Municipalism should give ordinary people the means to overcome the extraordinary challenges of the present moment: the climate crisis, the decline of democratic participation, and the entrenchment of structural poverty and inequality. Local and regional responses to these problems, including renewable energy schemes and employment projects based on community ownership and control of local assets, are often driven by a concern with sustainability and provision for the welfare of future generations. While much has been written on developing such approaches at the local level, we can also ask: what happens when national government legislation is introduced to help cultivate the economic and political conditions for groups and individuals to act on these concerns?
The Welsh government’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) illustrates the complexity of this question. Proposed in 2011 by Jane Davidson, then the Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing, the Act mandates Wales’ public bodies, including local authorities, to prioritise sustainability, moving away from short-term “sticking-plaster” policies and towards longer-term preventative measures to combat poverty, health inequalities and climate change. In her book #futuregen: Lessons from a Small Country, Davidson argues that the Act can facilitate “new disruptive conversations at the local level about what communities want to do for themselves”. She suggests thinking of the Act as “legislative glue”, holding together a values framework within which strategies like environmentalism and community wealth-building can operate.
Some practical examples show the Act’s potential and its limitations. On the positive side, the twenty-year saga of the proposed construction of a relief road to alleviate congestion on the M4 motorway was finally resolved in 2019, when Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford determined that the scheme would not proceed. This decision stemmed not only from its escalating costs but also from environmental concerns, from the global climate crisis to the road’s potential local impact on the Gwent Levels, an expansive coastal wetland bordering the Severn Estuary. Opposition to the scheme, which argued that the money would be better and more sustainably spent on improving public transport and enabling active travel, included an intervention by the Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe, who concluded that the plans “did not support local well-being objectives and national priorities on decarbonisation, inequality, physical and mental health”.
However, the Act’s shortcomings were exemplified in the sale of Trecadwgan Farm in Pembrokeshire in West Wales. Purchased after World War I by Pembrokeshire County Council to offer a living to younger tenant farmers, the farm was put up for public auction in 2018 when the council’s tenancy came to an end. Amid local concern that it would be sold for development into holiday cottages, which would exacerbate the area’s problems of second home ownership and the loss of family farms, a group was established to purchase the property as a community asset. They raised £50,000 and submitted a business plan for an organic farm which would provide healthy food for the local area, education and training in agricultural methods, and a social and cultural hub.
The community’s purchase would have actively delivered on the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, as well as supporting the Welsh government’s environmental policies by enabling carbon reduction schemes. But despite this, and despite the bid’s support from the public and some council members, the farm ended up sold to the highest bidder, a wealthy farming family from outside Wales. Local farmer Alex Heffron sees the case as “a big missed opportunity […] The selling off of county farms makes it even harder for younger people, and particularly those without a family farm or family money, to go into farming. What’s the point of the Act if they’re not going to use it?”
Heffron’s question underlines the importance of establishing avenues to public recourse and making support available to both facilitate and enforce potentially progressive legislation. If the Future Generations Commissioner’s office believes that a public body has not kept to the spirit of the Act, however, its powers are currently limited to reviewing the decision, making suggestions for improvement, and “naming and shaming”.
The Welsh legislation has nonetheless inspired a UK-wide Future Generations Bill, introduced by John Bird and currently under discussion in Westminster with cross-party support. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, the Bill’s co-sponsor, says that a key difference is that the UK legislation will enshrine a legal right for individuals to challenge public bodies to adhere to the principles behind the Act. This will give the proposed legislation more teeth, but Lucas acknowledges that it will still not constitute a “silver bullet” for ensuring public policies are geared towards sustainability and local empowerment.
Even with more teeth, it remains unclear how far government legislation can facilitate municipalist and localist initiatives. Welsh politics at a national level has been recently characterised by ambitious-sounding policy directions with a basis in localism. These include the “foundational economy”, focusing on basic services like health and social care, and the Welsh government’s declaration of a climate emergency in 2019 following public protest on the issue.
But there are doubts over the level of popular engagement with these policies, which restricts the political ability to build momentum behind these ambitions, leaving them limited to fairly abstract, if commendable, principles. These ideas at national level, and the variety of grassroots community groups pursuing projects on similar lines, should ideally be connected in the middle at administrative and operational levels, but this may need the Welsh government and local authorities to cede a greater degree of directional control to communities than they seem willing or able to do.
Returning to the sale of Trecadwgan farm, Pembrokeshire County Council’s response to criticism of its decision was that, in maximising profit from the sale to spend elsewhere, it was obtaining the best value for all its constituents. Yet one intention of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act was to alter the interpretation of “value” from bottom-line income to social and cultural benefit. However, the cash-strapped circumstances of local authorities in Wales and beyond following a decade of austerity – and the ideological impact of the past thirty years’ encouragement of outsourcing and privatisation – means that this aspirational redefinition will involve both cultural changes and financial and structural support for communities and councils themselves.
New ways of thinking and working may, in turn, require further devolution of Wales from Westminster. But, particularly after Brexit, this isn’t the way things are going. The UK government’s Internal Market Act (2020) has been criticised by all the devolved nations as a ‘power grab’ by Westminster, as it gives central government powers to intervene in areas, including environmental and economic development, that were previously devolved. Its perceived threat to devolved powers is so great that the Welsh Government recently sought a judicial review of the Act.
This tug-of-war highlights the broader and more urgent backdrop to debates on municipalism: the interplay of national, regional and local authorities in enabling both legislative scope and practical resources for local empowerment. In the UK, constitutional reform could play a vital role in altering this balance. In contrast to the centralising power grab of Boris Johnson’s government, the Welsh government’s 2021 report on “radical federalism” proposed decentralisation of power across the UK, including devolution for England, and a greater recognition of the role of local government. However, critics of these proposals point out that they still allow fundamental decisions – on macroeconomic policy and international relations among others – to remain the province of Westminster, and argue that Wales, like Scotland, would be better served by independence.
As shown with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, political prescriptions aimed at ambitious transformation require practical backing, encouraging both public bodies and communities to use such legislation and supporting them when they do so. Such capacity remains restricted not only by the current limits and fragility of devolution, but also by the financial and socioeconomic impact of UK-wide policies like austerity. Bolder solutions may lie outside of well-intentioned legislation and in a UK whose constituent parts are further distanced from – or free entirely of – centralised control.
Rhian E. Jones is a Red Pepper editor
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