01. 10. 2012

Sustainable Development - Alive and Well in Wales

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I felt almost overwhelmed by nostalgia on a visit to Cardiff last week to meet the Welsh Environment Minister and discuss the new Sustainable Development Bill that is being brought forward by the Welsh Government.

It took me right back to many earlier visits to Cardiff as Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission over nine years between 2000 and 2009. As a UK-wide body, we trucked around from London to Cardiff to Edinburgh to Belfast – not least to be able to point out to Ministers in Whitehall just how badly they were doing in comparison to Wales and Scotland.

Happily, Wales has pretty much stuck to its guns on this one. The next phase in its SD journey is embodied in a new Bill to impose a sustainable development duty on all public bodies in Wales (as the “central organising principle” of everything the Welsh Government does), and to set up a new SD Commission (although it may not be called that) with a statutory remit to advise and scrutinise – which is something that the Sustainable Development Commission itself never had!

All of which is very heartening – especially for those of us (including me) who have pretty much given up on governments in general when it comes to demonstrating real leadership on sustainable development.

We also had a great session with some of the key stakeholders who are being consulted by Ministers on both the new Bill and the new Body. Some of them were pretty outspoken about that “well-known tendency” of Welsh politicians to talk things up but deliver rather less on the ground by way of practical action! The current Welsh Programme of Government, for instance, doesn’t fit at all well with the indicators and the existing Sustainable Development Action Plan, either by design or through an endemic public sector failure to join all the dots.

This is something that the Environment Minister, John Griffiths, seemed to be very aware of. He was out in Brazil for the Rio +20 conference earlier in the year – his baptism of fire in terms of these global jamborees.

One of the few decisions they actually managed to sign off on in Rio was to develop some high level Sustainable Development Goals – to take the place of the current Millennium Development Goals from 2015 onwards – but everyone seemed to agree that it would be crazy to wait around until then before getting on with Wales’s own high-level SD goals.

Sustainable development is indeed about the long term, and the new Bill will need to reflect that. But not at the expense of things that can be done right now. And that means focussing on the economy.

With the economy in the dire shape that it is today, sustainable development will never work (as the central organising principle) unless the focus is on jobs, skills, innovation and economic opportunity for all.

There are already some great projects underway in Wales (including Arbed, a significant home retrofit scheme), but they need to be scaled and driven forward with real urgency. And that in turn means building effective partnerships with the CBI in Wales and other business organisations.

John Griffiths and the First Minister (Carwyn Jones) get that absolutely. George Osborne absolutely doesn’t – which is why the CBI nationally continues to give him a vigorous working over at his pathetic failure to take any kind of lead on the idea of the Green Economy.

This is all about leadership in difficult times. It won’t be easy getting everyone to buy into the idea of a new SD duty for the public sector in Wales, which is already wrestling with so many different challenges.

But I left Cardiff in a relatively upbeat mood – in the sure knowledge that Ministers, civil society, public sector representatives and the business community in Wales understand just how important it is to get that balance right between the short term and the long term.

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