Is the Well-being of Future Generations Act the solution to intergenerational inequality? Around the world, conventional policymaking has failed to address intergenerational inequality. Modern political institutions are incentivised to prioritise the short term and current generations at the expense of long-term problems for future generations. Consequently, policymakers repeatedly fail to address multi-generational problems, such as global warming and pandemic preparedness. This blog explores one potential solution to intergenerational inequality: the Well-being of Future Generations Act in Wales. Max Parry, IF volunteer, explains.
Around the world, conventional policymaking has failed to address intergenerational inequality. Modern political institutions are incentivised to prioritise the short term and current generations at the expense of long-term problems for future generations. Consequently, policymakers repeatedly fail to address multi-generational problems, such as global warming and pandemic preparedness. This blog explores one potential solution to intergenerational inequality: the Well-being of Future Generations Act in Wales.
The drivers of intergenerational inequality are complex. Some scholars have argued that humans have a psychological bias towards immediate problems, the product of an evolutionary hangover from humanity’s hunter-gatherer origins. Others contend intergenerational inequality is more structural, a combination of current generations’ voter preferences and future generations’ absence from the political sphere. This power imbalance incentivises politicians to deliver short-term policies for electoral success and is further exacerbated by short-term media and electoral cycles. Such factors have knock on effects on key political institutions such as political parties and the civil service. As part of the British political system, the Welsh Government shares many of these constraints but faces the additional problem of being dependent on short-term annual budgets from the UK Government. Calculated by the Barnett Formula, the Welsh Government’s bloc grant differs annually to mirror the UK Government’s spending in England. Together, the endemic short-termism of our political system and biological predilections have led to exacerbating intergenerational inequality.
The Well-being of Future Generations Act
Passed by the Senedd in 2015, the Well-being of Future Generations Act (WBFGA) is the Welsh Government’s attempt to solve intergenerational inequality. The Act obliges forty-four public bodies across Wales (including the Welsh Government itself) to take “greater account of the long-term impact” of decisions it makes. The Act provides a positive vision for a sustainable Wales through its “Well-being Goals” and the means for achieving it through its “Ways of Working”. To support public bodies in this endeavour, the Act established the world’s first Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. Due to the unique and aspirational nature of the WBFGA it has received increasing attention and praise, most notably from the United Nations Head of Sustainable Development, Nikhil Seth, who said “What Wales is doing today, we hope the world will do tomorrow.”
But how successful has the Act been at reducing intergenerational inequality in Wales, and what could this mean for the rest of the UK? The Act has had notable impacts on Welsh policymaking, the highest profile of which being the Welsh Government’s decision to scrap a £1.1bn road project due to its failure to meet the needs of future generations. Recent evidence also suggests the Act has led to a mindset shift in the public sector towards the long term and it has been successfully embedded as part of local authorities “Integrated Impact Assessments”. However, the Act has several legal and structural shortcomings. The Future Generations Commissioner lacks any legal mechanisms to enforce public bodies to comply with the legislation which means that they can only ‘name and shame’ bad practice. The legislation itself is seen by some as ambiguous, with the well-being goals anathema to people’s lived experience and day-to-day struggles. There have also been implementational challenges, including a lack of guidance and funding for local authorities in order for them to implement the Act effectively. Such challenges have been complicated by further short-term pressures on public bodies, exacerbated by the advent of Covid-19 and the current cost-of-living crisis.
Since the introduction of the Future Generations Act in Wales, momentum has been building to implement similar legislation across the union. While the Scottish government has voted to introduce legislation, the current English government has ignored two recent attempts to pass a UK-wide Well-being of Future Generations Act in both the Commons and Lords. However, the Welsh experience shows tangible benefits of such an Act. With the impact of intergenerational inequality rising, and with all parties looking to develop new policy ideas for the next general election, such a law could form a key tenet of parties’ appeal to young people.
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