I have written so often about the sunny outlook and the can do optimism in government and public services in Wales at the moment, that I half expected the American election result to be different in Cardiff yesterday. It wasn’t. But the commitment to building a better future enshrined in the Future Generations act continues to animate a different, more confident conversation amongst policy makers, practitioners and parliamentarians than I encounter elsewhere in the UK.
I was there primarily to give evidence to the Finance committee in their scrutiny of the 2017/18 budget. Was it they wanted to know a “more prevention focused budget”? And what more must be done?
Last year I suggested that the then forthcoming enactment of the Future Generations legislation was potentially transformational. “Had it been?”, Members asked yesterday.
It’s hard to imagine these questions being asked of other budgets, local or national, elsewhere in the UK at the moment, let alone being answered positively.
I started by welcoming the narrative and the intentions. They are unequivocal. …”to give everyone the opportunity to flourish at every stage in their lives… our spending priorities… will enable us to use all the levers available to us to have the greatest impact and deliver the promise of the Well being of Future Generations Act”.
But as elsewhere in the UK , good intentions are swimming against a rushing current: The IFS say “Wales is looking at an extraordinary 11 or more years of retrenchment in public service spending.” And as JRF research has reminded us again this week Wales faces many challenges.
The budget response is robust and defiant : “it is important to collaborate to plan for the tough choices ahead. We will work with our partners to use our collective resources effectively. The Well being of Future generations Act gives us, and other public bodies, a strong foundation to build on”. In other words the government recognises that investing in early action in a time of diminishing resources is difficult but it is also more essential than ever.
If politics is as much about messages as it is about substance, these messages are very clear. Many individual spending lines are also encouraging “we will continue to prioritise budgets which support prevention and early intervention. For example evidence suggests that cognitive development in the early years will impact on later academic attainment, occupational outcomes and adult health and wellbeing. We are continuing to protect our Flying Start programme”. There was investment too in public health, regeneration, child care and mental health.
However there is, as last year, a fundamental structural weakness in the budget captured in this sentence “we have decided to publish a one year revenue spending plan for 2017/18 but 4 year capital plans, which will provide certainty for longer term investments”. As I asked the committee yesterday, and as we have discussed previously on this blog, what is it about capital spending that does not equally apply to investment in early action? Until budgets for preventative work are also planned and protected for the longer term managers on the ground will always struggle to meet the aspirations of the Future Generations Act.
I told the committee last year that the legislation is more ambitious than any comparable legislation elsewhere. It can change public services in Wales and be a beacon for the world. Over the course of this year I have seen, from the committee rooms of the Senedd to the tiniest community groups far from the capital, a widespread and big hearted commitment to that objective. Extending the timescales in the budgets and protecting early action spending are now the big missing pieces and the vital next steps.