Spending 3 hours in a ʻsuiteʼ of the millennium stadium in Cardiff could never be called exciting in itself: the sandwiches are pretty gross and you feel like youʼre in the middle of an industrial warehouse. However, if, you were to find yourself there to take part in a consultation with the Welsh Government on their new Sustainable Development (SD) Duty Bill you might just exit feeling as excited as I did.
Yes, this is going to be about Wales. And yes, it will be about Welsh Government.
BUT, it relates to all of us who are interested in issues of SD all around the world
because having a working example of what Government engagement and consultation on issues of SD is invaluable in lobbying other countries to do the same, to rise to the challenge.
Wales is now hailed as the only country with SD written into its constitution (surely this isnʼt true?!), meaning, every member of Government has a basic duty to implement policies in full consideration of SD issues. Ages ago the Government produced this strategy called ʻOne Wales, One Planetʼ which despite my initial nagging scepticism screaming GREENWASH at me, has actually proven to be a serious and comprehensive blueprint of how Wales aims to reduce its footprint on the planet. Amongst many measures which all come under the banner of SD it has included drastic planning changes to how new housing is built in Wales (all new housing stock must be zero carbon after 2015), it has made Wales the leader in waste disposal as 80% of homes in Wales are serviced with regular doorstep recycling and composting facilities, etc etc.
What is the point in creating an SD Duty?
Good Q. And I suppose this was what todays initial consultation was supposed to glean from those outside of government. So far a vision and an aim of the duty have been outlined by the Welsh Government, now it was our turn to contribute our thoughts on the definition of SD, the content of the legislation, the purpose of the duty, and the way in which it should be implemented.
According to the governments discussion paper:
“Sustainable development is our central organising principle. This means that our approach to Government is about:
• Taking decisions that are effective in the long run, and not just over the short term.
• Taking a joined-up approach to Government, ensuring that the economic, social and the environmental issues that enhance people’s quality of life are integrated into everything that we do.
• Working in partnership with others, so that participation and engagement with people, communities, businesses, the third sector, and the public sector in Wales is central to how we make decisions.”
As you might expect there were many different ideas and interests; most people were of a consensus that it needs to be able to hold public sector bodies and businesses to account for breaking the duty, but most of all, it needs to be an incentiviser, a goal setter and the catalyst for dialogue.
The First Minister of Wales announced that the bill to further elaborate on the existing constitutional duty is “…about defining the long term development path for our nation. It means healthy, productive people; vibrant, inclusive communities; a diverse and resilient environment and an advanced and innovative economy.”
The Welsh Government wants to attract business and investment into Wales that wants to be in Wales because of the SD Duty; it wants to create a positive obligation on the Welsh Assembly and the Government, rather than just restricting and regulating everything it does. The best way of putting this duty into practical terms would be to say that it seeks to create a positive mentality rather than a list of tasks and extra bureaucracy that everyone just ticks off but doesnʼt engage with in any way.
That sounds good to me, but will it work? I think the best I can offer is, you donʼt know until you try. With most environmental law that isnʼt regulatory, that is it contains substantive values, it is very new, and so no one can predict the effect accurately but you can at least try and learn from other areas of practice.
Has this ever been done before by a Government?
Thereʼs a great bit of a speech by Welshman Phil Williams talking about Walesʼ SD Constitutional Duty: “In our euphoric moments we claim that we are the only parliament alongside the parliaments of Tasmania who have a constitutional duty to pursue sustainable development. It is a sophisticated Welsh device to always claim to be second or one of two. Anyone can claim to have a unique feature: all you need to do is fail to look anywhere else.”
One environmental lawyer recently said that legislation is needed to create legal duties and monitoring of Sustainable Development, instead of hotch potch good practice springing up here and there. And there certainly are SD Duties of public bodies and councils etc, but not so much on the Constitutional level. Given the supposed longevity and difficulty in amending a countryʼs constitution, this is why such a fuss is being made.
In a different spin on the same issues, Bolivia has enacted laws which make Mother Earth Rights equal to those of human rights. That means that its mineral deposits and natural resources have been redefined as ʻblessingsʼ. This is the spiritual, indigenous peoples version of a sustainable development duty which usually defines peoples, resources and the environment in a very anthropocentric way, this more holistic version considers all entities equal-humans, environment, animals, resources etc. These laws are projected to halt large infrastructure projects, restrict the mining that has created mammoth environmental pollution in Bolivia as well as empowering communities to be involved in decision making and challenging large corporations active in Bolivia. Framed differently this is how I would envisage an SD Duty working in this country.
The other aspect of the Welsh Government which could prove a great addition to an SD Duty is the position of ʻCommissioner for Sustainable Futuresʼ. SD easily slots into the mandate of a future generations commissioner because without SD future generations can expect a much depleted and dirtier future devoid of many things in the natural world that we take for granted today.
I would hesitantly say, that a legal duty that can be prescriptive and specific about how to meet certain requirements/regulations as well as inspire a positive and long term mentality and behavioural change in public institutions through the principles and aims it embodies, will have more capacity to instill long term change than one person (even with their own commission behind them) ever could.
However, the value of having a commissioner on top of a duty is that it is everyones role to implement the duty (so half of the commissionerʼs job is done) leaving the Commissioner free to check up on implementation and possibly seek enforcement actions where the body/person has breached their duty on behalf of future generations. So its time for Welsh youth to swing into action and make the most of this guy, after all he needs a mandate, so lets give him one!
Moving forward, beyond this initial consultation the Welsh Government will be conducting sectoral consultations (e.g forestry, business etc), and hopefully Dyfodol can secure one for young people. As much as I was happy to be there, most young people would have felt that their quality of simply ʻbeingʼ a young person was not enough to bring to the table. It is hard to stand your ground when the person next to you runs a big charity, or the person opposite used to be the Welsh Environment Minister. For a duty that is for the benefit of future generations, and the future of the current generation, there needs to be some creative brainstorming and some serious buy in by those of us whose future in Wales it will affect.
**Watch this space and if youʼre interested in being involved in the youth consultations post a comment below**