Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


  Green Alliance welcomes the Government's Strategy for Sustainable Development, "A Better Quality of Life". The Strategy reiterates the Government's commitment to sustainable development, and provides an ambitious and broad vision of what sustainable development means in social, economic and environmental terms. As such, it provides a solid intellectual framework for future Government policy.

  This breadth of vision must be backed up by clear goals, achievable policies, and unambiguous assignation of responsibility for sustainable development across Government and society. Whilst the document goes some way toward achieving this, particularly through the set of indicators put forward to measure sustainable development, the document does not seem to provide a clear blueprint for action that needs to be taken across Government to achieve real progress. This will become a problem particularly when inherent conflicts between the different strands of sustainable development come to the fore. Below, we outline several areas in which we believe the Government needs to be clearer in its articulation of sustainable development policy.


  Green Alliance welcomes the set of 150 indicators, together with the headline indicators. The attempt to measure quality of life in the wider sense, moving beyond traditional economic measures such as Gross National Product, is a major innovation for Government. The broad range of indicators provides a package by which progress can be measured in social, environmental and economic terms.

  As well as providing a more sustainable vision of progress, the headline indicators will also help in communicating sustainable development issues to the public in a more accessible way. They will help us to hold the Government to account.


  Despite an impressive array of indicators, the document contains very few targets. It gives us no impression of what measurements of these various indicators would be deemed acceptable, or at what levels remedial action must be taken. With the exception of a few already existing targets—on carbon dioxide emissions, levels of recycling and so on—there is merely a general assertion that indicators should not get worse—as the Strategy says, the indicators will do no more than "tell us whether we are heading in the right direction". (10.8)


  Chapter five of the document provides an analysis of instruments that can be used to achieve sustainable development. These instruments include better decision-making that takes sustainable development into account, taxes and regulation, public information and community involvement, and research advice. Green Alliance welcomes this articulation of method, and believes that the measures suggested provide a comprehensive toolkit that can be used to great effect. In particular:

    We welcome the commitment to economic instruments, which provide an efficient and transparent way of achieving sustainable development objectives. The environmental measures in the recent budget are an important first step towards this, and we would urge the Government to build on this success.

    We believe that the creation of a single "Sustainable Development Commission" (5.25) will help in providing a single source of independent expert advice for Government. It is important, however, to maintain continuity of membership from the two previous bodies, to build on the expertise developed and to smooth the transition.

    We welcome the re-statement of the commitment to the "greening government" system, including Green Ministers' meetings; the Cabinet Committee on the Environment, and the Environmental Audit Committee.

    However, as we stated in evidence to the EAC's Greening Government Inquiry, there is still a need for more meaningful and comprehensive appraisals of policy across the board. The Strategy, whilst being clear about the desirability of policy appraisal in the light of sustainable development, does not provide a clear vision of how this would work. This is especially problematic when considering policy areas where different objectives within sustainable development may come into conflict, such as housing, energy or transport. Rather than a blueprint for action, there is merely a general commitment to the principle. Green Alliance hopes that further progress can be made on this issue, to provide a comprehensive, transparent and auditable method of policy appraisal.

    Whilst there is a stated commitment to the "precautionary principle", (4.2) again, little is said about how this will inform Government policy in practice. For example, despite continuing scientific uncertainty about genetically modified organisms, the strategy does not make clear how the precautionary principle would be applied in future policy decisions on GMOs or cases of similar uncertainty.

    Proper decision-making that integrates sustainable development into government objectives is not easy, and requires government departments, and their staff, to have both understanding of and commitment to the issues. Policy appraisal, for example, can be very complex, and require additional training. We hope that the Government can follow on from the Strategy and state its commitment to training and information for sustainable development, so that its vision in the Strategy can be realised on the ground.


  Chapters six to nine of the Strategy provide a general description of progress made across the various component parts of sustainable development, including social inclusion, environmental protection and enhancement, and international co-operation. These sections also set out what future action will be taken. This is an important statement of intention, and provides an overarching rationale for specific actions, making the context of sustainable development very clear.

  The general need to reconcile different objectives is acknowledged—there are many statements such as "achieving environmental improvements in ways which reinforce economic and social objectives". (8.3) The Strategy does not make it clear, however, how to prioritise between these different objectives, or indeed how to reconcile conflicts between them. Instead it merely lists achievements made in each area. This is a very real problem in achieving the Government's oft-stated aim of joined-up government.

  Sustainable development needs considerable co-ordination across government, to make the component parts work in tandem, rather than conflicting. This is particularly important where responsibilities fall across different government departments. For example, decisions taken on energy issues are handled by two different government departments, the DTI and the DETR, and decisions made affect social, environmental and economic goals. There is not always a win-win stituation, and trade-offs must be made in order to optimise sustainable development objectives. Such co-ordination will be achieved through clear articulation of targets; transparent appraisals of policy; and prioritisation of goals. Without this structure there is no guarantee that the right decisions will be made.


  The Strategy rightly says that sustainable development is the responsibility of the whole of Government, as well as other actors—business, community groups and individuals. It calls for partnerships and shared responsibility. The difficulty here, though, is that responsibility for achieving sustainable development is not delineated. It is not clear what the role of each Government department should be, and how each should contribute to the whole. The role of Government itself, alongside other actors, is also unclear. This has important implications for accountability. Without clear responsibilities and targets, it is hard to see where blame lies for inactivity, or indeed where praise should be given for progress.

  For example, the government cites the new Regional Development Authorities (RDAs) as being important actors in achieving sustainable development (7.6). However, their role is not clear. RDAs in economically deprived areas are under considerable pressure to achieve economic growth, and may resort to "growth for growth's sake" unless they have clear guidance and understanding of how to incorporate social and environmental objectives. Unless the RDA's responsibility for these objectives is clearly articulated, they may fall prey to the temptation to judge their success in economic terms alone.


  Economic and environmental policy, and increasingly social policy, are greatly influenced by our role in the European Union. Any national strategy must be put in the context of the Union. The Strategy acknowledges this (2.6), and reference is made to European initiatives in particular policy areas. Despite this, there is little mentioned about how we might promote these objectives on the European stage, working with the other Member-States and particularly with the accession states of Central and Eastern Europe.


  Achieving sustainable development requires political commitment across Government, and on paper, the Strategy seems to provide evidence of this. Tony Blair's foreword states that "The whole of the Government is committed to this, as are many businesses, groups and individuals up and down the country. Together, we can ensure that our economy, our society and our environment grow and develop in harmony." (foreword, page 3) Although impressive on paper, this commitment has been less apparent in the Government's actions. Following several months of delays, the document was launched in a low-key manner, and the Prime Minister did not take part. Press coverage, as a result, was minimal. When compared with the fanfares surrounding announcements of social exclusion, education or health policies, it is hard not to infer an unwillingness to prioritise sustainable development. The low-key approach sends the wrong signals to Government departments, and other actors, and will not encourage them to put concern for sustainable development at the centre of their policies. Much more needs to be done to show a high-level commitment from the centre.

June 1999

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