Build, build, build – Why England Needs a Commissioner for Future Generations

The Prime Minister has exhorted us to ‘Build, build, build – build back better, build back greener, build back faster” with substantial funding for infrastructure, hospitals, roads, schools and colleges, courts and local conservation and tree planting projects (speech in the West Midlands, June 30th). On the face of it this is a welcome announcement given that calls for a green recovery plan after lockdown have widespread support across the political spectrum and from business leaders. However, there are risks in doing anything at pace – e.g. repeating old mistakes and using outdated thinking.

In a wide-ranging debate on environmental well-being after lockdown on July 1st 2020 organised by the Castle Debates and chaired by our Managing Partner speakers from the worlds of medicine, nature conservation, public policy and law contributed their ideas to a green recovery plan that supports environmental wellbeing. The Prime Minister and his team might wish to take on board some of the ideas from this Debate. A truly green recovery is one that is built upon the four pillars of social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability.

Old Thinking: New Thinking

Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, explained the “new thinking” in Welsh policy-making that takes the needs of future generations into account. This replaces the ‘old thinking’ of short-termism which is a product of the 5-yearly political election cycle, as well as annual rounds of public funding.

The Commissioner’s role is underpinned by statute – the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. This sets out the four pillars of sustainability noted above. As the devolved governments across the UK make speedy policy pronouncements (“build, build, build”), there is a real risk that they might revert to ‘old-thinking’. However, Sophie was confident that this will not happen in Wales because taking account of very long-term interests is a statutory requirement.

Future Generations Exemplar

The Commissioner’s first report to the Welsh Assembly Government (May 20201) identifies measures to increase the pace of change in making better long-term decisions across the public sector in Wales. She cited the Newport Relief Road case as an example of how short-term thinking can be replaced by better decision making. This was the first big test for her role and for the “new thinking” underpinning the 2015 Act.

Following the Commissioner’s representations, the M4 relief road was abandoned because more sustainable alternatives were available. 35% of the working population in the Newport area are now working from home as a result of Covid 19 and many will continue to do so. Hence, traffic congestion here may be a thing of the past. By abandoning the plan for the new road, Wales has saved its taxpayers £1.5 billion which can now be invested in more deserving causes, such as alternative sustainable transport infrastructure that is fit for future generations.

This case is a highly pertinent example of how avoiding a poor infrastructure decision can lead to much better, greener and more socially equitable outcomes. The work of the Commissioner was critical to this decision. Other devolved administrations should take note.

International Exemplar?

The Commissioner confirmed that she has been approached by policymakers in other countries including Scotland, Finland and NZ who may wish to appoint their own Future Generations Commissioner underpinned by law have similar plans.

A Well-being of Future Generations Bill for England is gathering cross-party support. It will have its Second Reading in November. However, the Bill does not have Government support, so its chances of being implemented are slim. The Government should think again.

In the absence of a Commissioner for Future Generations for England (and for Scotland and Northern Ireland too), mistakes will inevitably be made with unsuitable construction projects being given the go ahead, lots of public money wasted and the environment and long-term well-being compromised.

It is time to take a very close look at what Wales is achieving and to get behind the Well-being of Future Generations Bill for England.

By Stephen Sykes LL.B, MA, Director at Ashfield Risk Transfer Solutions Limited

Email: stephen.sykes@ashfieldrts.com

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