Examination of witnesses (Questions 20
TUESDAY 25 MAY 1999
and DR TERENCE
20. Do we take it from what you have said so
far that there are no targets for headline indicators, the 14
headline indicators, and are you just going to observe whether
they are (in your expression in the document) moving in the right
direction? How will you detect that they are moving in the right
direction, if that is the case?
(Ms Hillier) There are targets for several of the
headline indicators already. Possibly further targets will be
set, for example in relation to waste arisings later in the year,
and when the health strategy is published there will be targets
for health. One of the things we have tried to do with these headline
indicators is to make very high-level, overarching outcome measures
and, as Mr Grieve said earlier, linked in a way to aspirations.
Many of the targets that are set are actually at a slightly lower
level. For example, I understand that in the health strategy they
are looking at targets for accidents and cardiovascular disease
and so on, which are at a rather more detailed level than our
high-level headline indicator. But there are targets, for example,
on climate change; there is a target on the land use indicator;
there are targets associated with river quality and air quality,
and there will be targets set in relation to waste. So there are
targets for a number of these indicators. For the birds indicator,
the wild bird population indicator, it does say in the document
that we must reverse the decline in populations of farmland birds.
It does not quite say by when but this is a target of a sort and
I would expect people then to be coming back to the Department
and to ministers and saying, "You said you were going to
do this. What progress are we making and when do you expect to
turn that around?"
21. In Europe, for example, other countries
deal with this topic in a different way. Sweden, for example,
has set itself a target that sustainability will be obtained,
hopefully, within a generation. Have you examined your Strategy
with those of the other European countries?
(Mr Adams) We have looked at quite a lot of sustainable
development strategies from Europe and other countries. I am intrigued
by the idea of achieving sustainability in a generation because
I think inherent in the approach we have taken is that sustainable
development is never something you have finally achieved. It is
something you need to keep on working at. So I would be a bit
suspicious about people who set a target, they were going to do
it and then thought they could sit back. I think both in terms
of the way in which the Strategy is put together and also the
way that the indicators underpin itsomething that Hilary
can speak about with more authority than Iwe are ahead
of any other country whose strategy I have seen in terms of an
ability to bring things together and really integrate them, to
deliver progress on the ground and to be able to measure that,
and to know what is happening. I referred earlier to going on
a stage from environmental integration to proper sustainable development
and I think this is about the first proper sustainable development
strategy I have seen. There are a lot of strategies which have
three or four chapters at the beginning about integration and
then you turn the page and you get on to air quality and water
quality and it turns much more into a kind of environment White
Paper again. We have deliberately tried to avoid that. The second
half of this document does not deal with environmental media in
that way. It looks at the economic, the social and the environmental
but all mixed up together. So I think a lot of countries will
actually be trying to follow our lead, both in terms of the way
the Strategy is put together and also on the indicators.
22. So it is going to be difficult to benchmark
our performance at the moment against the performance of other
countries, for the reasons you have just indicated?
(Ms Hillier) No, I do not think it will actually,
because several other countries are producing headline indicators
now, really following the UK track. The Germans have already produced
their proposals for a set of environmental headline indicators
and the Swedes have done the same. We are discussing a European
Union-wide set of headline indicators, again focusing initially
on the environment but we are hoping that that will spread to
other aspects where, in general terms, a lot of data, social and
economic data, are available on a European Union-wide basis already.
So it would be possible to make comparisons with other countries
for many of these indicators.
23. I am very pleased to hear you say you have
set targets and I am sure the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development
will be pleased to know this, too. They have this concept of setting
targets. Rather like a pressure meter, you set the target above
which you are in the danger zone and I am just wondering when
these indicators will trigger to the Government that the Government
has gone into the danger zone in certain areas. Are you able to
make a comment on that?
(Ms Hillier) Where we have got targets and have failed
to meet those targets, obviously that will trigger a signal. Where
we have an implicit target, for example, for wild birds, then
if the trend is not reversed then will trigger a danger signal
(Mr Adams) I think it is possible to see how you could
work that in areas where you can define environmental limits,
although the science of that may be tricky in some cases. Climate
change is an obvious example where eventually you may be able
to calculate by how much carbon emissions in the atmosphere need
to be reduced. With some of the others it is not so easy to see
technically how you would do that. What is the proportion of housing
that ought to be built on brownfield land? Clearly it is as much
as you can manage without causing problems elsewhere. The target
is 60 per cent. Education and training, similarly, you want the
figures to go up but I am not sure that the same kind of philosophy
of a danger level arising if you fall below a certain benchmark
can be calculated in quite the same way.
24. Over what timescale are we looking? Are
we looking at annually or are we looking over a longer timescale
before the Government can take action if it saw some danger limits
(Mr Adams) Again I think it depends very much on the
indicator, what lags there are in the system. Clearly if we have
an annual publication, as is the intention, which looks at the
headline indicators, and also at other priority areas, there will
need every year to be an assessment of whether enough is being
done and whether more needs to be done. That assessment will obviously
include action that is in the pipeline but there will need to
be a debate then about whether that action looks as if it is sufficient
and whether more should be done.
25. If we compare what is in this report with
some of the targets that were in the last Government's White Paper,
"This Common Inheritance", some things remainthe
Kyoto targetsbut there are others that seem to have disappeared
and there is nothing specific on reductions in SO2 emissions.
There was a target in "This Common Inheritance" for
doubling forest cover over a 50-year period. Are we to assume
that those are no longer government policy or no longer targets?
(Mr Adams) No, not at all. I think what you should
infer from that is that they have found their proper place, which
may be in a forestry strategy or an air quality strategy or a
health strategy or elsewhere. A lot of those targets are driven
by international commitments to which the United Kingdom is a
signatory and all of them remain. But I go back to what I said
at the beginning about the purpose and the level at which this
document is set. It is not attempting to be a comprehensive analysis
even of the environment policies and targets which are set out
there. It is to be read as a companion piece to the climate change
strategy, to the air quality strategy, to a waste strategy when
it comes out and so on, and that is where the more detailed targets
will be and ought to be.
26. I understand the point that this document
is written in a different way. So we cannot make any assumption
that they have now disappeared?
(Mr Adams) No, not at all.
27. Fine. On the indicators, you have talked
about 150 possible indicators being developed, and looking through
the list I think I counted 25 that were marked with a `D', as
being either difficult conceptually or requiring new data collection.
That is nearly a sixth of them. So can we expect, when you do
produce a more detailed document later this year, that they are
all going to be developed? Are some of these marked with `D's
likely to disappear?
(Ms Hillier) I hope they will not disappear but they
will not all be shown in the indicators report, although we would
want to comment on them and describe where we have got to. Those
indicators marked with a `D' fall into a couple of different categories.
For example, there is one here on competitiveness and productivity,
and it is just a question of deciding how precisely we illustrate
that. There is plenty of material available. There are others
on access to services, where we need to do a bit more thinking
about precisely what we would illustrate. There is another one,
pressure on key sites for tourism, where the Department of Culture,
Media and Sport is doing some work as part of its tourism strategy.
Various material is available but we are not quite sure yet what
the key indicator may be. There is one here on United Kingdom
resource use, where we have seen some work that has been done
for Germany, Japan and The Netherlands, and we are hoping to apply
similar methodology to the United Kingdom but it will take some
months to do the work to develop that indicator. So some of the
indicators will be available more readily than others but we may
need to be looking into precisely the formulation of the indicator
that would be most appropriate. Others are more difficult and
will be developed in the longer term. Perhaps one of the most
difficult ones is on quality of the countryside, something that
has come up time and again in consultation and in discussions.
People feeland it is truethat there is a real danger
with indicators that we focus most on the things that we can measure.
Therefore, we are sending a signal that those things which we
cannot easily measure and which are not readily quantifiable are
less important because they are not reflected in the indicators.
Aestheticsthe beauty and quality of the countrysideis
one of those difficult areas. There is quite a lot of impetus
to trying to find suitable indicators in that area, but at the
moment we are not at all clear how we could do it and we are asking
for advice from the Countryside Commission and others to give
us help with that sort of thing; we do not yet have a feel for
how we might do it. So that sort of area is going to be particularly
difficult but we do not want to lose sight of the issue.
28. So some we may not see actually in here
for a rather longer period?
(Ms Hillier) Yes.
29. One of the other points you made in this
document was that the indicators were not fixed and would need
to be revised in response to changing circumstances and as knowledge
develops. I understand that point but is there a danger that if
you keep revising indicators you actually make it very difficult
to see where you are going? How much revision do you expect to
(Ms Hillier) I hope not too much. I would hope that
90 per cent. or so of the indicators would be fixed, but it is
an evolving process. We published 120 indicators in 1996 but they
were primarily environmental, although we did call them sustainable
development indicators at the time. We have revised those fairly
substantially. Perhaps 60 or 70 per cent. of them remain in this
document and all the issues they cover remain, but we have extended
them to cover the social and economic dimensions more fully. There
may be new issues which emerge. Oestrogen-mimicking compounds,
for example, may turn out to be more of an issue. We may decide
we need to reflect that, just like the ozone issue which was something
that suddenly sprang to prominence and public concern. We would
need to have the flexibility to reflect that within the indicators,
but at the same time we would expect most of them now, hopefully,
(Mr Adams) If I may say so, I think that is an important
general point, perhaps particularly to this Committee, given your
responsibility for auditing what is happening. There is a paragraph
near the end of the Strategy, 10.12, which calls attention to
this. I think we would all admit that our present state of knowledge
or ignorance about sustainable development means that we must
have some scope to say that we got it wrong, we over-estimated
some problems, we under-estimated others, and we need to adjust
the package of things. But clearly we need that room for change
without diluting accountability, without having an escape hatch
which people use for convenience rather than for any good purpose.
How we can devise something which meets both those objectives
simultaneously is an important and interesting challenge and one
which this Committee might like to think about, too.
30. As you develop some of these more difficult
indicators, such as some of the countryside ones, and another
one we have is "community spirit", where I see perhaps
some difficulty in finding an objective measure, would you expect
them all to have numerical baselines that would then give the
possibility of targets or are there going to be some that really
it will be impossible to have numerical baselines for?
(Ms Hillier) I do not think it is impossible to have
numerical baselines but it may be more sensible to give slightly
qualitative rather than quantitative information in some cases.
But we envisage with the community spirit indicator using information
from social surveys. There have been questions asked in the health
survey, for example, about the extent to which people feel that
they get support from neighbours, from the local community, from
friends and so on, in maintaining independent living. So that
sort of question of quantitative information derived from a survey
like that is the sort of idea that we had in that particular area,
so that it would be possible to get some quantitative information,
but we would want to supplement it with some discursive material
as well, I expect.
31. I wonder whether what you are doing is really
intellectually valid because it seems to me that you could extend
this forever. You have included social matters, economic matters.
To be fully balanced you ought to include personal liberty or
privacy, for example, as well if you want to take a total indicator
of the human spirit, if you like, or the nature of what is happening
culturally in the nation. You have gone so far. You have said,
"We are not just about the environment. We are not thinking
solely about whether this generation can take out enough but leaving
future generations relatively undamaged." One connects to
economic and social but you have got a halfway house which seems
to me to have no intellectual justification.
(Ms Hillier) I think it is interesting, if you look
at the indicators proposed by the UN Commission for Sustainable
Development, that they have produced a menu of 140 indicators
and some of those indicators do, indeed, go into the sort of institutional
issues which you have mentioned. As we know, lack of democracy
in some of these countries is a key issue for them. There is a
question of balance here and of priorities and I suppose it is
arguable that perhaps we should have included some of these other
matters which you have raised.
32. You would want to go even further. What
worries me is that you are the officials in the Department of
the Environment, Transport and the Regions, correct? You are within
that Department, and whatever we argue about the definition of
"sustainable development", we are concerned that environmental
matters are not given sufficient attention by the Government.
Here you are coming to us and saying, "Actually we think
we ought to not give sufficient importance to it, not give priority
to environmental matters but actually make social and economic
matters just as important in our thinking." We would rather
look to you to give environmental matters top priority.
(Ms Hillier) I do not think we said that. We said
that we thought we wanted environmental matters to be given the
same priority as economic and social matters.
33. But what has happened is the reverse. In
the previous document in 1994 environmental matters were given
priority and social matters were not. Now all you have done is
raised social and economic matters to the same level as environmental
matters in this document.
(Mr Adams) I think the test is what happened to the
1994 strategy, what influence did it have over other departments
and, alas, I do not think it had as much influence as it might
have done or should have done.
34. Do you think it would have more influence
on environmental matters by including more on social and economic
(Mr Adams) I think it is much easier for us to go
to, for example, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and
ask them to take environment seriously if we are acknowledging
the importance of culture in the life of the nation as well and
that is what we are attempting to do.
Chairman: I leave that as a question
35. I would like to talk about your key actions
and commitments. They do seem to be operating at different levels.
Some are very specific, some have cross-references such as the
New Deal for the Community which takes into account a number of
different areas of government policy, and then there are others
which are really unspecific in terms of action to be taken or
timescale. I am looking particularly at people buying fridges
and freezers and things on page 41. I think the indicator is on
page 42, and it says you want to stimulate the market for the
transformation of domestic appliances. What do we mean? Key actions
and commitments are operating at different levels, so what do
we mean by them and what is the purpose of them if they are hopes
and aspirations, a bit vague, some might say?
(Mr Adams) I think the purpose of them maybe is so
that the text is not too uniform. They are a few peaks we can
draw attention to. These are key actions and commitments by Government.
As you say, they include both general things and some which are
very specifically time-limited, but they are an attempt to highlight
some of the things which the Government is doing or commitments
it is making to action in the near future which will help to deliver
improvements in sustainable development in these specific areas.
To that extent I think they are again an attempt to bind other
government departments into this document and to illustrate some
of the ways in which commitments they are making will help us
to achieve sustainable development in a number of different ways.
36. We will be monitoring closely, will we,
the purchase of more environmentally-friendly white goods such
as we have seen illustrated here?
(Mr Adams) That is an important area of policy and
these are the sorts of things set out here so that future reporting
on the Strategy will need to take account of them.
37. And there will be discussions with DTI to
encourage people to do the same, the manufacturers?
(Mr Adams) Absolutely. This section, the sustainable
economy section of the Strategy, was written in close collaboration
not only with DTI but with the Treasury, DfEE and other departments
as well. Again I hope it has provided a further unifying force
for seeing what sustainable development means and how some of
the work which was already being done and activities in train
can be best geared towards sustainable development. If we can
achieve that then, with this Committee's interest in greening
government, for example, also in mind, this is a further way of
explaining to ministers and officials in other departments how
we can align their objectives with ours and through these specific
activities produce worthwhile outcomes.
38. One of the main strategies or reasons behind
this Committee is to make sure that all departments of government
know that there is an environment strategy and for us to judge
that they are actually taking part and participating in it. One
measure of this document is, you cover the work of many departments
obviously and you have mentioned several of them, but the Strategy
does not actually detail the individual responsibilities of those
departments and their commitments. Was that discussed? Is that
deliberately not part of the way you have gone about it?
(Mr Adams) We did not discuss it, I cannot recall
discussing it in those terms, but, as you say, the Strategy was
the combined work of almost every department in Whitehall. I have
certainly never been involved in a project in my time in the Civil
Service which had more participants. The official level steering
group was an affair which had just about every department on it.
A lot of the work was done in smaller groups of officials from
a combination of departments contributing their material. At this
level it is a government document and it sets out commitments
on the basis of what the Government is going to do. It will be
possible quite readily to unpick that and say these combinations
of departments are signed up to do particular things. In terms
of, for example, the key commitments we have not done that. The
document does not do that. I do not think it would be difficult
to do that and it may be as part of the follow-up we will need
to broker with other departments exactly what that means. I think
there is a danger in this of saying X department is in the lead
or X department has the main ownership of this area of policy,
because that works against integration. It begins again to get
to the idea that DETR is looking after that and, therefore, there
is no need to worry, or economic instruments are solely a matter
for the Treasury and if they are not interested then other departments
have not got a look in. So I think we would want it to be in terms
of groupings of departments but that is implicit in the way it
has been put together.
39. Conversely what also happens, and we are
finding this when we interview various people, ministers from
the various departments, that if you do not give specific tasks
or targets or responsibilities, then it does not get done. We
have seen an awful lot and last week was a terribly clear example,
everybody is very keen to shake their hand out and say: "Of
course we are going to take part" but when you actually unravel
what they have done, apart from saying that if you substitute
officials at these meetings and tick a few boxes that is not actually
happening. That is one of the concerns. I think we would certainly
like to see a clear delineation of responsibilities so that we
can judge that individual departments are doing their bit. I would
hope that we will see some more clear evidence that can be achieved.
(Mr Adams) Thank you. I think we share the Committee's
interest in that and if I may I will take that away and think
how best we can improve.