One Wales: One Planet – the Sustainable Development Scheme of the Welsh Assembly Government appeared in May 2009.
Now in spring 2014 we are having a ‘national conversation’ about the successor to this plan, renamed the ‘Future Generations Bill’.
Not exactly awe-inspiring speed.
The ‘conversation’ came to Carmarthen yesterday, March 26th, to an event titled ‘Climate Change and Community Resilience for Carmarthenshire Future Generations’, at the Halliwell Conference Centre. The organisers were anxious not to scare the assembly of public and voluntary sector staff, town and community councillors, and environmental activists, but in the process lost some focus by revealing aims that seem incompatible, such as greater prosperity achieved while only using Wales’s ‘fair share’ of resources.
What is prosperity?
Of course, it all depends how you define ‘prosperity’. Is it households having more disposable income? Households being happier? Public services being available and affordable? Or a mixture of these, or something else entirely?
If we really do use just our ‘fair share’ of resources, we have to accept a dramatic reduction of over 60%, and if populations continue to rise, by 2050 – the time horizon for the Future Generations Bill – we are probably talking about a reduction of 70% or more. That is not pain-free, just as the present UK’s government’s austerity measures are not pain free, and those measures are a mere fleabite compared with the necessary future pull-back – although the austerity welfare cuts feel like serious deprivation to those who are affected.
Many of the attendees knew that material standards of living would have to fall, but no one in the Welsh Government seems to be saying this clearly enough.
We can achieve a green-washed prosperity, but only if we continue to use more than our ‘fair share’ of resources, especially because we are pushing against the limits of many resources, such as fresh water, fertile soil, fossil fuels that still provide an energy gain on top of the energy used in extracting them, and rare minerals.
More resources would be available to those living if the world’s population fell, but no one wants to say that, either.
The champions for sustainability, people such as Jane Davidson, Wales’s minister for environment, sustainability and housing from 2007 to 2011, and Peter Davies, Wales’s sustainable futures commissioner, who both spoke at the Climate Change and Community Resilience event, have a complex network of paths to negotiate. They have to be diplomats.
Dr Alan Netherwood, honorary research fellow in Cardiff University’s school of planning and geography, can be more controversial, and he relayed some uncomfortable statistics, for example nearly a quarter, 23%, of households in Wales officially live in poverty.
It will be tough to increase their material standards of living when we are struggling to adapt to an energy constrained world. We will almost certainly have to redefine poverty, downwards.
Return to 1950
Yesterday one of the attendees suggested that we should think about the future as a form of return to a 1950-ish past. This was before the explosion of consumerism, before mass foreign travel, before mass instant communications, a time when most people worked locally and when food was rationed. I agree, we will have to reorder our lives, in response to external pressures, so that we consume a lot less, and rely more on the extended family and local community for welfare support. My grandad, whose family responsibilities predated the Welfare State, belonged to some friendly societies, in which we could see a resurgence, along with credit unions, allotments and building societies.
For many of us, a backwards future without plentiful electricity, tablets, smart phones and You Tube would be alarming, but unless we can switch energy sources from fossil to renewable, that’s where we are headed. We have the technology to make the transformation, but not the money. Another challenge appears: if you do not have enough money saved, you need to borrow to finance infrastructure projects. Most lenders expect to be repaid with interest. Yet diminishing resources mean that economies cannot grow, and growth provides the ‘surplus’ with which to pay interest.
Thank heavens for Environment Wales, represented yesterday by Clare Sain-ley-Berry. This voluntary partnership, funded by the Welsh Government, currently has about £600,000 a year to distribute in grants for projects which have a solid environmental dimension, including community renewable energy ventures. £60 million would be more welcome in the circumstances, but it’s not there and there’s scant prospect of it being there in the future. Every penny has to be milked for maximum impact.
The Future Generations Bill is due to be introduced into the National Assembly this summer, and in March 2015 the first ‘Report on Behalf of Future Generations’ should be published. Yesterday’s event is supposed to feed into the flow of relevant information.
The title ‘Climate Change and Community Resilience’ was probably too general, because apart from raising the dangers of building on flood plains and pressing for renewable energy projects, there wasn’t enough time to do more than summarise the topic, and nobody had to grapple with complex scenarios of competing priorities, and I do not remember words like ‘cost benefit analysis’ being uttered.
Problems to ponder
A useful future session might be to give each group of four to six people a problem to work through, perhaps similar to the following:
- Schools and hospitals have been centralised but fuel is rationed for private and public transport, and many communities have no more than one bus service a week to the nearest town. How do people access education and health services? Do the services need to be reconfigured? Whatever the answers, you have to show at least a one-third reduction in the use of non-renewable resources, with the potential for a 70% reduction by 2050.
- The residents of a housing development that has flooded repeatedly (due to intense rainfall resulting from climate change) can no longer obtain buildings insurance, neither can they sell their homes for anything near the price they paid for them, and many are in negative equity. There is farmland on two sides, level with the estate, and housing two metres higher on the remaining two sides. How can the flood risk be reduced in resource-efficient ways?
- A landowner in a village is willing to provide land for workshops. The parish council thinks this will encourage some young families to move in – there are half a dozen empty houses available to rent fairly cheaply — and the village school needs more children if it is not to close. The potential site is rural, though, and not zoned for any form of development. The local planning authority is opposed to development in the countryside. What actions could the parish council take?
Was the event worth holding? Definitely. It signals a will, at government level, to take seriously issues like climate change and resource scarcity, even if the language used by government is too cautious. If everyone who attended acts as a voice for sustainability in their own communities, that’s a big step forward here in Wales.
Meanwhile, the London-based UK government seems to have abandoned all thoughts of a sustainability agenda.
Pat Dodd Racher