The 2015 Well-Being of Future Generation (Wales) Act (FGA) potentially signifies an important milestone in how Wales will address present and future climate challenges. Alongside the Environment (Wales) Bill and the Planning (Wales) Bill, the FGA will hopefully bring about more effective climate governance by enabling people to have a greater say in determining how their communities adapt to climate-related impacts.
From the onset of the FGA process, increased community participation has been the order of the day. The intention of the Welsh Assembly was to ensure everybody in Wales had the opportunity to have their say in their countries’ future – the ‘Wales We Want.’ The ‘National Conversation’ was launched in February 2014 at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff with an impassioned plea by the actor Michael Sheen for “the transparency and the honesty to be truly accountable and the courage to go beyond the short-term thinking that can lead to making decisions more based on the pressures and demands of political life.” Over 7000 people identified important issues that they thought will impact future generations in Wales. Naturally, future climate change figured highly in their responses and there are ten key questions the FGA aims to answer with respect to climate adaptation. In asking these questions, the FGA has attempted to address the main ‘elephant in the (climate policy) room’ with respect to helping communities adapt to climate impacts: future uncertainty over when they occur.
In Wales and the UK alike, government responses to unexpected climate impacts have been moreover reactive rather than anticipatory or autonomous. Think about the flooding and decimation of the sea defences in Aberystwyth and Borth in January 2014, and the Somerset Levels in December 2013. Adaptation strategies were reduced to throwing financial resources at repairing sea walls in Aberystwyth and Borth, and dredging certain parts of the Somerset Levels after local residents questioned the lack of presence of the needed emergency services to clear up after the flooding. Add a little belated political expediency through the reassuring visits by respective Environment and DEFRA ministers to the areas affected and that represents the sum of government-led adaptation responses. Research on adaptation measures implemented across the UK has shown varied responses by particular sectors, with successful national and regional initiatives, but little progress at Local Authority (LA) level. But should we lay all the blame at the doors of government?
The intention of the FGA is to transform the idea that adaptation responses will always be reactive by joining up communities with government, specifically LAs and related public agencies, giving us more say in putting the strategies in place so that we can more efficiently respond to future climate impacts like flooding in a timelier manner. The FGA specifically establishes a number of things to (hopefully) ensure this. It establishes a Future Generations Commissioner (FGC) to promote sustainable development and act as a guardian for future generations by making public bodies take account of long-term impacts of the things that they do. Public Service Delivery Boards (PSDBs) are also established under the FGA. These have to be made up of members from the LA, the healthboard, the Welsh fire and rescue authority and Natural Resources Wales. They must invite Welsh Ministers, chief constables and police and crime commissioners from respective police areas, a probation services member, at least one body from the voluntary and community sector and any other person who exercises functions of a public nature, to each board. All members are supposed to ensure that there is adequate ‘joining-up’ within PSDBs. The need for joined-up governance is especially important in successfully adapting to climate impacts, as recent research has shown. PSDBs also have a duty to prepare well-being goals, of which a climate ‘resilient Wales’ is one. All the other well-being goals relate to well-adapted communities in some way or another. The FGC has the power to review how PSDBs approach local well-being, and if something does go wrong, the PSDB in question has a duty to take all reasonable steps to follow the course of action recommended by the commissioner, although there are caveats.
Having read the FGA, I think we must exercise a bit of caution with respect to assuming it will answer all our climate adaptation prayers. Those involved in the implementation of the FGA would claim that it goes far beyond any other previous Welsh legislation related to climate change and communities. In statutory language it probably is true. However, previous statutory local community plans like Community Strategies (CSs) and their associated governance implementation mechanisms like Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs), were also heralded at the time for being a participatory sustainable development panacea for local communities. Subsequent research on LSPs has illustrated how environmental sustainability and increased community involvement in local decisions have been side-lined for business-as-usual approaches that prioritise local economic development over environmental issues like climate change, with only limited participation by communities in local environmental decisions. Much of the language used in the new FGA regarding the sustainable development – specifically economic, social and environmental well-being – are not dissimilar to the language used when CSs originally replaced Local Agenda 21 in 1999.
The Assemblies and Government’s inclusive consultation process with the Welsh public leading up to the passing of the FGA is definitely welcomed. As has all the related policy language regarding the need for local governance platforms like PSDBs to be more transparent, participative and consider the long-term in their decision-making processes, with the additional check of a scrutinising FGC to ensure communities continue to have their say and involvement as PSDBs are rolled out across Wales.
Yet in the FGA there is a lesson that needs to be learnt by all of us, not just our Assembly Members and Government. Communities need to remain firmly grounded because the hard work is yet to come. Increasing responsibility for communities to influence adaptation options in their own areas is a valiant admission from government that they cannot do it alone. Wales asked for increased community participation and transparency, and now it seems we have got it.
It is now a question for all communities in Wales to translate their voices into concerted action by working with public sector bodies in implementing locally-specific adaptation initiatives that they think will protect their communities from future climate impacts. The Welsh Government, through the FGA, has only provided a partial answer to the uncertainty question of when will these events occur. The question will only be fully answered – the future testing of the resilience of the FGA – when the next flood hits Aberystwyth or the next heat wave hits South Wales. In the interim all we can do is continue inspiring future leaders and community champions in Wales through FGA-related policy and strategies to ensure we continually increase the adaptive capacity of all our communities.
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