Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. Tradition is a wonderful thing, but in the light of this experience should we not be modernising our attitude in this area?
  (Mr Adams) I do not think, if I may say so, that is a question for me. We can certainly try and get more closely alongside them and to an extent that there is any blame that we have failed to show why ESRC ought to regard this as a priority area then that is a failing for us.

Joan Walley

  61. Earlier on we were talking about the importance of what the DETR does and the Sustainable Development Unit and how that interacts with other departments of Government. Can I extend that whole area now to look at what goes on within the European Union. Can I just ask you in terms of the Strategy that you have now presented, how that picks up all the key policy developments which are currently under way at the European Union level? Can you tell us what those key policy areas are and how you resolve the situation, for example, where it is DTI that takes the lead on European Union agreements that go forward with WTO? How can you make sure that you are working side by side on that issue and who is taking the initiative on that?
  (Mr Adams) As we have discussed already this morning, this document is intended as a handbook, not an encyclopedia, therefore not every relevant bit of business which is currently or prospectively being considered in the EU which is relevant to sustainable development will be in here although I hope that in many areas relevant directives and discussions are reflected there.

  62. Which would you think are the key policy areas that currently are under discussion at the moment, that you either have or have not reflected in this companion book you have here?
  (Mr Adams) Those would certainly include discussions about the future of the Common Agriculture Policy, which is in here. To take up your point about trade and the environment, it was because we were conscious that DTI lead in many of these areas, for example, that we were keen to use the Strategy as a vehicle for producing an agreed Government view on principles for trade and the environment, which is what Chapter 9 does. So that is essentially the negotiating brief for whoever may go off to any international negotiation where trade and the environment is on the agenda. That text was agreed by DETR, DTI, Treasury and other interested departments and therefore binds all of them.

  63. Just going back to the key areas within the European Union, which would you say were the key policy areas and which have not been included in this?
  (Dr Ilott) I think if you look—and I cannot remember all of them—at the EU's Fifth Action Programme on the environment, it identified a number of areas which were vital in that context for environmental policy but also for sustainable development policy, which were things like energy, tourism, agriculture, all of which have been referred to in this document and are continuing parts of important EU policies in areas such as climate change, energy and agriculture, as John Adams mentioned. So I am not sure there is anything which the EU has identified as a key area of policy which has been omitted as a key theme of the Strategy.

  64. My concerns are more as to how is the Government taking the initiative and making sure that issues that we cannot deliver on locally and nationally because of restrictive, either EU or WTO or international, agreements, how is the local global link being made? Are there key issues which we should be more proactive on?
  (Dr Ilott) I think one of the things which the Government is trying to do now in the EU fora is to press, following the conclusions at Cardiff and Vienna Councils, for greater environmental appraisal of policy and integration of sustainable development thinking more generally into the development of policies at EU level. One of the things which we hope to do with this Strategy, which has now been sent to colleagues in other Member States, is to use this Strategy to inform thinking within the EU, as for example they think about, the review of implementation of the Fifth Action Programme, to take a more sustainable development based approach—so that it is not just something which is thought of as something which applies to policies of the Environment Directorate-General in the EU only but more widely across the EU.
  (Mr Adams) To give an example, a bit of a follow up. We have a member of the SDU in Bonn today attending a workshop which the Germans, as the Presidency, have convened to look at integration. One of the things he is going to be doing obviously is drawing attention to some of the things in the Strategy. I think we need to do things at two levels, particularly on the environment and resources section of the Strategy. There are lots of references to action at EU level in the Water Framework Directive, Air Quality and so on; Marine issues in OSPAR and elsewhere. Frequently international negotiations will be the appropriate fora for taking forward individual strands of policy but we also need to make sure that all of those international bodies take a similarly holistic view of policy deliberation and putting the environment into other areas of policy, whether it is trade or transport or agriculture or whatever, as we are now committed to do. Hopefully the existence of the Strategy will help us to demonstrate how we think that should be done.

  65. You would say you have looked at best practice examples from other EU countries when drawing up this document?
  (Mr Adams) Yes, very much so.

  66. Can I just ask about the United Nations' requirements for sustainable development strategies, you have just briefly touched upon that. How do you see what is happening here and what is happening in Europe actually contributing to that? Do you feel they have been best addressed in this Strategy? What monitoring will there be as far as progress made on the United Nations' Environmental Agreement?
  (Mr Adams) The United Nations has a requirement that all countries should produce national Sustainable Development Strategies, I think, by 2002. This is obviously our contribution to that process. Individual countries' strategies will vary depending on their perceptions of priorities locally and the UK continues to do a great deal bilaterally and multilaterally with other countries and particularly the Department for International Development is working with a number of countries to help them deliver their sustainable development strategies. Obviously to the extent that a UK Strategy is a helpful template then, again, we shall draw that to their attention.

  67. It is not just about tackling local poverty, is it, it is about getting the negotiations and the agreements which prevent the growth of pollution and contamination and all these things which take place at the moment?
  (Mr Adams) Absolutely. I think the requirement for all countries to have addressed these problems is an important part of putting in place the information, the framework, so that those negotiations can take place.

  68. So does this companion book then have some mechanism for seeing and reporting on the progress made on that and where it is that the UK is taking the initiative with Europe and internationally?
  (Mr Adams) Yes. There are several references in here to areas in which we are and will continue to take the initiative. That again is something we would expect to reflect in the annual series of reports which will, as I say, concentrate on real world outcomes but will also be the vehicle for the Government to set out what it has done to help bring about sustainable development.

  69. There will be a mechanism?
  (Mr Adams) Yes.

Mr Loughton

  70. Chapter 10 in the Strategy talks about the annual reporting and the Government has committed itself to bringing together all the figures and publishing them starting with next year. Can you talk us through the mechanics of that, particularly whether there are going to be special responsibilities on individual Government departments to report their figures and, secondly, how you will monitor local authorities' performance on those local environmental factors as well?
  (Mr Adams) What we are discussing here is in a sense reporting on behalf of the nation on progress on sustainable development. We see this as sitting alongside, but not detracting from, individual reports which we shall also encourage. So we want more businesses to report. As this Committee knows, Green Ministers are to report very shortly setting out what Government departments are doing in these kinds of areas. Local authorities are being encouraged to report likewise. We shall want to draw from all those but try and produce an overall picture of what is happening at the national level on behalf, so far as we can, of all the interests rather than just concentrating on the Government. If we are going to do that clearly we need to have the active participation of others. That is one reason why we say the next step is to arrange a seminar which we hope to hold in the early autumn at which we can discuss our views and not only the outcomes but also the machinery by which we can produce something which is worthwhile for everybody.

  71. What about in terms of identifying local targets being met or not being met? Danger levels as opposed to those which seem to be doing quite well, I am thinking of local air pollution problems or identification of contaminated sites, brown field sites, redevelopment, whatever. What input is there going to be from those local authorities? We have already set in place very clear targets and Strategies, how will those help the reporting?
  (Mr Adams) We would obviously want to reflect that. Hilary Hillier was saying earlier there is an enormous amount of activity on the indicators and monitoring at every level, regionally and locally, but also particular sectors of business, for example. Some of the local measures, the messages, may be rather different from the ones that come out at the national level. I gave much earlier on the example of water quality. At a national level water quality is not a problem but it might be a problem for an individual local authority area. The emphasis they had in the report they made would be slightly different. We shall want to bring together as much of that information as we can and explain, as I say, primarily the national position but attempt to show what is happening in different parts of the country and different sectors.

  72. In terms of those local authorities who are backward in coming forward with either their information or their participation in the Strategy, is DETR, as the lead department, prepared to use a carrot and stick of local government funding to encourage them to play a rather more keen role than they might do otherwise?
  (Mr Adams) I do not think there is any mechanism at the moment which would allow us to deprive local authorities of funds for failures in this area, not that I am aware of. We are still very much in the business, together with the Local Government Association and others, of providing help, encouragement and other carrots and drawing attention to the benefits which local areas can obtain by working in this kind of way.

  73. When the carrot does not prove attractive enough, given that this is a DETR project, DETR is the lead here, it is a very large tap of money which it can regulate accordingly, is there a willingness for the department to use that tap to encourage compliance if it has not been brought about by a nice dangling carrot?
  (Mr Adams) I think there is no willingness at the moment nor any discussion of doing so. The largest tap is, of course, the Revenue Support Grant on which the Government has announced a three year moratorium on the SSAs, which are the basis of calculations. I am not sure at the moment there is an obvious mechanism by which DETR can withdraw funds from local authorities who are felt to be recalcitrant in this area even if there is a will to do so.

  74. These are SRB grants, beyond the main stream funding we could tinker with.
  (Mr Adams) You could, but intended for other purposes, and I am not sure that I think we have reached the point at which it would make sense to deprive people of other grants for which, apart from anything else, SRB grants require submissions which take account of sustainable development.

  75. Indeed.
  (Mr Adams) If people have done that, to say that nonetheless having reached that point they could not have the funding because they had failed to produce a Local Agenda 21 Strategy in time I think is a draconian thing.

  76. I detect a slight reluctance to get tough.
  (Mr Adams) Because I am not sure that we are convinced that we shall need to get tough. We are getting very close to 100 per cent. of local authorities signing up to produce Agenda 21 Strategies. I think the stage beyond that is encourage them to improve the quality of those Strategies. I am not convinced that a punishment regime is a necessary or desirable part of that.

Joan Walley

  77. The bit you made about the SRBs requiring sustainability to be there, could you tell us on what basis that is the case at the moment?
  (Mr Adams) I think there is a box in the Strategy, if I recall, which describes the basis of SRB bidding.[2]

  78. How that is assessed as well?
  (Mr Adams) You have taken me outside my area of expertise. I am sure there is a requirement that SRB bids should demonstrate their economic, social and environmental effects. I would be happy to provide some sort of note on the way that is done and what it means in practice, if that would help?
  (Dr Ilott) I cannot add much to that. I believe the Department did publish last year a guide on sustainable regeneration which can help to inform people applying for SRB funds to see how they can build sustainable development into their bids[3], but I cannot say much more about how they are assessed in detail.

  79. It will be helpful to have that and to know how it is applied to what is currently being agreed and what is in the pipeline for being agreed before perhaps any new changes might come in this transitional period.
  (Mr Adams) Of course.

2  Note by Witness: In fact, the box (on page 53 of the Strategy) describes the arrangements under the New Deal for Communities programme. Back
3  Available at Back

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