John Bird: Wales is at the cutting edge of poverty prevention

The rest of us should follow

Sophie Howe is the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. I met her last week at a conference curated by Big Issue Cymru and the Bevan Foundation. She spoke about her mission to put Wales on the intellectual, political and socially significant map. At the cutting edge of poverty prevention.

Having spent virtually the whole of the life of The Big Issue going on about the need to prevent, and having gone into the House of Lords under the mantra of prevention, you can understand the significance of Sophie’s work to me. That a nation should not only embrace the concept of preventing and pre-empting poverty, but bring the concept screaming into every public decision is bordering on the miraculous.

And yet governments don’t do that! Usually, they work away, spending most of their scarce resources on locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. Don’t you know the voracious appetite of governments – through differing administrations, and of various political complexions – to do more of the same? Locking stable doors sans horses is one of their favourite methods.

There was a surreal sense that all was possible there in Cardiff Bay. The night before, we were booked into a boutique hotel, but, alas, they had no record of the transaction. A little scurrying got us into the St David’s on the bay itself, and this was a wise and beautiful choice.

Thank you, little hotel, for the mix-up, for the St David’s was supreme. Cardiff is a brilliant array of surprises and joys. Buildings like ships, water like glass and a sense of joyfulness embraced us. The following morning I didn’t feel much like conferencing. I felt like sitting at my breakfast out on the balcony overlooking the Butetown docks, boats and complaining gulls for the rest of the day.

Our conference, Prevention and Inclusion: Lessons for Tackling Poverty, was a walk to the Welsh Assembly’s Pierhead building that escaped destruction in the Seventies when Tiger Bay was levelled to a car park. We had a little time beforehand with Carwyn Jones, the ex-First Minister, who came to listen to our vendors and staff, and learn about our work, and our plans, in Wales.

About 100 people who participated, listened and tweeted (#preventionworks) then filled the small hall. The conference began, and I listened to Victoria Winckler of the Bevan Foundation, and our sponsor, Mark Isherwood AM, open up the event. After Sophie had laid out her work, I hit the ground in my usual loud and (at times) comic manner.

I was exalted by the essence of prevention that filled the space. It was the best perfume of hope refined to delivery (sorry, I can get ornate at times, but I want to describe how uniquely refreshing it was to find a government that wants to embrace the mechanics of poverty prevention).

Future Generations Commissioner, the actual title of Sophie Howe’s job, does exactly that. She’s working to dig in a long-term approach to delivering public services in a joined-up way; and one that supports people now and in the future. What will be the outcome with regard to poverty, work, education, culture? And how can we stop money being wasted on problems, and shift to investing to prevent them?

It may seem dumb, but (all too often) hospitals, prisons, schools, houses and public projects are created to react – and often much too late in the day. What’s so good about this culture shift, and about all of Wales’ prevention work, is that it helps to create a model that we can follow. The wheel invented, now let’s perfect it!

Reluctantly, I left Cardiff to its sun-drenching (although I’m told that it’s not always that bright). But regardless of how sun-drenched it gets, Wales is leading the work we should cheer.

They’re showing what can happen when you throw your lot in with new thinking and cutting edges. And embrace the social justice that will come out of making investments to keep people out of poverty, rather than having to respond when the shite hits the fan.

Gadewch i ni ddymchwel tlodi efo ‘n gilydd! Let’s dismantle poverty, together.