Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence



  This memorandum is submitted by Derek Osborn in his personal capacity. It follows a first discussion of the new UK Sustainable Development Strategy by the Round Table. It broadly reflects the views of most of the members who were present, but it has not been approved in detail by the whole Round Table.

  1.  The new Strategy for Sustainable Development was issued in May 1999 as an action strategy intended to guide the Government's own actions and for which they seek commitment, engagement and active support by others.

  2.  The Round Table clearly has a major interest in this process; and a particular role in monitoring progress is foreseen for its successor body—the Sustainable Development Commission—whose formation the White Paper announces. The Round Table therefore intends to continue to give close attention to the strategy and its implementation in the coming months. In particular it will be arranging a seminar with DETR and other interested bodies in September to explore further the role of the new Commission and its central monitoring task. It also envisages arranging a further seminar later in the year to discuss the new set of indicators promised in the Strategy and the way in which they can be used to monitor and stimulate progress.

  3.  As requested this memorandum concentrates particularly on ways of monitoring progress against the strategy, and the role of the new Commission. Some brief comments on other aspects of the strategy are set out at Annex A[1].

  4.  In general the Round Table finds the new strategy a valuable overview of sustainable development and the challenges it represents. We think however that the achievement of sustainability in the UK will be an even bigger task than the Strategy suggests, and that it will require determined political leadership, some difficult policy decisions, and commitment and action by all parts of society. It will need to be vigorously followed through if it is to have the impact that it deserves and bring about the many changes needed.

  5.  In this context the monitoring of progress, and the role of the new independent Sustainable Development Commission will be crucial. The Round Table are impressed by the progress that has already been made by the Government and others in developing indicators of sustainability, and in focusing particular attention on a core set of headline indicators. We believe this set is a good start, and will be happy to enter a constructive dialogue with DETR in the autumn based on these indicators.

  6.  Particular issues which we shall want to take up include:

    (i)  The adequacy of the set of indicators as a representation of sustainability, and consideration of a few suggestions for modifying or extending the list.

    (ii)  The possibility of creating indices aggregating some of the indicators for particular purposes.

    (iii)  How can targets or desired directions of change be established where they are missing at present?

    (iv)  Lessons to be drawn from this autumn's set of figures and movements in them. Which sectors or areas do they flag up as particularly requiring attention from a sustainability point of view?

    (v)  How can the national figures be disaggregated geographically by country, region or locality so as to relate them to regional or local sustainability objectives, and to point up areas where action is most needed? Similarly what sectoral disaggregation is possible?

    (vi)  What international, inter-regional or inter-locality comparisons can be made, and what lessons drawn?

    (vii)  How can accountability for the indicators be established? For instance, could a lead Minister be assigned to each, with the personal responsibility for initiating and maintaining the action needed to get it moving in the right direction?

  7.  Looking further ahead to the Commission, we welcome the formation of this new body with a particular duty for monitoring progress and drawing attention to where action is needed.

  8.  Terms of reference will need to be carefully considered. The Round Table has reviewed its own terms of reference and those of the Government Panel on Sustainable Development which are to be subsumed into the new Commission (Annexes B and C)[2]. In thinking about terms of reference for the new Commission the Round Table considers the following points to be important:

    (i)  The task of monitoring progress on the basis of indicators and focusing public and political attention on areas where things are not moving in the right direction is a vitally important one and should be the core of the work of the new Commission;

    (ii)  The Commission should not have to rely solely on monitoring indicators supplied by Government, but should have the right and the capacity to obtain additional information or analysis it may need to assess progress, in the light of its own judgement of the key issues for achieving sustainability;

    (iii)  The Commission should build on the good work of the Round Table and the Government Panel. It should be able to conduct reviews and make reports on emerging sustainability issues, focusing particularly on issues identified as priority problems by the monitoring assessments, but not confined to those;

    (iv)  The Commission will need to promote its messages and reports widely amongst opinion formers and others. It should seek to influence many other parts of society as well as government. We doubt whether it should be in the business of education or direct promotion of sustainability with the general public, but it should be innovative in style and accessiblity of publication and in communicating to and through others; and

    (v)  We believe that sustainability is a vital national objective, and that the new Commission should continue to have a UK remit and membership. It will also need to have appropriate relationships with whatever arrangements are in place in the four countries, in the regions and in local authorities to deal with sustainability.

  9.  A first attempt at draft terms of reference for the new Commission, building on the above points, is at Annex D[3].

  10.  The Round Table considers that it would be desirable to establish an appropriate annual cycle of interaction between the Government's reports on indicators and on sustainability, the Green Ministers' reports, the Commission's reports and the work of the Environmental Audit Committee. For example if the Government reports on indicators each autumn, the Commission might aim to report on lessons from them soon after, leaving space for any Environmental Audit Committee report during the spring before a summer report by the Government on their actions and response to that year's advice and reports from Commission and Committee.

  11.  To carry out its functions properly we believe the Commission will need to be independent of Government and other bodies, but with easy access to Ministers and Departments as well as to other public bodies and good connections to industry. It should report publicly, addressing Government as a whole and the wider world as well. It will need analytic resources to probe the Government's figures and perhaps to assemble other material for itself.

  12.  The Commission should be broadly based with a membership drawn from all parts of the United Kingdom and the main sectors of society. We do not think it would be practicable or desirable to try to constitute it as respresentative body (there are too many potential constitutencies), though it may be desirable to have some ex officio members, as the Round Table has, to maintain some essential linkages. Appointments would therefore need to be made by the Government, though not necessarily all by the same Department.

1   See pp. 18-22. Back

2   See pp. 22-23. Back

3   See p. 23. Back

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