Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120.  So when you have got the 1998-99 plans, on the last line, you plan to spend up to the £650,000 mark again; is that likely to prove accurate?
  (Mr Leonard)  We are still looking at that, and it may be that is an overestimate.

  121.  Thank you. Could I just turn briefly to the evidence that the Minister told the main Committee in October 1997, about the Sustainable Development indicators, and he indicated, as I am sure you will recall, that he wanted to introduce a much simplified system, and he actually said he wanted to introduce "half a dozen or eight which have real salience with the public consciousness." Now your Annual Report, on page 82, says that you are planning to publish a "comprehensive core set of sustainable development indicators." Does that match up with the Minister's expectation that it will be a very small number, and how are you planning to do that?
  (Mr Leonard)  There are two streams of work here. First, there is the broad range or comprehensive set, on which work began in 1996, and that is being carried forward. There is a series of working groups which the Department chairs, involving other Government Departments, outside experts, local authorities, many, many bodies with an interest. We are expecting to have that set of indicators ready for the publication of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, which I referred to earlier, around the end of the year is when we are hoping to produce that, about 150 indicators are likely to produce there. In addition, as you say, Ministers have said that they feel that such a range of indicators, valuable though it is, could be assisted in its impact if there were a small number of indicators which were more accessible, more publicly accessible, and so in parallel with that, close parallel, the same people are involved, we have been working on what such a set of indicators should be, how many they should be. There has been a lot of consultation with outside interests, there was a major seminar of experts in May, which met to discuss what they should be, there is currently consultation, as part of the Sustainable Development Strategy, about this, a wide range of interests, including the media, have offered comments, anyone is very, very welcome to offer comments about what they think those indicators will be. The purpose is not to supplant the comprehensive set, which is, if you like, the truer picture of the whole field, it is to select indicators which between them reasonably represent the sense of progress, or lack of it, in the environmental and sustainable development area. It is much more complex than it sounds; quite apart from choosing the right subject, on which, for example, the May seminar focused, there are such factors as how far is the data available, when is it available, and how far is it susceptible to other technical analyses, all of which are being looked at, at the moment.

  122.  So do you think you are going to be able to get down to the Minister's suggested number, when he spoke to this Committee?
  (Mr Leonard)  He can tell us that he wants us to get down to the number, and we shall get down to the number, yes.

Christine Butler

  123.  Do the Department have an overall research strategy?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  Let me deal with that. It does not have a view that it is appropriate to spend X per cent or X million on research, it spends something like, together with its NDPBs, about £130 million. This is research which various Directorates commission, in order to underpin the policy work; and the test of whether something goes ahead is whether it contributes to the improvement of policy work or whether it does not, not whether there is a research budget that has to be spent, or some target. So the amount we spend on research in the transport field is not limited or influenced by what we choose to spend, for example, in the environmental field.

  124.  Perhaps we could come to budgets later, but, in terms of policy, does the strategy adequately reflect new policy?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  Yes, but it is done, in a sense, at a disaggregated level. If the Regeneration Directorate wants to know the effectiveness of our regeneration initiatives, in order to recast and target them better, it will set up a research project to deal with that; if we want to know something about the case for an aggregates tax, we want to know how the aggregates market works, what the impact might be, they will commission the necessary research. But it is done in relation to each policy objective. What is dealt with across the piece is, there is a review which the Chief Scientist undertakes each year to look at methodologies and principles, is this research being conducted according to various principles of best practice; the Chief Scientist is not saying, "I think you should be spending more on Transport and less on the Environment."

  125.  Who does decide then, because it seems a little bit fragmented, if research is bound to each division within the Department, but you did say at the very beginning that there was an overall strategy?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  The strategy is that we procure the research we need, in order to pursue our various policy objectives.

  126.  How do you decide overall who gets what share——
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  We do not decide overall.

  127.  There is no decision at all?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  That is the whole point. There is no budget which says, if someone in the regeneration field wants to put forward a proposal for additional research, that money is assessed in relation to other initiatives in the regeneration area, they do not go to a central budget which says, "I want more money for regeneration research" and that means there will be less for environment research. The competition for funds is, over the various ways of spending money in the pursuit of our regeneration objective, what part does research play in that; we are not trading off the development of research into motorway tolling against research into the countryside, or minerals planning, or whatever.

  128.  How do you stop the budget for research rising extraordinarily then?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  Because they only buy research if it is justified in relation to the policy aim that it is supporting.

  129.  What about current, or older, research that has been put into a programme earlier, and in the light of new policy seems not to be required?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  Almost all our research is related to specific projects, specific contracts, and when that work is done that work ends and then you decide whether to take it forward; so there is not an ongoing programme that might be being spent and not being adequately challenged.

  130.  Is a view taken of the cost of research between divisions; for instance, there is some £26.7 million being spent on construction research, and £1.3 million on countryside and wildlife research?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  This comes about because the construction sector has decided that it can justify purchasing £26 million of research.

  131.  But can the Department justify these different heads, these different budget, across divisions; is there no-one saying, yourself saying, "Well, hang on a minute, there's a lot of research that is justified within that division, and this is justified within that division", but in terms of the overall and overarching objectives of the Department?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  Yes. We do not go to, the centre does not go to a Directorate and say, "We think you should be spending more because the countryside research doesn't look very big." We say the countryside people commission research, you have mentioned this figure of 1.6, there is also the research done by the Countryside Commission and English Nature; they commission the research because they see a case for it, not because we are trying to spend up or down, in relation to some overall budget for the Department.

  132.  Okay then, we have got £1.3 million being spent on countryside and wildlife research, in Chapter 6, the very first objective that is described there is to enhance opportunities; what do we mean by that and what research is exactly being done for it? It is page 44, Chapter 6, 6.1: "The Department's main to enhance opportunity in rural areas".
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  That would relate to rural regeneration responsibilities. We would need research, for example, which was undertaken by the Rural Development Commission on, we need to know how many villages are without a shop, a petrol station and a bank, a school, and so on, and the way of finding that out is to fund the research, and that is part of the Rural Development Commission's national advisory work, which you will see on page 47.

  133.  I would like to explore that, but obviously it will take too much time.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  The key thing is, in taking all this research, we have now what are called the "May Principles", Sir Robert May, of the way in which you conduct research, the extent to which it is open, the extent to which we share information, the extent to which we allow the peer group review of it, a commitment to publish the results; that is really, the role of the Chief Scientist is to make sure that all these areas of research are conducted to those standards, rather than to determine a set of priorities, which he and I are not the best judges of.

  134.  Could I beg for greater emphasis in the Report, in future, I do not think that really has been ...
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  You think it would be useful to draw together a table which shows research as a—I have a table here which shows this breakdown of this £130 million, which I am happy to give you.

Mr Olner

  135.  If you could leave that with us, I think that might be helpful, Sir Andrew?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  Yes.

Mr Gray

  136.  Just to pick up on the factual points on the RDC, when the regeneration bits are going to the RDAs, we know that the national bits are going to the Countryside Commission, what is happening to the rural, voluntary and community bit of the RDC?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  That is part of its national function; when you say it is going to the Countryside Commission, it is going to a new, merged body, and that is part of the national work which will go into the new body.

  137.  We have talked about this very briefly already, with regard to research, the countryside and regeneration, but, in general, do you have any indicative figure for the 1999-2000 year on money spent on rural regeneration, and what is going to happen after the RDAs are set up, is what I am getting at?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  No, I do not think I can give you a figure on that, it partly depends on the results of the CSR, it partly depends on the decisions which individual RDAs take. There are various mechanisms to ensure that, having been given the responsibility of regeneration in rural areas, they do not then take that money and spend it all on the urban areas, they will have to account for that money.

Mr Olner

  138.  So it is going to be ring-fenced?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  It is going to be ring-fenced, but possibly it could be enhanced but it could not be diverted.

Mr Gray

  139.  The concern is that urban regeneration is very obvious, but rural regeneration is not at all obvious, and, as you say, the money might well get diverted?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  Yes, but that is, in the White Paper on RDAs it gave various assurances about how this money would be handled, there will be a duty on the Board to give an account of the RDA's rural work explicitly in order to ensure that it does not simply get lost and diverted.

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