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‘Poverty kills’: Sophie Howe on fronting the fight for future generations

The Big Issue’s new podcast, BetterPod, uncovers the ways we can make life better for future generations. Meet our pioneering first guest.

Climate change, health, inequality, poverty – they’re the seemingly intractable concerns that overshadow our society and our planet. But it often seems like politicians are too concerned about short-term issues to really get to grips with any of the worries facing future generations. 

A growing movement is calling for change – and Sophie Howe is at the forefront of that political transformation to act today for a better tomorrow. The world’s first future generations commissioner, her role came into being in 2016 following Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act. She now has the legal responsibility to act as the guardian of those yet unborn. Scotland looks set to follow suit with its own commissioner, while The Big Issue’s founder Lord John Bird has been working to get similar legislation passed at Westminster. The UN has even been taking advice from Howe to work out its own international version. 

Here at The Big Issue, we’re doing our bit by starting a podcast to act as a fulcrum for the big ideas and joined-up thinking we’re going to need to create a better future. BetterPod launches on June 1 and Sophie Howe is the perfect first guest to kick it off. Over the next few weeks we’ll talk to poet and activist Hussain Manawer, writer and rapper Darren McGarvey, Love Island star and anti-fast fashion campaigner Brett Staniland, Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates plus many more.

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This is an abridged version of the BetterPod conversation. Listen to the full podcast here, or where you normally listen to podcasts. Come back every Wednesday for more, and join in the conversation on social media using #BetterPod

The Big Issue: It’s your role to protect future generations. How do you work out what’s best for them?

Sophie Howe: I can’t with 100 per cent certainty say what future generations want. So we had a national conversation. We asked the citizens: what’s the Wales you want to leave behind to your children, and your grandchildren, and future generations to come?  

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They came up with quite a lot of really sensible things, like a healthier Wales, where everyone’s physical and mental health is maximised and their wellbeing is protected. We want to protect our environment. We want an economy that addresses inequality, not one that just strives for growth forever and ever. 

Is it important for those in power to listen more to young people? 

Absolutely. Our young people, while they’re not the unborn, they’re closer to knowing what the future will look like.  

One of the things I’m doing is I’ve started a Future Leaders Academy. Every year we’ve got a cohort of 30 future leaders, and we put them through an intensive programme about leadership in their sector. We’ve got engineers, we’ve got people who are working in the environment sector, we’ve got young creatives, we’ve got people who are real community activists and so on. We upskill them to lead in their sector around the Future Generations Act and sustainability.  

But the really exciting bit is we also get them to mentor current leaders in Wales. It’s usually the other way around, isn’t it? Us older people must impart our great knowledge on to younger generations. What absolute nonsense! There’s so much that our younger generations need to teach us. Currently they’re mentoring the head of the Welsh Government civil service, the chief executive of the Welsh Football Association, chief executives of the health boards. We need that perspective that just doesn’t really exist in decision making at the moment. 

How do you go beyond structural changes to do the real work of embedding future generations thinking in the way people do their day-to-day jobs? 

That is the absolute critical question, isn’t it? Really it is quite easy to pass a law, and a law generally requires you to do specific, often bureaucratic, things. I’ve tried to be really careful not to get obsessed about the bureaucracy of it all. A lot of what I try and do is show people how we can do things in a better way. For example, we’ve got a public health consultant seconded to Cardiff Council to lead on the development of the transport strategy. When you start applying a public health lens to a transport problem, you get a different set of solutions. If you ask the highways department, what they’ll do is build you a road. What that road will do is cause more air pollution – and people will still be sitting in their cars not travelling in a healthy way.  

You put the public health guy in there, and what you start seeing is: right, we’re going to target public transport investment at our communities where we’ve got the lowest levels of life expectancy. Because if we have the infrastructure to reduce air pollution and get people travelling in a healthier way, that has long-term benefits to the health outcomes for those communities. We’re trying to build a movement. 

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You’ve been in the role for six years now. What are some of the biggest successes you’ve seen? 

The first big test case was when the government wanted to use all of Wales’s borrowing capacity to build a 13-mile stretch of motorway to deal with congestion around Newport. I said: Hang on a minute, how have you considered the wellbeing of future generations in this? We’ve got goals to reduce our carbon emissions, we’ve got goals for healthier Wales… how is having everyone sat in their cars on a motorway going to keep anyone healthier and reduce air pollution? How is it going to deal with our goal of a more equal Wales, when 25 per cent of low-income families in that area don’t even own a car?  

I really publicly challenged and embarrassed them. They couldn’t answer those questions. And the First Minister changed that decision. That’s one decision, but it was a kind of trigger point for us being able to show you’ve got to change the whole system.  

Thanks in part to your advocacy for Universal Basic Income, Wales has just launched a basic income pilot for care leavers. What do you make of that? 

I’m really excited about it. We know that poverty kills, basically. And so if we’re going to get up front and keep people out of our NHS, we need to really be tackling poverty.  

Our welfare system was devised in a completely different time, when the gig economy wasn’t a thing. In the past, you’d leave school and you’d go into work, and you’d probably stay in the same job in the same field throughout your career. Now you could be earning £50 one week as a Deliveroo driver, or £300 the next week. The welfare system doesn’t really account for that. And it’s still keeping people in poverty.  

A universal basic income costs a lot of money, but it costs less money than dealing with the effects of poverty.  

The Welsh Government is going to try it with care leavers, which I think is a good start. Care leavers are some of the most disadvantaged people in society. And we’re going to see what happens. We’re going to see whether their health improves, whether their prospects of work improve, whether their overall well-being improves. Where there have been pilots in other countries, there have been some amazing results. So, I’m really excited to get going in Wales. 

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