Common issues and the value of shared learning

Peter Davies reflects on his visit to Northern Ireland and their approach to sustainable development

I visited Northern Ireland last week and had opportunity to meet with the officials Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, as well as my old UK SDC colleague Jim Kitchen who now runs Sustainable Northern Ireland.

I was interested to find out more on the impact of the SD duty contained within the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 (c.33) which set out a duty on public authorities to act in the way the consider best to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. Guidance and a detailed action plan for the period 2011 to 2014 have been produced, along with a reporting framework for Councils. 

The Action Plan ends this year with an event planned for 14 October to share best practice across the public authorities. There are no plans for the action plan to be updated. This is a reflection on the Minister’s views on the effectiveness of what is seen to be a bolt on process of SD action planning and reporting, which is separate from the Programme of Government and seen to add layers of requirements and bureaucracy on the system.  For instance the original reporting framework has now been replaced by a light touch “self certification” model where CEOs certify compliance, with the option of adding particular examples of innovation and practice they would like to highlight. 

There are some significant similarities to issues around our current SD processes of SD schemes and annual reporting, which are requirements in the Government of Wales Act and which various reviews and Commissioner commentaries have highlighted as leading to bolt on processes that run separate from the Programme of Government – this is something the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill is now trying to address through ensuring that these processes are embedded as how the public sector operates rather than being seen as additional requirements. 

Northern Ireland is also going through a similar, but with much more advanced  timescales of local authority reform with reduction from 26 Councils to 11 from April 2015. The new Local Authority Act will require the new Councils to produce Community Plans which will need to engage key stakeholders and take into account the social, economic and environmental needs of the community – with again similarities to the Public Service Board Wellbeing Plans envisaged under the Future Generations Bill. On climate change we have shared challenges in respect of increasing agricultural production while reducing emissions, the reliance on the car for transport and the need to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy production. 

Jim Kitchen chairs the network of local council SD contacts and there must be value in a stronger link with our equivalent network in Wales. 

The focus on the Office of the First and Deputy Fist Minister is the “Delivering Social Change Programme” which does reflect many of the sustainable development principles incorporated in the Future Generations Bill, such as signature programmes focused on preventative action. A very interesting Children Action Zone initiative was launched while I was there which despite the contextual differences bears a closer look given the same challenges which exist in communities across Wales. 

Belfast Telegraph Hopes that Shankill's 'action zone' status will transform life chances of its youngsters 

Northern Ireland Government also uses the Results Based Accountability process, has significant commitment to co-design/production/delivery and is focused on improving reporting frameworks – including working with Carnegie on Measuring Wellbeing

I was struck by the common issues, yet lack of connection and shared learning, which has grown since the UK Government closed the UK Sustainable Development Commission – the irony of which increases by the day as the UK Government stresses the value of the UK in the Scottish Referendum.

Pathfinder Programme

A Welsh Government funded programme to support communities to take action on climate change.

Community Energy Wales

Bringing together communities acting on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Support For Sustainable Living

A scheme designed to bring about long-term changes in behaviour and lifestyle to help reduce Wales’ greenhouse gas emissions and help organisations and communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.