Why it’s time to give Wales’ woolly Future Generations Act some teeth
Rhys ab Owen, Plaid Cymru Senedd Member for South Wales Central
The need to plan for the future has rightly come to the forefront in recent years. The Covid pandemic and looming climate emergency has highlighted the need for a long-terms strategy to mitigate destructive short-termism.
The trailblazing Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015 was Wales’ chance to enshrine that into law. We are the only nation in the world to do so and have been told regularly by Welsh Ministers that we are the envy of the international community.
The Act was a radical piece of legislation and has inspired other nations. Sophie Howe, our Future Generation’s Commissioner, has been advising the UN on the need for their own UN Special Envoy for Future Generations, a Futures Summit in 2023 and a UN Declaration for Future Generations. Closer to home, Lord John Bird, who co-founded the Big Issue, brought forth a Bill in the House of Lords based on Wales’ own act to codify sustainable development into law in England.
Scotland have also committed to enshrining future generation legislation, while the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, spoke in November 2021 on his hopes to replicate the Act in Ireland.
However, seven years later, the Act has shown itself to be more bark than bite.
Since its passing there have been several attempts to use the Act to protect various community assets, from wildlife and natural reserves (with early appeals against the M4 relief road in Newport), to schools (seen with Cymer Afan Comprehensive). On each occasion, the public authority under challenge successfully argued that the well-being duty placed on public bodies by the Act was too general and aspirational to be enforceable. To quote a silk in one of the applications, Rhodri Williams QC the Act is inherently “toothless”.
The whole point of the Future Generations Act was to put citizens at the centre of decision-making processes and to give the public a legitimate stake in contributing to governmental policy. What then, is the point of the law if people and communities can’t utilise it to protect their local assets? Acts of Parliament need to be enforceable, not only aspirational, and that rhetoric must be turned into action. The law must hold public bodies to account rather than be a mere tick box exercise.
Fundamentally, the Act is, to quote the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd “not specific and tight enough”. It’s both too general and too vague in its method and aims. It does not hold politicians and public bodies to account, and it does not give the citizens of Wales legally enforceable rights.
This must become the focal point of how to empower the Future Generations Act and make it worthy of the lavish praise it receives. This is a chance for us in Wales to influence our future, and the future of the world. We can lead the way. We can show other nations how to protect our communities, our environment and how to make sustainable development the cornerstone of governance.
That’s why it’s time for some post-legislative scrutiny of the Act. When an Act does not deliver on its intention then it needs to be amended to do so. Whilst a Labour backbencher the current Counsel General, Mick Antoniw described the principles of the Act during its passage through the Senedd in 2014 as far too loose and woolly. When I questioned him in plenary on the Act in late November 2021 he said, “I think, with all legislation, once it has been in force for a while, it does need to be reviewed.”
This certainly needs to happen with the Future Generations Act. This piece of legislation has failed to live up to its radical promise to provide a voice to the voiceless and to empower local communities.
It’s time to enable the Act to live up to its original expectations. It’s time to give the Future Generations Act some teeth.