13. 01. 2011

Environmental Audit Committee: Picking up the pieces

The Environmental Audit Committee, now chaired by Labour stalwart Joan Walley, is back in business. One of its first reports, published on Monday this week is entitled: “Embedding Sustainable Development across Government, after the Secretary of State’s announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission”.

It’s not half bad, despite the title.

Wisely (I guess!), they decided not to spend too much time “on the wisdom of the decision” to get rid of the SDC. So there are lots of ever-so-tactful strictures (‘concerned about the Government’s decision’, ‘the disappearance of the SDC will leave a gap in the structures for embedding sd across Government’ etc), but nothing along the lines of: ‘what a bunch of total eejits you are, getting rid of something without working out what it did, let alone how to get things done without it’.

Which means that making the best of the Government’s botched job is what the rest of the Report focuses on. Here’s my take on the five main areas:
1. A Minister for Sustainable Development
The EAC has recommended that the Government should create a new Minister for Sustainable Development in the Cabinet Office, and that there should be a new Cabinet Committee (made up of Ministers from all key departments, plus (‘perhaps’!) the Prime Minister) to oversee departmental performance and ensure that SD is properly embedded across Government.

Now that would do it! The SDC itself always wanted to get out of Defra and into the Cabinet Office, but it was Defra that provided the money, and without the money, it could never have done the job it did. That’s true today, of course, which is why the EAC has recommended transferring Defra’s and the SDC’s expertise over to the Cabinet Office.
I hope Oliver Letwin (the principal mover and shaker in the Cabinet Office) and Chris Huhne will listen to that advice. Defra today is largely a waste of space, with no Ministerial understanding of SD and no senior officials with any residual interest in helping embed SD across Government. In his evidence to the EAC, Mike Anderson (the guy notionally in charge of SD in Defra) delivered himself of this gem:
“The Treasury would be the perfect place to drive a sustainable development agenda from”.
Oh Ye Gods!!!!

2. Treasury
The EAC does, quite properly, recognise the importance of the Treasury, but with no experience of the last 10 years just sounds naive when it says that:
“Treasury should be ready to play a more committed supporting role, to use the Sustainable Development leavers at its disposal. Treasury buy-in to the sustainable development agenda is essential. It is in a position to exert real influence over other departments, including the possible use of sanctions against poor sustainability performers”.
Treasury has in fact been the biggest single block on SD in the UK, going right back to the UK’s first SD Strategy in 1994. It pursues its own agenda (regardless of who is in power), has no interest or expertise in SD, and (unless reformed) would make mincemeat of any new SD Minister.

3. Capacity Building
The Report says lots of nice things about the SDC’s success in building SD capacity in other government departments – such as Health and Education. Somewhat forlornly, it hopes that some of the SDC’s expertise in this area might still be salvaged:
“There is still much to be done in developing capability across all departments. The Government must ensure that the SDC’s experience is transferred into Government and that it continues to work with departments to develop the capability needed by all departments to improve their sustainability performance”.

Fat chance.

4. SD Strategy
There’s lots of good stuff in the Report about the importance of the UK’s Sustainable Development Strategy (widely seen as ‘best in class’ in international circles), and that the Strategy now needs to be renewed to reflect the Coalition Government’s current priorities – particularly on the localism agenda.

That should probably be interpreted as the EAC’s first shot across the bows of the dreadful Eric Pickles at DCLG. If SD at the local level is left to his far from tender mercies, then the title of his Department’s new Bill should probably read “The Decentralisation and Unsustainable Localism Bill”.

5. Independent Scrutiny
This is the most interesting (and depressing) bit of the Report. Although they don’t quite spell it out, the EAC basically acknowledges that there will be no comprehensive, independent scrutiny of the Government’s SD performance from here-in-on.

As it says, the Government itself (through Defra) is not going to do it – and couldn’t do it anyway; the EAC is not going to do it (“we do not in any case have the capacity to carry out the full extent of the routine watchdog function of the SDC”); and the National Audit Office has indicated that it is not going to do it either as it hasn’t got the resources.

In effect, Mrs Spelman has triumphed, in that she (and her weak-kneed Lib Dem colleagues) have succeeded in getting rid of the only body that could have held this Government to account. As the Report says:
“The Prime Minister has committed to making this Government ‘the greenest ever’, to ‘govern for the long term’ by creating a ‘fairer future’, and to promote ‘a power shift’ by redistributing power away from central government to communities and people. These are admirable pro-sustainability ambitions, but in the absence of the SDC, it is unclear how these goals will be implemented and monitored”.

As it happens, it’s not unclear at all. Its overall performance will not be monitored. Full stop.

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Comments

15. 01. 2011
Andrew Harmsworth

"Sustainable Development leavers"? Did they write that, or were they being ironic regarding the imminent demise of the SDC? Surely they mean "levers"?

On a different note altogether, wasn't it lovely seeing Chris Huhne supporting the BP-Russia oil and gas exploration deal! How does that fit in with the need to stop using fossil fuels? Oh yes, you just mention "low carbon economy" and you make people feel OK about it.

17. 01. 2011
mike reardon

I also believe that locating any Minister or team in the Treasury would not be wise as the overwhelming neo liberal/growth culture would suffocate them.
However I also beleive that if located in the Cabinet Office they need a structure and modus operandi that ties them into the work of BIS/DECC and CLG as those guys have whatever money and programmes can enable progressive cities like Manchester and London to push ahead.
AS you hint, the PM neeeds to give the new arrangeemtn his full backing.

17. 01. 2011
Luke Wellock

Hi Jonathan,

The "Treasury has in fact been the biggest single block on SD in the UK, going right back to the UK’s first SD Strategy in 1994"

I am curious to how you think a sustainable treasury should act? Obviously in a purely hypothetical world.

25. 01. 2011
Kevin Bray

As I asked you several years ago (it might have been decades - time flies): have we any hope or is human civilisation going to hell in a handbasket?

27. 01. 2011
oldnat

Just saw you on Channel 4. Why were you talking about UK forests? The UK Government only handles forests in its capacity as the English Government.

In Scotland we held that debate ages ago and, of course, kept our forests in public hands.

18. 08. 2012
Quintanilla

Yes, indeed the coiitlaon (a Tory government by default) is attempting to appeal to the masses. The green agenda never left and like it or not, the climate is changing, the world's population is exploding and the governments attempts to keep up with these changes are inadequate. Ok, perhaps previous governments could have done more (easy in retrospect), but we are, where we are and sadly, there is no short term fix. Regarding your FIT finance reductions, this, on the face of it, appears to be corporate greed, striking once again. Perhaps, you should have replaced the word cutting public spending with the word, slashing. Anyway, putting politics aside, I'm glad you like my blog and keep up the good work with yours.Kind RegardsTony Powell

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