07. 05. 2011

"The Greenest Government Ever": One Year on

When the Coalition Government decided to get rid of the Sustainable Development Commission, I found it difficult to contain my anger. It was, quite simply, an act of ideological vandalism.

Since then, I’ve been tracking the Government’s performance on all things relating to sustainable development – and even set some tests for Caroline Spelman and Chris Huhne as a measure of how well or how badly they were doing.

Late last year, I was asked by Friends of the Earth to do a more rigorous assessment of the Coalition Government’s performance – to ‘celebrate’ its first year in office. http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/greenest_gvt_ever.pdf

Writing this Report has been a disheartening process. In an ideal world, I would have wanted to demonstrate to Friends of the Earth the usual mixed balance sheet one might expect after just one year. But the 77 individual items pretty much speak for themselves: the bad and the positively ugly indisputably outweigh the good. At this stage, the likelihood of the Coalition Government living up to its “Greenest Government Ever” pledge is vanishingly remote.

Looking back on it, the early signals weren’t encouraging. It wasn’t just the axing of the Sustainable Development Commission, idiotic though that was. Decisions by DCLG, Treasury and the Department for Education had the alarm bells ringing within the first few weeks. And the outright success stories have been few and far between since then.

So what’s gone wrong? The state of the economy has clearly played a big role here; understandably, that has been the overarching priority for the Government. But that’s a bit of a cop-out. When it suited him, George Osborne promptly conjured up £10 billion in the recent Budget to offset the reductions in revenues from the fuel duty. And a great deal more could have been done to promote the Green Economy as a central part of the Coalition Government’s growth agenda.

The Prime Minister’s personal ‘lack of visibility’ on green issues has not helped. Both Ministers and senior officials read signals of that kind very astutely: however sceptical they may be about the ‘Big Society’, they know that’s what floats Cameron’s boat. And there are some uncanny parallels here with Tony Blair’s Third Way.

The fact that David Cameron has no personal vision for the Green Economy provides all the permission that is required for piecemeal decisions across the rest of Whitehall working against any notion of becoming the Greenest Government Ever.

Allowances should of course be made for lack of knowledge (let alone experience) on the part of incoming Ministers. But it’s clear that several Departments have already learned how to play fast and loose with the language of sustainable development, sounding really committed and enthusiastic, whilst actually doing very little – or even doing the opposite. In DCLG, for instance, they clearly know just how important it is to get the definition of sustainable development properly tied down (as defined in the Local Growth White Paper as “growth that is environmentally sustainable and inter-generationally fair”), but have happily connived in George Osborne’s outrageous redefinition of sustainable development in the Budget as ‘just say yes’.

Listening to Osborne, Pickles and even Vince Cable, it is clear that that the ‘growth at all costs’ lobby has won out over the advocates of ‘sustainable economic development’ - particularly Chris Huhne. That in itself is discouraging, but is compounded by some much more problematic positioning on the part of the Coalition around more ideologically-charged issues like deregulation and “shrinking the size of the state”.

That positioning (anti-regulation, hostile to planning, favouring the private sector, shrinking the state, etc) makes it significantly harder to deliver on the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ pledge, let alone to put sustainable development anywhere near the heart of government.

And that’s a particular worry for the Liberal Democrats who stand to lose at least as much from a continuing failure to deliver on this pledge as David Cameron does himself.

There is of course a long way still to go, assuming that the Coalition does not fall apart. The hope must be that the more progressive elements in the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will use this first year anniversary to take stock of why they have made so little progress to date – and what needs to happen now to retrieve the situation. Labour, and Ed Miliband in particular, must also work harder to bolster those lone voices in Parliament challenging the Government’s progress on green issues.

In the meantime, Friends of the Earth and all other NGOs have clearly got their work cut out helping Ministers raise their sights – and holding them more effectively to account if things don’t improve.

Improve they must. It is, I’m afraid, unavoidably depressing to see just how rapidly things have gone backwards since May 2010. Instead of having a really strong story to tell at the Rio + 20 Conference in a year’s time, having built up an internationally-recognised framework for sustainable development in the 10 years running up to last year’s General Election, our contribution in Rio – as things stand at the moment – will be humiliatingly insubstantial.

All in all, as close to a nightmare as one can imagine. Especially for the Lib Dems who must take their full share of responsibility for the dereliction that this Report reveals. Coming on top of the AV referendum and some disasterous local election results, I sure as hell hope it’s going to stimulate a lot of new thinking.

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09. 05. 2011
Stuart Singleton-White

Well put Jonathon,

What is clear to me at present is two areas of great concern, neither of which are going to grab headlines or too much attention it seems, and both of which help this calculating government achieve exactly what it wants, i.e. a small deregulated rampant free market state where issues such a social justice and the environment are trifling inconveniences.

Firstly, the government review of all environmental legislation and regulation. Of course it is unlikely they intend to get rid of all of it. But by saying so they can then say they have listened to the voices raised it opposition, they are being democratic. When of course they are being nothing of the sort and by putting so much complex and technical legislation and regulation up for review they know they'll get through a lot of it while we celebrate saving some of it.

Secondly, your reference to the Labour Party. While David Cameron seems to have stopped talking or thinking about the environment and a green economy, so too, it seems has Ed. We seem to get a deafening silence from him and his Environment and Energy spokespeople. Ed and Labour are showing little or know vision or appetite for it. Even locally in Reading, where I live, after the election we could see progressives take control of the council once more via a Labour/Green coalition. Alas it is easier for both parties to revert to tribalism and square up to each other than face the common enemy.

So as the man responsible for steering the Climate Change Act through parliament and government we really are looking to Ed for leadership. How long will we have to wait?

10. 05. 2011
Brendan May

Just finished reading your report Jonathon. Very interesting and useful. And depressing, of course, but that was not a surprise!

Building on a recent conversation we had, a few comments:

I voted to change the voting system in last week's UK referendum, not because I particularly love the Alternative Vote system (or indeed any system), but simply because I wanted to make it harder for politicians to do anything. In general, other than a few (crucial) global treaties over the decades, politicians are so far behind companies and NGOs on the environment that when they eventually wake up it is usually to obstruct, cause muddle where clarity and consensus reigned, and impose stale old thinking of limited use to anyone, let alone the natural environment.

Thanks again for the report - it is really worth reading!

The recent botches over solar power, the forest sell-off, Sustainable Development Commission and the Green Investment Bank have all made a mockery of the 'greenest government ever'.

On fundamental issues of food security, eco system services, tropical commodities and their deforestation footprint, resource depletion and biodiversity, renewable energy and countless other policy issues, government is largely asleep. Whatever good thinking comes out of government is commissioned externally. And seldom implemented.

It's probably better this way. When I worked in sustainable seafood, nearly all interactions with governments around the world were a disaster. For the fish. Here, the government woke up over palm oil. About six years after multinationals and NGOs were starting to sort out the problem. When I worked in communications, I learnt not even to contemplate bidding for government contracts, such was the frustration and disappointment involved in winning them. It is simply a sign of the times that business has become the (potential) solutions provider to the planet's system failures, often working in partnership with NGOs whose policy ambition and credibility far exceed those of any politician, whatever electoral system put them in office.

So when given the opportunity to create more muddle, confusion and magnify the tradeoffs and stalemates that are inherent in coalition government, I jumped at the chance. The rest of the country didn't. Let's hope the 'strong and stable' governments that future elections will bring don't keep getting in the way of what needs to be done. I've reached the conclusion that the more government keeps out of the environmental debate the better. The market will decide. That sounds laissez faire and Thatcherite, but it isn't. The NGOs now act as the framework setter and informal regulator that ought to make markets perform better and deprive them of their excesses. Although this regulatory role was once the preserve of government, most politicians aren't interested enough in this agenda for them to meet their responsibilities.

So they should simply own up to the fact they don't care about or understand sustainability, and get out of the way. It used to be said that the problem with business is that it only thinks two quarters ahead. That is no longer the case – as you know from your own advice to business, companies are having to think decades ahead, to plan for resource scarcity, climate volatility and lock in supply chain resilience. Politicians are now the short term gamblers, with a mere three to five year electoral and budgetary cycle to worry about. In my opinion, that rules them out of the game when it comes to sustainability.

12. 05. 2011
Andrew Harmsworth

And now they want to raise speed limits on motorways!


This will increase the consumption of oil - most of which is imported - and increase emissions (not just of CO2). They think it will be better for the economy. Increased emissions will lead to more deaths associated with poor air quality. It will lead to less money in people's pockets, so less spending!

Drag - air resistance against which your car engine is fighting - increases with the square of speed, so at 80 mph the rate of fuel consumption is not just proportionally higher... it's considerably more.

As for "less time driving, more time working" I rather suspect we'll see more congestion and less work in the workplace.

The mind boggles. Green like "bogey", perhaps.

24. 05. 2011
Kate Willshaw

Hi Jonathon

I was just wondering if you had seen the new National Planning Policy Framework proposed draft? http://www.nppfpractitionersadvisorygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/A-proposed-draft-from-the-Practitioners-Advisory-Group.pdf

This is what Local Authorities are supposed to use in place of Planning Policy Statements/Guidance. It cuts detailed policy on the environment and renewables down to mere lip service, redefines sustainable development as "economic growth at any cost" and doesn't appear to provide the sort of guidance that Local Authority planners need to work towards a sustainable future. It's too depressing for words and is a pro-business, screw society and the environment roadmap.

I would be interested in your thoughts....

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