02. 03. 2011


First they killed the SDC. Now they are trying to kill off Sustainable Development itself.

The paper that Mrs Spelman put out on Monday, under the compelling title ‘Mainstreaming Sustainable Development: The Government’s Vision and what this means in practice’, is without a doubt the most disgraceful government document relating to Sustainable Development that I have ever seen.

Far from demonstrating how Sustainable Development will be mainstreamed across government (which was the commitment it made when it axed the SDC), it reveals that its clear intent is to marginalise SD over the next four years to the point where it will be all but invisible.

Even I did not think the Coalition Government could sink this far. Historically, the Tories have been pretty sound on articulating what SD means, going right back to the UK’s first Sustainable Development Strategy in the 1990s. No-one will be more distressed at this derisory ‘Vision’ than Chris Patten who was responsible for the Strategy. And as for the Lib Dems........

You probably ought to read it for yourself to see for yourself that I’m not exaggerating. Here are one or two highlights:

1. “Ministers have agreed an approach for mainstreaming SD which in broad terms consists of providing Ministerial leadership and oversight, leading by example, embedding SD into policy, and transparent and independent scrutiny”.
However, the Government has rejected out of hand the recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee that SD should become the responsibility of the Cabinet Office.
It will therefore stay within Defra – the weakest Department in Whitehall, with the weakest set of Ministers anyone can remember. Does anyone suppose that any other Departments will pay the slightest attention when Defra “reviews other departmental business plans in relation to SD principles”.

2. Mrs Spelman will apparently exercise her mainstreaming role via her (newly announced) membership of the Economics Affairs Committee.
One can only assume that Defra officials were having a laugh here as they crafted the words “to enforce (my italics) the Government’s commitment to sustainability across policy-making”.
And they must have been in hysterics in penning this little gem: “HM Treasury will support green growth and build a fairer, more balanced economy”.

3. As I’ve said all along, there will be no comprehensive, independent scrutiny of government performance on SD. Here’s what it says:
“Independent monitoring of sustainability in Government operations, procurement and policies by the Environmental Audit Committee”.
Yesterday, at the SDC’s valedictory event, Joan Walley, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, declared categorically that the EAC would not be able to carry out that function – especially as no additional resources had been made available.
The EAC is a Parliamentary Committee. Ministers cannot instruct Parliamentary Committees as to what they should do.
So had Officials checked with Joan Walley before issuing the Vision? Or was Mrs Spelman seeking to mislead or even deliberately deceive in allowing the document to go out with that wording?

4. Astonishingly, there is just one tokenistic reference to Scotland and Wales, where SD still has some traction: “We will continue to work closely with our neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, sharing approaches and best practice in SD”.
The reality is that there is now no UK-wide SD capability left. So who will represent the UK at the Rio +20 Conference in Rio De Janeiro next year? Will Mrs Spelman (or David Cameron, himself, perhaps?) have the nerve to lay claim to that role?
The rest of it is just guff.

The role of the Lib Dems in this dismantling exercise remains startling. We already know that Nick Clegg literally couldn’t care less about SD. Ditto Vince Cable. But what does this ‘Vision’ tell us about Chris Huhne? About Norman Baker? About all those benighted and deluded Lib Dem MPs who always thought that SD was one of their greatest strengths – instead, now, of a source of enduring shame.

And how, I wonder, will our environmental NGOs read this? “Just one of those things”? or definitive confirmation that the next four years are going to be bloody – and that they had better get themselves prepared for that reality.

So, that’s that. SD RIP.

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02. 03. 2011
Michael Townsend

Agree. I thought I had got hold of the wrong document, had to go back and look again. All I could say when I read it was "Only 7 pages, light on real vision, more like a list of policy objectives really. Must try harder." And that was the polite version, of course.

03. 03. 2011
Matt Prescott

I gave up on this Government about six months ago when they outlined their plans in the Spending Review.

They have no budgets for delivering anything new. It is all talk.

You cannot change society and deliver more sustainable development without being prepared to spend any money and/or invest any political capital.

Making our society more sustainable and lean will not happen by magic or without open, honest, robust and rigorous scrutiny.

Too many of this Government's proposals are half-baked and closed to debate, which is extremely depressing.

There are umpteen opportunities to foster new, clean and low carbon industries in the UK but this Government has a tin ear and is locked into an old economic mindset, which merely guarantees business as usual and economic decline.

05. 03. 2011
Ben Vivian

Jonathon as so often tells it as it is. I remain so disappointed and so bewildered at just how disingenuous the coalition has become. If it were to last the next for years then shame on us, the electorate and shame on democracy. SD was always on the endangered list but now it appears to be extinct.

My involvement with Defra as a chair of one of the groups tells me the same as JP's points. A department in disarray, without leadership and toothless. So sad.

06. 03. 2011

Jonathon, please can you explain the basis for "We already know that Nick Clegg literally couldn’t care less about SD. Ditto Vince Cable." or direct me to the appropriate previous blog post(s)? Many thanks.

07. 03. 2011

Now that the SDC has gone I'm intrigued to know who gets to define sustainable development for DCLG's much trailed principle -'presumption in favour of sustainable development' which it assures us will underlie overhaul of the planning system and the new National Planning Framework. Without independent scrutiny it will just be a presumption in favour of any old development.....or perhaps that is the intention?

08. 03. 2011
Fr. Peter

And I voted for them... what a fool I was...

08. 03. 2011

And I nearly voted for the Lib Dems who I used to believe in. I glad that I voted green - I hope over time it makes a difference. What happened to "This will be the Greenest government ever"?. Perhaps the lightest shade of greenwash ever.

The definition of zero carbon homes keeps getting eroded. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2010/nov/26/zero-carbon-homes. It now only a 44% reduction compared to 2006 levels.

10. 03. 2011
Andrew Warren

I think it pertinent to observe that the Department of the Environment is one of only two spending ministries in Whitehall (the other being Justice, led by Ken Clarke) which cannot boast a single Liberal Democrat amongst all its' minsters.

13. 03. 2011
Matt Simmons

Much of this started when alarmism over climate change became the focus of NGO efforts and lobbying. (The media is also to blame for stoking alarmist fires.) Not many see the difference. Jonathan makes a good argument here: http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=13223

Now, government seems determined to saddle the public with huge debts to reduce the carbon emissions from buildings, while at the same time ignoring the myriad other problems we face in coming years. If the projections of 2020 fuel bills are correct, this will impact fuel poverty and likely increase health problems for the elderly,very young and infirm. In turn, people will have to stay home form work to look after these people. The strain this is likely to place on the economy could be avoided with sustainability assessment of policies.

It is sad, but what's worse is how limited the general public's knowledge of all this is. I can't help thinking the focus on carbon emissions has damaged efforts towards sustainable development.

14. 03. 2011
Kevin Bray

I agree with everything you wrote, Jonathon, but what, now, would you think is an appropriate course of action for all of us who believe that SD is the only policy that will preserve our 'civilisation'?

09. 05. 2011
Phil harding

Jonathon's exasperation is understandable. The short-sighted nature of our political system is letting us down. The UK’s forthcoming energy gap and rising world food shortages pushing poverty levels ever higher due to a rising population and climate change impacts will make the credit crunch look like a picnic.

Political parties and the population at large need to wake up to what the real issues are. Sustainability has fast become a resilience issue so perhaps that needs to be the next approach the 'green' movement should take.

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