It’s not surprising that Sophie Howe, visiting Australia from Wales as the world’s first public official appointed as a guardian of the interests of future generations, is generating considerable interest from the media and wider community.
Howe, who finished her seven-year term as inaugural Future Generations Commissioner for Wales in January, recently delivered the John Menadue Oration 2023, and has also met with various politicians and organisations as well as giving many interviews.
Her visit, supported by the Centre for Policy Development and Griffith University, was perfectly timed, coming as the Albanese Government finalises work on its May budget.
As Howe acknowledged, the budget is being handed down as the world faces a polycrisis – of conflict, polarisation fuelled by increasing wealth inequality, plateauing of life expectancy and “a planet on the brink of irreversible damage”.
It also comes at a time when many countries – including Finland, Iceland, Scotland and Aotearoa/New Zealand – are moving beyond GDP to measure decisions on the basis of planetary and human wellbeing.
As Australia inches towards such an approach, Howe underscored how much we have to learn from Wales. It’s a country once known for coal that now wants to be known for being at the forefront of “the wellbeing revolution”, and for putting “the wellbeing of people and planet and future generations at the forefront of our decision making”.
Howe’s role was established under the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. This requires all main public institutions, including local authorities, health boards, public health and environment agencies and government, to demonstrate how they are meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The Act sets out seven long-term wellbeing goals linked to the Sustainable Development Goals and devised in conversation with the citizens of Wales, who said they wanted to protect the country’s natural assets for the next generation, that fairness and community were important, and that Welsh language, culture and heritage was something they wanted to pass on.
Howe said her role was to be the voice or conscience who calls out “the madness of short-term decision making which disregards those yet to be born”. The Act was more than legislation but “the biggest cultural change program” that Wales had seen, she said.
The Act requires institutions to shift their focus upstream, acknowledging the evidence that the biggest determinants of the health of the nation have very little to do with what the healthcare system does.
Healthy transport policy
Howe’s presentation highlighted the importance of public institutions removing silos and working together beyond boundaries to deliver wellbeing for all. She used as an example the policy question of how to reduce carbon emissions from transport systems.
The problem with mass investment in electric vehicles, she said, is that EVs still have an environmental impact, contribute to traffic congestion and lack of physical activity and social connections, and inequality.
“So when you apply a holistic wellbeing lens, then you find that EVs are actually not the answer at all,” she said.
“A much better solution for environment, equality and community and health is to invest in walking, cycling and public transport, which is exactly what a hard fought battle using the Future Generations Act means we are doing in Wales.”
As Commissioner she intervened when the Welsh Government was planning to spend about £1.5 billion building a stretch of motorway to deal with an area of congestion, which was seen as a necessary piece of infrastructure for the economy.
Howe asked the Government to explain how this plan, which would damage biodiversity, was in line with its commitment to act on climate and the goals of a healthier Wales given the development’s impact on air pollution, obesity, and inequality.
“The Government found it hard to answer these questions and consequently, and against all expectations, the First Minister reversed the decision, cancelled the road and set up a Commission to look at alternative options which aligned with the Future Generations Act,” Howe said.
“The Government is now planning to spend half the money improving public transport and active travel routes in the area.”
Howe’s intervention also led to a new transport strategy that prioritised active travel as a transport solution and put private car use at the bottom of the transport hierarchy. It also led to new investment in public transport and active travel, and a moratorium on road building, as well as trials of innovations such as electric bike loan schemes and buses on demands.
In health, Howe described encouraging steps towards “joined up prevention”. She said doctors were issuing free bike hire on prescription, community wellbeing hubs are focusing on tackling the wider determinants of physical and mental health, and there is now a hospital-based solar farm.
Another win was a hospital which decided not to sell surplus land for development but instead developed it for the community with food growing, a land management skills program and space for restoring and connecting with nature.
One of the most important initiatives under the Act was the first government-backed pilot of universal basic income in the UK. Last year the Welsh Government launched this trial, initially targeted towards young people leaving the state care system, who are now receiving an unconditional income of £1600 per month.
Other initiatives described by Howe included community repair shops, “the library of things” where you can borrow anything from a tent to a lawnmower, and school uniform swap shops.
Overcoming barriers to change
However, Howe acknowledged that the road so far has not been easy and that there is still “a huge amount of work to do”. She stressed the importance of making wellbeing “everyone’s business” rather than the responsibility of one minister or one organisation.
“Human nature doesn’t like change and you will find that without strong oversight, supportive and challenging interventions, that the system won’t actually change what it does. It will just use the new wellbeing words to describe it,” she said.
“A framework which sits as the responsibility of one minister or one organisation has a chance of changing ‘a’ rule of the game but won’t change the game itself.”
One of the things that Howe and her colleagues have learnt is the value of finding and working with “the frustrated champions”, those who have seen for a long time that there’s a better way of doing things but the system has frustrated them.
As we wait to see whether the federal budget lives up to Howe’s call to action – that “the best way to prepare for the future is to create it” – perhaps Croakey readers can send us some suggestions for how to unleash Australia’s “frustrated champions”…• See all of the slides presented.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on wellbeing budgets.