Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence




  The definition of sustainable development is useful and the full weight given in the White Paper to each of four aspects (social progress, environment protection, natural resource use and high and stable levels of economic growth and employment) is welcome.

  We remain concerned about the relationship between economic growth and sustainable development. In most societies in most periods economic growth has been associated with greater exploitation of natural resources, and higher levels of environmental impact. The challenge of sustainable development is how to achieve growth at the same time as reducing adverse environmental impacts and over-use of resources. This can only be achieved by major transformation of markets to ensure that environmental impacts per unit of consumption are reduced substantially. This is a large and continuing task. The White Paper makes it appear somewhat too easy, and does not give a clear enough impression of the scale of the changes to our economyand society that will be needed to get to a more sustainable pattern of development, and the political will and public commitment that will need to be mobilised. Most of the examples given are of win-win solutions achieving economic growth whilst minimising the impact of the environment. These are valuable, but in many cases difficult trade-offs may be necessary to achieve sustainable development. It would be helpful for the strategy to set out Government policy in these more difficult areas.


  The consultation process is usefully summarised here. We welcome the emphasis on the need for a social dimension as well as an environmental one.

  The implications of devolution do not appear to have been fully thought through. Some but not all of the issues which sustainable development deals with have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many also have an international dimension.

  It appears to the Round Table that there will be a clear need for sustainable development strategies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and we hope that the appropriate bodies will pursue this. At the same time we see a continuing need for a UK strategy to bring together those issues that need to be integrated at UK level (not only the functions which are retained by the UK Government), and to relate as necessary to international processes and strategies.

  Within the countries of the UK the relationship of the national sustainable development strategies to those being developed by regions and by local authorities need to be more clearly spelt out so that they complement and support one another rather than just proceeding on separate tramlines.

  Greater weight also needs to be given to European and international dimensions. The EU is shortly to produce a new environmental strategy, and it will no doubt have a major influence on a wide range of issues such as environmental taxes. The EU has also been edging towards a more integrated approach to promoting sustainability in all its activities. UK objectives for how they would like to see EU policy on sustainable development develop in the next period need to be clearly articulated and promoted.

  Similarly UK objectives for how international action on sustainable development might evolve up to and beyond the anticipated Earth Summit III in 2002 need to be spelt out.

  The work of the Round Table is greatly affected by devolution and regionalisation, and the new Sustainable Development Commission will have to take explicit account of the new arrangements. The Round Table has been a UK body and has gained strength, variety and vitality from having membership from all four countries. Its work and recommendations have throughout been intended for a UK audience, and have been relevant to all parts of the UK. Building on this experience, the Round Table believes it is highly desirable that the new Sustainable Development Commission should also be a UK body with a role and membership covering all parts of the four countries. We fully recognise, and indeed would recommend, that the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may wish to establish their own machinery for promoting sustainable development. If that happens it would be important to establish appropriate links between any new national bodies and the UK Commission.


  We welcome the use of headline indicators and believe that they represent an important element of the strategy. We also broadly agree with the priorities which they reflect, although particular indicators may need to be reviewed in the future. We are also disappointed that there is no measure of poverty or social exclusion, and call on the Government to make further efforts to fill this gap as soon as possible, as the Deputy Prime Minister has promised. The UN Human Development Report might provide a useful approach to this.

  While recognising and welcoming the strength of the concept of a limited set of headline indicators for the purpose of focusing public and political attention, we think that they cannot by themselves capture all aspects of sustainability that deserve attention. We shall therefore certainly ourselves want to pay closer attention to the wider set of 150 indicators as well.

  From a sustainability point of view it is particularly important to pay close attention to those composite indicators which reveal whether or how far economic growth in general or in a particular sector is being successfully decoupled from growth of use of natural resources or growth of pollution. We have been particularly impressed by a presentation showing growth of the economy and of road traffic being decoupled from growth of pollution during the 1990s (due to tighter controls, catalytic converters etc) and to a much lesser extent from energy consumption and CO2 production (due to higher road fuel duty and somewhat more efficient engines). We need more of this kind of indicator and analysis to chart the real progress of sustainability and to judge where further measures are needed.

  The Round Table welcomes the commitment in paragraph 3.7 of the Strategy to aim for all of the headline indicators to move in the right direction over time, and to adjust policies where trends are unacceptable. We hope to see this firmed up with specific commitments to targets and timetables as the monitoring process develops. We would hope to see this commitment extended as soon as possible to other key indicators in the larger set, and to the kind of composite indicator referred to in the preceding paragraph which gives a real measure of the progress of sustainability.

  Although we agree that it is not possible to capture the whole concept of sustainability by a single composite indicator such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare or the UNDP Human Development Index, it is well worth keeping the movement of such indices under review as a part of the overall monitoring process. It is also worth giving further consideration to the way in which some of the main economic indicators do or do not take account of environmental or social goods and bads, and how they might be amended or supplemented over time to take better account of the integrated objective of sustainable development.

  Looking to the future, it might be helpful to develop an annual cycle whose elements could include publication of the indicators update, report on progress with the White Paper objectives, report from Green Ministers, commentary by the Sustainable Development Commission and review by the Environmental Audit Committee. It will be important to be systematic in this way about progress review against the indicators, and to make maximum use of the agencies outside Government such as the Commission and Committee to ensure a degree of independence and objectivity in the assessments.

  One important aspect to be considered at an early stage is how national indicators, measures and targets should be disaggregated both geographically to countries, regions and local authorities; and sectorally to industry (and individual firms), domestic etc, so that progress of the different sectors and groupings can be compared and their contributions to national objectives assessed. The Round Table could play a part in encouraging Regional Development Agencies to develop regional indices of sustainability, following on from its report Sustainable Development—Devolved and Regional Dimensions.


  Principles are important guides and we believe that sustainable development principles should inform all Government thinking. However, there is a danger that the Government may only pay lip service to them. We recognise that principles such as the polluter pays principle may be difficult to implement in the short term for valid commercial reasons, but believe that in the long-term difficult decisions will need to be made to ensure that they are effectively implemented.

  We are also concerned that the precautionary principle is being interpreted simply as conventional risk management, weighing up probable costs and benefits. This approach needs to be adapted to apply in situations of scientific uncertainty and with respect to the long term. But we urge the Government not to dilute this principle. We would also urge caution with respect to the concept of environmental capital; much environmental capital should not be treated as having a "price" against which it can be traded for other benefits, but as of absolute value.

  We commend the Government for emphasising the need for consumers and other sectors to play their part, but would advise against relying on campaigns to change behaviour, without adequate incentives in place to facilitate and promote good behaviour. We welcome the relaunch of Are you doing your bit?, on an enlarged scale; we are however uncertain of the likely efficacy of the advertisements by themselves. We shall be interested to see the report on the research which is to be carried out on this.


  This part of the strategy appears to have missed the opportunity to provide a clear over-arching theme for sustainable development. It could usefully have set out long-term objectives (in terms of outcomes) to which the strategy was aimed and sought consensus at that level. It would then have been easier to set about some of the short-term actions which might contribute to the broader transition to sustainable development. Such an approach could also have revealed a number of areas which should be given urgent attention and have the potential for quick gains, such as reform of building regulations to improve the enrgy efficiency of buildings.

  We believe that there is room for further progress in strengthening the role of Green Ministers. In particular, they should be encouraged to address how the policies of their departments contribute to sustainable development, as well as considerations of "green housekeeping" (important as that is).

  One area of particular importance is the Budget. We agree with the Environmental Audit Committee that the whole Budget should be appraised in terms of its environmental (and wider sustainable) impact and not just those policies labelled as "environmental".

  We strongly believe that the Government should set an example in following sustainable development principles, including through its procurement practice. We outlined some principles of a sustainable procurement policy in our recent report Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises. These need to be developed and applied across Whitehall. Particular attention should be paid to whether the Private Finance Initiative is delivering sustainable development in practice.


  We welcome the comprehensive set of policies adopted in this chapter and broadly support the Government's approach. However, there could usefully have been a greater emphasis on the role of environmental taxation, set in the context of the wider tax system to show more clearly the Government's desire to move from taxing "goods" to "bads". Due prominence should also have been given to other incentives to promote best practice.

  We welcome the Government's approach towards businesses playing their part, and the need for trade associations to provide a forum for consensus within sectors and joint action. However, it should be recognised that this will result in the pace of progress being relatively slow. Many firms may use parts of the strategy to indicate their own good practice, but this may not provide the challenge necessary for them to make significant progress in this area. There is an urgent need for sectoral strategies; we welcome the Government's encouragement of these and urge business sectors to take up this challenge.


  This Chapter brings together in a useful way many of the national, regional and local strategies and initiatives that are important to achieving sustainability at regional and local level. The key problem is how to achieve that integration in practice. Great weight is put on the strategies to be prepared at regional and at local level, but neither is yet on a statutory basis, and at regional level it is not even clear where the lead responsibility should lie.

  The Round Table considers that a much clearer articulation of responsibilities for sustainable development at UK, national, regional and local level is needed, with the relationships between different levels clearly spelt out, and the way in which fulfilment of targets or progress against indicators at lower levels will contribute to the achievement of aggregate targets at higher levels. We think that the different formulations of duties for sustainable development at national, regional and local level need to be sorted out. In particular we think that there is a clear need to spell out a statutory duty to promote sustainable development at local level, and to adopt a local sustainable development strategy over-arching and guiding all other local strategies to fulfil it.


  This Chapter also draws together in a useful way objectives and action on the environment and natural resources. It is a useful summary and points up the main areas of concern. It conveys the impression however that most of the issues are well in hand. The Round Table believes that, when the indicators are available, they are likely to show that much more needs to be done in some of the key areas such as greenhouse gas reduction, air quality, reversing very adverse trends in biodiversity, wildlife, and landscape, reducing persistent pollutants and managing waste better. We look forward to a regular information-based dialogue which will enable these points to be highlighted.


  Another useful summary, highlighting the importance of achieving sustainable development throughout the world and the kinds of international action needed to help in the developing countries where the problems are the most acute. There is however no clear articulation between the agreed goals for the world and the objectives which the UK accepts for its international effort on aid and other initiatives. Unless this gap can be filled it will be difficult to monitor the adequacy of the UK's performance in this area properly.


  A useful summary of key priorities and key actors. Regular review of progress by all parts of society and focusing of attention on areas that most need action will be crucial. The Round Table intends to make its own commentary on this at the end of 1999 in the light of the indicators' report in the autumn. We also intend to offer further advice as to how its successor body, the Sustainable Development Commission, might best address the task.

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