Lord Bird: The new decade offers a unique opportunity for decision-makers to act in the interests of future generations
The Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill will revolutionise how the UK thinks and plans for the long-term, and will give future generations a voice in decision-making, writes Lord Bird.
Too often, governments don’t plan effectively for the long-term. And though life is hard for far too many people today, our descendants will pay the biggest price. The new decade offers a unique opportunity for decision-makers to act in the interests of future generations. And my private member’s bill, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, is our chance to do so.
I am delighted that the Bill continues to attract cross-party support. Seventy two MPs signed the Future Generations Pledge in December, and The Big Issue launched its Today for Tomorrow campaign to a packed audience of Parliamentarians in February. It’s second reading in the Lords takes place on 13 March (a Friday, clearly an auspicious date).
My draft legislation aims to root in sustainability and prevention at the heart of policymaking to ensure that the UK thinks and plans for the long-term. It builds on the inspiring work of Sophie Howe, Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner, who has done so much to take long-term thinking mainstream - and the leadership shown in Gibraltar, where Daniella Tilbury is promoting sustainability for future generations across The Rock (and the world).
With the existential risks of irreversible global warming, poverty and runaway technological ‘advancements’ - not to mention global pandemics - bearing down on us, future generations will surely ask whether we, who have the opportunity to tackle these problems before they spiral out of control, were really the good ancestors they have a right to expect. We should be. And we can be.
Internationally, there’s growing recognition that short-termism in policymaking needs to be addressed. In its latest budget, the Scottish Government is focussed on increasing wellbeing by putting living standards and the environment on the same footing as the economy. The Welsh Government passed its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in 2015 and the First Minister is taking strides to shift to preventative spending. Further afield, New Zealand introduced a wellbeing budget in 2019 - and in Iceland, the measure of success is shifting to wellbeing. There are plenty more examples. The time has come for this forward-thinking, preventative approach.
My Bill will require (non-devolved) public bodies in the UK to work sustainably towards achieving a series of wellbeing goals, as is the case in Wales. But this won’t be top-down. I’m calling for a national conversation (similar to the way the UN Global Goals were agreed) so that we all get a say in deciding - post-Brexit - the type of UK we want to live in, and leave to our grandchildren.
A UK-wide Future Generations Commissioner would ensure that public bodies being tasked with working towards these goals isn’t just a box-ticking exercise. They would play a major role in ensuring that the UK Government is best equipped to prepare for and tackle the complex issues - including poverty and the climate crisis - and prevent unnecessary problems from occurring in the first place.
The Bill takes a systematic approach to enshrining long-term thinking in policymaking and the wider world. There is a requirement for companies (of a specified size) to report on how their core activities impact the UK’s wellbeing goals; for a Joint Committee in Parliament (inspired by Finland) to examine prospective legislation from a long-term perspective; a requirement for public bodies to focus on increasing preventative spending; and a legal enforcement mechanism to ensure this is taken seriously.
The Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill is our chance to create a country we want to live in. It will revolutionise how the UK thinks and plans for the long-term, and will give future generations a voice in decision-making. Now is the time to act today for tomorrow. Now is the time to take a strategic approach across government, business and local communities to level up opportunity; not just between regions, but between generations too.
Lord Bird is a Crossbench member of the House of Lords.