Lord Bird: We must shift from short-term thinking and incorporate a future generations test into policy making

Posted On: 
17th June 2019

It is time to stop playing the generation game and instead develop a long-term holistic approach to tackling problems, writes Lord Bird

'I'm hopeful that the momentum created by Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes can pave the way for democratic renewal,' writes Lord Bird
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In 2001, 10 years after launching The Big Issue, I was asked what I was planning to do over the next 10 years. “I’ve spent a decade mending broken clocks. Now I want to prevent them from breaking,” was my reply. Fast forward 18 years, and I’m still banging the drum for prevention, for early intervention, for upstream thinking. For future forecasting and acting in the long-term; and for shifting our time, energy, resources and thinking from responding to the rolling crises of today, to preventing the problems of tomorrow.

We’re brilliant at coming up with bright solutions to patch things up, and at putting off the big thinking for another time. The problem with this approach is that eventually the road you’ve kicked the can down comes to an end, and you’re faced with a choice that demands immediate action. We’ve reached that place with the ecological and climate crises. These biggest of issues require decisive action from governments, businesses and communities and demand nothing less than an all-out emergency response.

"Eventually the road you've kicked the can down comes to an end" 

Despite the limited ambition of the prime minister’s ‘net zero’ target announcement, and though there’s a long way to go in grasping and preventing climate catastrophe, I'm hopeful that the momentum created by Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes can pave the way for democratic renewal. I suggest that it is time for a new, overarching, holistic approach to tackling problems in a long-term way; one that ensures our democracy is equipped to prevent 'tipping point' emergencies arising, and works so that the voices of the unborn are better protected and represented in our policymaking processes.

Breaking out of the short-term, five-year election loop, and embracing the opportunity of acting for tomorrow, today, is no small or easy task. But there are lessons to learn from other nations, including the massive cultural shift being led in Wales by Sophie Howe, its Future Generations Commissioner. I’m calling on parliamentarians from all parties to join forces in understanding how we can learn from Wales’ leadership and ensure that the principle of safeguarding the interests of future generations can be woven into every level of our decision-making.

In Wales, this change was sparked by the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 which gave permission, and a legal obligation, to shake up ‘business as usual’ by improving people’s social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being. It requires public bodies to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with each other, and to prevent persistent problems, including climate change, from arising in the first place.

It’s an inspired piece of thinking that has a pedigree stretching from the Brundtland Commission report to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and there are other ways that we can futureproof our systems. Why couldn’t parliament create its own committee for the future, like Finland, to scrutinise bills and challenge ministers on their short-term approach? Why can’t we get serious about preventative spending and require the Treasury to define it, measure it and increase it? Why couldn’t we require all policies to pass a future generations test or threshold? And why couldn’t we ensure that public bodies have the resources to scan the horizon to pre-empt problems coming down the track?

Now is the moment to enshrine the rights of future generations in our decision-making processes. The existential challenges posed by climate change, science and technology are big, but not insurmountable. If we don’t want to be the generation who knew what needed to be done, but fiddled while Rome burned, we need to take action. After all, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Lord Bird is a crossbench peer. His debate on ‘Protecting and representing the interests of future generations in policy making’ will take place on Thursday 20 June.