Why we need a guardian of the future

28 Feb 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 28 Feb 2020

One of the most difficult challenges for the restored administration at Stormont will be to address long-term challenges.

This is not just because they are currently facing a tsunami of serious issues which need to be tackled immediately. Examples of these include the crisis within health and social care and the serious under-funding of public transport and social housing.

It is also because there is rarely significant political benefit in thinking long term. Politicians work in electoral cycles and time and again we see tough decisions that would bring future benefit (or solve a looming crisis) shirked because they are unpopular in the short term.

Ironically the extent of the health and social care crisis is a direct consequence of a failure to think long term a decade and more back. If the future well-being of citizens had trumped party political concerns about re-structuring hospitals and parties had engaged more in explaining the necessity of change to voters rather than extracting electoral advantage by opposing change, it may not have come to this in the first place.

Nowhere is the need for a long term approach to policy development better illustrated than with the environment.

NICVA and a host of other interested parties recently published A Common Purpose for Our Environment. It is intended as a response for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affair’s public discussion document on an environment strategy.

One of its most interesting proposals is for a Well-being of Future Generations Act which would be designed to address this difficult issue of keeping policy focused on long term benefits.

The proposal is inspired by a piece of legislation passed by the Welsh Assembly in 2016 which is attracting world-wide attention. A similar piece of legislation will receive its second reading in the House of Lords next month with support across the political spectrum.

The Act  places a statutory duty on a list of public bodies to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales. To do this they must set and publish well-being objectives.

There are seven of these objectives and public bodies must show how they are addressing each of them, not just one or two.

They are:

A prosperous Wales, which produces growth sustainably and acts on climate change;

A resilient Wales, which protects both bio-diversity and social and economic resilience;

A healthier Wales;

A more equal Wales;

A Wales of cohesive communities;

A Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language and;

A globally responsible Wales.

All this is underpinned by the adoption of a “sustainability principle” this means that “the body must act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

So in other words whenever decisions are made they must take into account the impact they will have on people in the future.

Wales has also appointed a Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe to hold government and other public bodies to account on behalf of people of the future.

Her website is an object lesson for other public bodies. It has a section called Simple Changes which explains what people and organisations can do to progress the overall agenda, with which spells out the rationale behind the change and how it contributes.

There’s also a section called Get Inspired which spells out international best practice in progressing against the seven objectives and also tells stories about local people, businesses and public bodies that are making a difference.

It is very early to say what difference the Future Generations initiative has made, but it has certainly caught not just the Welsh public’s imagination but also that of legislators from all over the world.

It also seems obvious that having a commissioner whose role is to safeguard our futures is helpful to political parties and policy-makers and of course young people and children whose interests it most serves.

A Future Generations Act should be seriously considered by the Executive, especially given that our own Programme for Government is also primarily focused on well being and has a similar need to require that all departments and other public bodies are working towards shared goals.

A particular issue faced by environmentalists is that whilst everyone knows that a healthy environment is a good thing, it is not as easy to measure the benefits in terms that are readily understood.

This is where the concept of “natural capital” comes in. We all know what financial capital is and the consequences of it running out – bankruptcy. Natural capital is the world’s stock of natural resources – the air that we breathe, the soil, the water and all living things. If we use too much of it will need to be replenished (for example forests we cut down need to be replenished). If we don’t replenish what we use our ecosystems will collapse.

So when we don’t manage our natural capital we don’t just create an ecological mess but we also create social and economic liabilities as well.

The British government now has a natural capital committee which advises the government on the value of the UK’s natural resources. It will be used to help measure progress on  Westminster’s Environmental Strategy.

Earlier this week the Carnegie Trust published an estimate of the value of the green and blue (ie water) spaces provided by Derry City and Strabane District Council. This was the first report of its kind in Northern Ireland.

It calculates that the council supplies more than £75 million in benefits to residents each year through its 223 greenspaces – providing £22 worth of value for every £1 spent.

The benefits measured can include cleaner air and water, improved physical health, mental health and wellbeing, carbon storage, temperature regulation and flood risk regulation.

St Columb’s park in Derry is cited as the most valuable of these assets, worth £4.5 million per annum according to the report.

These figures might sound fantastical but they are not. They have been calculated by the same methodology used for England’s Environmental Plan and are therefore accepted by central government as robust.

This report will be used to help develop the council’s environmental strategy into the future.

It is to be hoped that measuring natural capital will be widely adopted across Northern Ireland.

A good environment is generally seen to be positive in a nebulous, nice to have, sort of a way. It is about time more of us understood that our natural assets have an economic and social value as well and that whilst economic bankruptcy may be unfortunate, environmental bankruptcy is terminal.

 

 

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