The South Wales valleys are among the most materially deprived communities in the UK. Once the heart of heavy industry like coal and steel, these communities have been left to rot by successive governments over decades.

Nearly 40 years after the mines closed, a new project called Skyline seeks to reverse this by giving over the land to the community to develop for the benefit of themselves and future generations.

The vision is a community of renewable energy shared among the people who generate it, forest schools, sustainable economic activity, and a richer, fuller local landscape. It’s the result of a groundbreaking piece of legislation, a world first by the Welsh government: the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act.

Championed by Jane Davidson, Labour environment, sustainability and housing minister in Wales from 2007 to 2011, the act seeks to change the entire mechanism of decision-making at a governmental level. Most notably, it enshrines in law the obligation to consider the wellbeing of future generations in any governmental decision-making.

“It’s a preventative agenda, tackling the causes of issues, to try and ensure you have a more effective long-term outcome,” Davidson tells me. “If you’re going to meet the political challenge of delivering on challenges that will affect the lives of current and future generations, you do need to make decisions in different kinds of ways.”

Davidson’s extraordinary vision and career are chronicled in her new book, #FutureGen: Lessons from a Small Country. As well as being a history of the act, it contains a parallel history of Welsh devolution, the process through which Wales was able to lead the world with this landmark legislation. Sustainable development was recognised in the country’s constitutional arrangements from the outset.

“At the time I published ‘One Wales: One Planet’, our officials said there were two other countries in the world that had some kind of recognition of sustainable development,” she explains. “One was Bolivia, developing its Mother Earth pro­posals, and the other was Tasmania. But neither had explicitly included future generations.”

With sustainability at the foundation of devolution in Wales, Davidson undertook a series of initiatives to promote and extend the agenda, seizing every opportunity to keep pushing it further and further through ‘One Wales: One Planet’. While she fought to ensure that the duty to promote sustainable development was delivered, she quickly decided that this didn’t go far enough.

“When the Welsh Audit Office told me in 2010 that at no point had Wales ever failed in our duty to promote,” she recalls, “that was one of a small number of blinding moments that showed me that a duty to promote was not enough. We had to have a duty to deliver.”

The duty to deliver is a standard to which Davidson also holds herself, as well as the Welsh government. Her book explores the exhilaration and despair of incremental progress and setbacks, along with honest reflections on the shortcomings of her attempt to overhaul the whole rationale of governmental decision-making.

After being elected as the Welsh assembly member for Pontypridd in 1999, she was delighted to support the first formal sustainable development scheme, Learning to Live Differently, although it was hampered by the infancy of the assembly and its lack of powers. There followed two more iterations – Starting to Live Differently (2004) and One Wales: One Planet (2009) – taking incremental steps forward, before making the vision manifest in actual legislation in 2015.

“I have always disliked a gap between rhetoric and delivery in politicians,” Davidson explains. “I think it’s really, really important that if you say you’re going to do something, you do it.”

One of the pivotal moments of Davidson’s life was the 1992 Rio summit, which seemed to inspire and disappoint her in equal measure. “In 1987, the Brundtland Commission agreed the definition of sustainable development, advocating that the world took this seriously. In 1992, at the world’s first Earth Summit, 194 countries signed up to action on this, and yet not one of them took action to enshrine Brundtland into law as we have now done in Wales. I think that’s extraordinary when you look back.”

If Davidson was doubly disappointed nearly 20 years later by the 2009 UN climate talks in Copenhagen, it also doubled her determination.

“I was deeply shocked, actually,” she admits. “I was in awe of the level of passion from people who, at their own expense, travelled to influence politicians, and the level of cynicism through which politicians would stay signed up to a principle and take no action. It was just an extraordinary dislocator for me, and it’s those kinds of thing that make me more focused on trying to deliver an outcome commensurate with the commitment.”

Five years since the act was passed, 2020 marks a key moment in its lifecycle: the publication of a report from the future generations commissioner, Sophie Howe, containing the first round of recommendations.

The full report runs to over 800 pages, containing refreshingly forward-thinking ideas like a national wellness system, which would seek to cultivate a preventative public health approach that keeps people healthy. In the context of Covid-19, the commissioner has been putting forward bold ideas like a green recovery plan, as well as being one of the growing number of people calling for a universal basic income.

The use of independent commissioners is favoured by the Welsh government – perhaps most notably appointing the first-ever children’s commissioner, a post that has since been adopted by all other UK nations. It’s a system Davidson admires because “the commissioner is independent of government, they have a constituency, and they have a set of powers by which they can hold government and public services to account. I’m a fan of that model.”

The model has its critics, particularly on the question of whether the commissioner has enough power. “There are quite a lot of people who ask me why we didn’t go down a straight compliance route,” Davidson admits. “These are the people who want fairly hard sentences of some kind for those who aren’t delivering on this agenda. And I understand that. But for me that isn’t what the act is about. I never envisioned the Future Generations Act in itself to be a compliance model. It is the permission to think differently; compliance must come via the commissioner, regulation and audit.”

For Davidson, compliance is best bound up in secondary, sister legislation, giving the example of the Environment Act, which she says the chief executive of Natural Resources Wales once told her was the most ambitious piece of legislation anywhere in the world.

However, if you look at some of Davidson’s own biggest environmental success stories under the Welsh government, from recycling rates to the ban on free plastic bags, these were delivered through compliance, not encouragement. It remains to be seen whether the Future Generations Act model is effective in creating a new values framework delivering sweeping, lasting change.

“The first major test of the act will be what happens at the next General Election, and the extent to which party manifestos have or have not taken the commissioner’s recommendations into account,” she tells me, conceding that ultimately “we are not long enough into it to know if that model is the right one.” But she is both optimistic and confident.

A version of this act is going through the UK parliament, fronted by independent peer and founder of The Big Issue John Bird in the Lords, and Green MP Caroline Lucas in the Commons. Davidson is hoping to persuade Labour to get on board with the bill. “If a main party doesn’t pick it up, it’s not going to happen,” she says. I push her to make a prediction on which will be the next country to adopt some form of future generations legislation, aside from the UK. She thinks for a few moments, and says, “The country that is particularly interested in having further dialogue around the act at the moment is New Zealand,” but she quickly moves on to add, “It’s not for me about which individual country might adopt this framework. The question for me is how many individual countries Wales can persuade of the value of this framework-led approach to future generations – because this is absolutely at the heart of Wales’s international strategy.”

It’s unusual enough to see foresight in politics beyond a five-year election cycle. To embed the wellbeing of the unborn into today’s decision-making is revolutionary and gives policy makers real “permission to think differently”, as Davidson puts it, resulting in radical projects like Skyline in the South Wales valleys.

Over the years ahead, we will see how this approach to decision-making flourishes in Wales and whether it can take root around the world. In the aftermath of Covid-19, longer-term thinking and preventative approaches to policymaking may suddenly be much more in vogue among world leaders. Thanks to Jane Davidson, governments will not need to start from scratch. Wales is showing the world how it can be done.

Russell Warfield is a freelance writer.