Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 93 - 99)




  93. Good morning, everybody. Thank you for putting in evidence. We were grateful for that because we do need some dispassionate views on the Government's Sustainable Development Strategy and we are very glad to have them. Can I first of all ask you if there is anything you would like to say before we actually begin to take evidence on the written evidence you have submitted?
  (Mr Osborn) Well, can I first introduce my team. It is a great pleasure to be with you again in another capacity this time. I have two members of the Round Table with me: Mr Peter Madden, who is probably known to your Committee already as the Director of the Green Alliance; and Robin Bidwell, who is Chairman and Chief Executive of ERM[4]. Both are familiar with sustainable development issues here and in many other parts of the world. On my left is Philip Dale, the Secretary of the Round Table. As to saying anything, I think I would really stand by my memorandum. You asked me to focus particularly on the putative role of the new Sustainable Development Commission as proposed in the Government's White Paper and I have focussed particularly on that, although we have also at a Round Table meeting two weeks ago spent some time looking at the whole of the strategy and we have offered you in an annex some views that we have formed at the moment about the strategy as a whole. I put it in as a personal memorandum because we did not debate it line by line, and although I think it conveys the consensus of that meeting, it has not been endorsed by all the members. Peter and Robin will be well able to voice their own views, but I think the general sense of where we are coming from is given in this memorandum.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. We would like to start off with just looking at how this compares with previous strategies, and I know Dr Iddon wants to lead off on that.

Dr Iddon

  94. In what ways do you see the 1999 strategy document, A Better Quality of Life, as being an improvement on the 1994 document and are there any disappointments for you in the new document?
  (Mr Osborn) That is a difficult question for me to answer personally because in another time I was largely responsible for creating the 1994 Strategy.


  95. That is why we asked you!

  (Mr Osborn) I have to school myself to eat some humble pie. I do think it is an improvement in some significant ways, partly the obvious benefit of being rather shorter, more concise and easier to read and get all the parts together in one's mind, but, more significantly than that, I think it has made a more thorough attempt to have an integrated approach taking account of all parts of the sustainable development agenda, the social and economic as well as the environmental, and I think it has also attempted more thoroughly to ground the ideas about what sustainable development is and how you assess whether you are getting progress in it in relation to the set of indicators. A draft of the indicators has already appeared and further sets are to appear shortly. Therefore, a better approach to integration and a grounding of indicators seem to me positive benefits. What I am a little bit fearful of is that some of the detail may have been lost inasmuch as by slimming it down to a more manageable document, it has also slimmed out some of the specific actions that we included in the previous strategy which you could monitor as actions and were monitored as actions year by year in the old regime. It is quite difficult beyond the monitoring of indicators, some of which will take some time to move very much in one direction or another, to see how year by year you will keep track of whether we are making progress or not, and there are no actions committed to in this document, not specific different actions whereby people could say in a year's time, "Did you do it or not?", and I think a bit of sharpening up in that area, perhaps in supplementary documents that are referred to, would be useful.

Dr Iddon

  96. Could we turn now to the Commission which of course subsumes the Round Table and the Panel and brings them together, if you like. You have made some recommendations in your memorandum on that. Do you expect your draft terms of reference for that Commission and your views on its membership to be acceptable to the Government?
  (Mr Osborn) Well, these suggestions have emerged from an away-day, the first away-day that we had under my chairmanship of the Round Table at which we devoted a good deal of time to discussing this proposal for a Commission and how it might operate. The DETR and DTI were present at senior level at that meeting and the people who will be most involved in working up the Commission were, therefore, there. Of course they reserved their position about what was discussed at the time because they are not yet ready to put forward full governmental proposals about how exactly the Commission should be constituted or how it should operate, but they were playing an active part. They were not sitting on their hands, they were engaging in discussion, there was give and take. I would say that what has emerged is not a bad shot and they seemed quite responsive to the ways that we were suggesting it. They have not yet agreed to these terms of reference, I am sure they will be modified in important respects as they think about it even further and as they rightly consult a much wider range of people, including yourselves, about how the Commission should operate. But they might be prepared to accept that this is quite a good starting point.

  97. Where do you think the main differences might lie between your ideas and the Government's ideas?
  (Mr Osborn) I do not think I would say there are differences in that respect at the moment. I would say that it may well be elaborated. They may have different views on various aspects. I suppose one point that is important, and was a little bit under debate between some of the members of the Round Table and perhaps with the Government, is how wide to make the scope of the Commission: should it be given a rather tight focus on the monitoring task, monitoring indicators, what do they tell you, or should it be given a wider focus that should at least embrace the remits of the outgoing Round Table and the former Panel as well so that it is a bigger and better Commission? There was some tension on that aspect. I think Peter would like to say something.
  (Mr Madden) The Strategy itself gives a heavy emphasis to the new Commission having a monitoring role and while we see that as valuable some members of the Round Table are slightly worried that a lot of other bodies, including yourselves and the Sustainable Development Unit, are involved in monitoring. There are two important functions that the Panel and Round Table fulfil that should not be lost in the new Commission. The first is the Panel's ability to spot gaps and to spot those issues that are coming up that the Government maybe have not focused on. The second is the Round Table's ability to build consensus and take a view on issues in a societal manner. Therefore, monitoring would be one part but out of that monitoring should come an analysis of those two or three key issues where there is a bottleneck and where the Commission might play some part in taking the debate forward.

  98. One of the Government's remits is building consensus but the draft terms of reference do not seem to refer to that. Do you think this indicates a difference in perception of that role?
  (Mr Osborn) If you are looking at Annex D to our memorandum we have not used the word "consensus" but in item four we have talked about "help build a common understanding between different sectors of society of the nature of the problems in achieving sustainability". That deliberately left out the word "consensus" because we had an interesting discussion about consensus building and whether the Round Table or the Commission would be really equipped to do consensus building in the full sense of the word. We certainly include members from many different sectors of society and we have lively debates and we come to viewpoints but none of the members of the Round Table have been representatives of their groups, they have been appointed individually, and the views that we come to in the Round Table, although they may be good ideas on which others might build a more substantial consensus between different sectors of society, I do not think we can really put them forward and say "industry has agreed with local government and with the green movement that this is what we must do". All we can say is that individual members all drawn from their backgrounds have agreed that this would be a good way forward. We have only, as it were, provided the basis for establishing a consensus or some ideas that might be the basis for a consensus, we have not built it. To be a body that actually built a consensus would be a very large task, it would involve areas which are hotly debated. Take the current example you have been interested in in the transport field and should we be pushing forward with higher taxation or—


  99. If I could just interrupt you, Mr Osborn. Does that not rather conflict with what Mr Madden said, that he thought there was a role for consensus building by these institutions and they should not be neglected and you are saying that the institutions by their nature cannot build that sort of consensus?
  (Mr Osborn) It is a question of what building consensus means. The understanding we are coming to is that a true building of consensus involving different parts of society is a very large task. Establishing the basis on which a consensus might be built is a more manageable task. It is that latter one that I think the Round Table was attempting to do and the Commission could be attempting to do.
  (Mr Madden) I think we would view the Round Table as picking the difficult issues and then suggesting possible ways forward to Government and to wider society but not saying that our view represented the view of society.

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