THE former Future Generations Commissioner for Wales has said holding politicians to account in the service of long-term goals is a “fight worth having” as ministers consider the creation of a similar role in Scotland.

Sophie Howe – a former Labour councillor and political advisor – was appointed as Wales’s first Future Generations Commissioner in 2016 before stepping down last year.

The role was created to help public bodies engage in long-term thinking and ensure that “the needs of current generations are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.

The Welsh commissioner is also responsible for analysing whether policies being passed by the Senedd cohere with the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which placed a legal obligation on the Welsh Government to improve social, cultural, environmental, and economic wellbeing for current and future generations.

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Earlier this month a consultation on a similar bill in Scotland closed, which included a proposal to appoint a Future Generations Commissioner in Scotland.

“I describe the role as being both coach and referee,” said Howe. “You’re providing support and advice to public institutions on long-term planning, which really isn’t a skill that government officials are taught.

“Whether that’s looking at changes to the school curriculum to consider the skills kids might need in the future or trials of things like Universal Basic Income.

“But the referee part is about monitoring and reporting on the progress we’re making.”

In Wales, the commissioner is permitted to conduct a review into the extent to which a public body’s actions are in line with the needs of future generations.

The National: Sohpie Howe served as the first Future Generations Commissioner for WalesSohpie Howe served as the first Future Generations Commissioner for Wales (Image: Newsquest)

“I used those powers twice and threatened to use them many times,” said Howe.

“In some cases, even the threat was enough to drive some change”.

One of the biggest impacts Howe had during her time as commissioner was on transport policy.

Last year, the Welsh Government scrapped all major road building projects due to concerns about their environmental impact – a move Howe said was informed by thinking about the long-term needs of both people and the planet.

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“We saw a shifting away of resources from building roads towards public transport,” she told The National.

“That’s because when you look at our long-term goals for wellbeing they are about improving health, reducing emissions and connecting communities. All of those goals are much better served by improved public transport infrastructure than they are by building new roads."

However, at a time when the Scottish Government is considering the cost and number of commissioners, questions will not doubt be asked about the need to add another.

"It's a fight worth having"

But Howe said that the role of Future Generations Commissioner helps to solve a systemic problem in our politics: a lack of long-term thinking.

“None of this is easy,” she said.

“Governments are not set up to do long-term thinking and planning. It’s arguably why we face so many of the problems we do now, like climate change or wealth inequality.

“I think politicians need an external accountability mechanism to hold their feet to the fire because I’m not sure that governments marking their own homework ever works out.”

The National: The Senedd now has to consider whether legislation it passes works towards long-term wellbeing goals in WalesThe Senedd now has to consider whether legislation it passes works towards long-term wellbeing goals in Wales

She added that her position as a non-elected official allowed her to think clearly about the long-term future without concerns about the next election.

“Some of the decisions politicians make may be the right ones while simultaneously being electorally unpopular.

“But I’ve got five children myself and I know the decisions being made could make their lives more difficult in the future. So, I think it’s a fight worth having”.

Scotland's bid to tackle short-term electoral cycles 

Sarah Davidson, chief executive of Dunfermline-based public policy organisation Carnegie UK, said a Scottish commissioner could help address short-sightedness in politics.

She told The National: “New Scottish wellbeing legislation that creates a champion for subsequent generations could help us lay the groundwork for a fairer, greener, and more prosperous future.

“To resolve Scotland’s biggest challenges, like tackling entrenched poverty and climate change, we need a long-term approach to our public policy. But our political system is built on relatively short electoral cycles that make it difficult for our elected representatives to look over the horizon.

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“That’s why we need new laws in Scotland that not only encourage cooperation and coordination between different parts of the state, but also creates a new Commissioner for Future Generations.

"The new Commissioner would speak up for the people of Scotland yet to be born or have a vote, while the legislative framework would support long-term delivery by our elected and appointed leaders.”

The Scottish Government is due to publish the findings of the consultation on the Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill in the coming months.