taking a leading role on sustainable development – was also part of the Welsh Labour manifesto which got them elected. It also featured prominently in their programme for government – which stated their intention “to become a ‘One Planet Nation’, putting sustainable development at the heart of government”.

These fine words have led to high praise and expectation. Jonathon Porritt wrote “At the moment it’s Wales that provides a bright light in these gloomy times. In Cardiff the devolved administration, led by First Minister Carwyn Jones, is clearly still committed to the idea of sustainable government.”

So what did the Welsh government actually unveil at that event in Blaenavon? Was it a white paper which offered a ‘ground breaking’ plan for legislation which will make Wales a leading light on sustainable development?

The answer, sadly, is ‘not yet’.

In WWF’s view Wales must go further than what we’ve already seen in the UK.

In practice, this means that the Welsh government’s duty on sustainable development must be stronger than duties in existing UK legislation. There are quite a few examples in the UK already of duties that require bodies to “have regard to” sustainable development. We even have some which “promote” or require the “achievement” of sustainable development.

Yet the Welsh government’s white paper is still proposing something far too weak to be considered ‘ground breaking’.

The wording is far from clear, but it seems to propose that “the consideration of the effect on the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of Wales will be a fundamental requirement of the duty, so that decisions are informed by an appreciation of the likely effects on each and the integration between them.”

Everyone knows that considering something is a long way removed from actually doing something.

You may consider the impacts of your government’s policies and actions, but choose to ignore them.

Therefore, in our view, ‘considering’ is way too weak a verb to make ground breaking, world- leading legislation.

Overall, the Welsh government’s white paper doesn’t simply fall short of WWF’s hopes for the Sustainable Development Bill – it actually falls short of their own ambition.

In his interview with the Guardian John Griffiths said “Wales will become the first country in the world to make it legally binding for all public bodies…..to take account of the environment and social issues when they make a decision.”

WWF would argue that simply ‘taking account’ of environmental issues is a long way from the ambition voiced in the Labour manifesto and by the Programme for government. Making Wales a One Planet nation and meeting the aspiration of ‘Living within environmental limits’ will take much more action than ‘considering’ these matters.

Carwyn Jones’ government cannot deliver the ‘One Planet Wales’ to which they aspire, or put sustainable development at the heart of government, unless they make a renewed effort to substantially strengthen this bill.

In June this year, Jonathon Porritt warned that “despite the laudable aims behind Wales’ Sustainable Development Bill, there is now a serious risk that it could be watered down by nervous civil servants and lawyers who are under pressure from backward-looking elements in government, industry, and the public sector”.

This is exactly what I fear we’re seeing with the white paper.

Our suggestion? WWF Cymru, along with a range of other organisations in Wales, believes that the duty must be worded as:

“Welsh ministers and public sector bodies, will exercise their duties, powers and functions with the objective of achieving sustainable development.”

That would meet the government’s promises and be worthy of international praise and be genuinely ground breaking.

Let’s hope that the Cabinet stands together and delivers on their promise in 2013.

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  • http://twitter.com/Clive_Bates Clive Bates

    You would like language that says: “Welsh ministers and public sector bodies, will exercise their duties, powers and functions with the objective of achieving sustainable development.”

    All that does is shift the question to be: “what do you mean by achieving sustainable development?”.

    Here are some questions:

    1. What do you actually mean by ‘achieving sustainable development’ in language that can be coded into law and understood by policy makers?

    2. Is this something that can start immediately, or requires a transition from unsustainable to sustainable development? If so, what are the transitional arrangements?

    3. Having a legal obligation to have an objective to achieve something is not the same as achieving it. How would you know when ministers and public bodies were acting unlawfully?

    4. How do you address trade-offs between competing objectives within sustainable development – for example, the need to use land to expand housing supply to meet social objectives may clash with some environmental objectives? Some environmental objectives are in conflict with each other.

    5. If your definition of sustainable development involves ‘ecological footprint’, how do you get over the methodological weaknesses in this concept (for example, the strange way of characterising climate change as a land area needed for carbon sequestration by forests)?

    6. How would you address politics? The reality that if you got your way many in Wales would defect from your view of sustainable development and elect a government that promised something else, thereby setting back the cause of sustainable development in Wales?

    Progress in sustainable development in Wales will come from the government behaving in certain ways. It is these behaviours that the legislation needs to encourage or require, not defined outcomes.

    a. Having a strong but pragmatic objective: the maximisation and fair distribution of quality of life and well being in Wales over the long term, driven by leadership that pushes but respects the art of the politically possible.

    b. Seeing SD as a concept that applies to all areas of government, not just a vehicle for environmentalists to press their case. It is a development concept – the best pathway a society can take for the long term. That should open a positive conversation to have with the people of Wales.

    c. Taking decisions that have greater benefits in the long term at the expense of lesser benefits in the short term. This is far from easy in modern politics, but essential in sustainable development.

    d. Tireless in looking for system integration, breaking silos and being purposeful in ‘joining up’ – something that rarely happens spontaneously, and usually only by design in the public sector.

    e. Evidence based, taking particular care with evidence on cost effectiveness and value for money, underpinned by a subtle broad long-term definition of ‘value’ and ‘money’, so that resources go as far as possible.

    f. Capital investment orientated – and focussed on human, social, natural and productive capital stocks and flows. The government would also prioritise the various forms of grey, green and blue infrastructure that will underpin the successful and resilient society of the future.

    A government committed to sustainable development would be able to show it was acting consistently with the behaviours listed above. They are not bland slogans, but tough and challenging for decision-makers. Good legislation would support, require and spread these behaviours. Trying to be too precise won’t work, and it will fail at its first contact with reality. Just saying ‘do sustainable development’ doesn’t do much either – it just moves the problem to a contested definition.

    Good luck to Wales in securing pragmatic, enabling and direction-setting legislation.

  • Jessica McQuade

    Clive – interesting points. There are a few questions your approach raises:

    · You believe that government behaviours are what need to be legislated for. What are these behaviours?

    · It would be difficult to demonstrate behaviours therefore how would you know when public bodies are acting unlawfully?

    · Do you have any evidence base that your proposed approach of behaviours leads to progress in sustainable development?

    · Does your approach have wellbeing as it end rather than sustainability? If you are including environment in your definition of wellbeing, how do you define and measure environmental wellbeing?

    • http://twitter.com/Clive_Bates Clive Bates

      The behaviours are those listed in a-f – ie. the way a government approaches its work. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. If a government did work in the way specified, it would be very different.

      I don’t think a hard legal definition is possible or desirable. However, something more substantial than ‘objective to achieve sustainable development’, which amounts to nothing much, is needed. Similar language to that used in the GOWA 2006 s60 (promotion of well being etc) but cast as duties rather than powers would give a strong signal and require that these approaches were hardcoded into all the various documents that govern how the Welsh public sector functions (MoUs, remit letter, grant awards, legislation, concordats, business plans, white papers etc) Reporting, auditing and Assembly scrutiny would be the better teeth than courts.

      The things I’m suggesting are characteristics of successful long term policy-making and are seen in many places to different degrees. Declaring ‘sustainable development’ to be a central organising principle does nothing in itself, unless it changes behaviours. I suspect any society that tried to organise itself around ecological footprinting would be in ruins fairly quickly.

      Yes wellbeing broadly defined (or absence of misery) is at the heart of it and defined as the purpose of progress. The Brundtland definition is about ‘meeting the needs’ of people. Of course this includes the environment. The whole casting of ‘ecosystems services’ as developed in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is based on different ways in which the environment contributes to human well-being (provisioning, regulating, cultural services). Look it up!

  • Anne Meikle

    Thanks for your very detailed comments and questions Clive.

    I’d like to respond by focusing on the key point I made in the blog – that the proposals in the white paper don’t, in our view, either a) live up to the bold rhetoric from Welsh Government of Wales taking a
    leading role with ground breaking legislation, or b) go far enough to deliver on
    the Government’s own aspiration of a One Planet Wales.

    I would also say this – Carwyn Jones is right to say that Wales should ‘lead from the front’. We already have a Government elected on the basis of commitments to sustainable development – so what we need to see now is legislation that delivers on those commitments. The white paper, in WWF’s
    view, does not go far enough to achieve that.

    We’d be interested to hear others’ views too.


    • http://twitter.com/Clive_Bates Clive Bates

      Anne – there has always been a danger of giving uncritical applause for mere words – it is the deeds and how they go about it that matters. I’m not really passing comment on the performance relative to expectations. I think the question you have to ask is ‘what would a government pursuing sustainable development as its central organising principle do differently to one that wasn’t?” That is why I think the behaviours are key. Future outcomes sound good, but they are easy to say and usually fall as an obligation on someone else in a future government.

  • Calvjones

    How about starting with an over arching policy that says ‘no new WG policy will be approved, or spending countenanced, that increases net climate emissions over the lifetime of the policy/infrastructure. Reductionist, but would concentrate minds and has the benefit of clarity.

  • ExasperatedMe

    One man’s sustainability is another man’s burden, as has been asked here before – what is sustainable development?

    I would ask who defines it and interprets it? Who policies it? Who prosecutes when failure has apparently been established? What defences are there for those facing prosecution? Why pays for it all? I know the answer to the last question but the rest are imponderables and I don’t like uncertainty nor do I relish the thought of a postcode lottery.

    When you make ‘new law’ you need to make sure it is sustainable, no pun intended!

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