Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



Dr Iddon

  100. You make the point in your memorandum that this should be a UK Commission. How do you see the role of devolution playing a part in that? Should there be an English body underneath the UK Commission?
  (Mr Osborn) We had a discussion about this. Some things we are clear about and some things we are less clear about and some things we perceive as being very delicate in any case. We need to be rather hesitant about how we handle the new parts of the United Kingdom. What we are very clear about is that many important aspects of sustainable development are UK wide in their significance and in their implications and in the kinds of measures that need to be taken to deal with them, more UK wide than European or international. It is vitally important that sustainable development remains an important aspect, a UK subject that is pursued in a UK way, and the Commission ought, we think, to relate in that way. On the other hand, it is also vitally important that the different parts of the country—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the regions and local government for that matter—have their own responsibilities in relation to sustainable development, they need to produce their own strategies, there needs to be some process for interaction between the different levels. I think it would be quite wrong nowadays to say it should be top down, certainly in regards to a Commission of this kind. No Commission could purport in the new shape of politics to say what should happen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It should be aware of what is happening in those places and take account of it. A possible way forward, we think, if there is a Scottish, a Welsh, a Northern Irish body is they should have some representation on the new Commission. If there was no English body then maybe the more appropriate way there is to build on the regional bodies in England and their responsibilities for sustainable development and to establish some regular machine for interacting with those bodies.

  101. Can we look finally in this section at the reporting of the new Commission. What would you hope the scope and approach of its annual report would be? How would you see that interacting with this Committee's reports?
  (Mr Osborn) We have rather tentatively suggested that you might think in terms of an annual cycle. It is very tentative because your Committee will have its own views on how you want to see such a matter developing. Our suggestion, which we have put up for discussion, is that if the Government manages to produce, as it has promised to produce, an annual set of indicators charting the progress of sustainable development and if they follow the pattern of this year when it will appear in September/October in the autumn, then the sequence might be that once that has come out the new Commission might review those indicators and what they appear to be showing about where things are going forward and where they are not going forward and produce a report that would comment on those indicators, and indeed on other issues that the Commission may have taken up of its own volition that need attention, gaps, emerging issues. They will produce a report perhaps early in the calender year. Perhaps, this is for you to consider, you might find it useful if you are on an annual cycle of some sort to review both the indicators and the Commission's work in a spring session and then perhaps you would look to the Government to come through again in the summer each year responding to all those sequences, the indicators, what the Commission says, what your Committee says, and their response. You could play that many different ways, that is just one suggestion.

  102. How many times is this Commission going to meet in the year, or have you a recommendation?
  (Mr Osborn) The Round Table is able to meet about four times in plenary plus a certain number of special meetings. We are planning two or three special seminars this autumn. What the Commission should do should follow what its work is and we have not got a view on that at the moment. I suspect that if it is a bigger task it may need to meet a bit more often. For example, if you take the analogy of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, that meets once a month. I feel that is more like what you need if you are to give a subject the attention it deserves.


  103. The existing organisation is the Round Table and the Panel, how far do they see themselves doing a monitoring role?
  (Mr Osborn) I think they do in the sense of trying to keep their eyes open to what is going on but they do not have the systematic indicator data to direct their attention, so they will have to do it more by their own feel for where the important issues are I would say.

  104. Do you envisage that would change with the Commission?
  (Mr Osborn) I think feeling is always very important, the feeling of wise people who are aware of what is going on and where problems are arising. I think the indicators will also give some more systematic guide to where things seem to be going wrong and therefore where attention should be directed.
  (Dr Bidwell) Can I just add some of the other discussion on this issue. I think on the indicators that, whilst they are going to be interesting, many of them are very long term and to some extent they are telling us how well we did in terms of sustainable development policies 20 years ago as opposed to now. I think some of the discussion we have had has focussed on the fact that we might want to look at a wider range of information when we talk about monitoring and indeed I think on the indicators, many of them will move very little each year if you look at the headings which are being employed. I think that monitoring does need to be wider in terms of looking at the way in which government policies are integrating the sustainable development agenda into policies, legislation and so on, and the information also needs to be wider, looking at other sources. So I think that one has got to be careful not to be entirely stuck on the idea that the Commission is going to monitor indicators because I think that will not be very helpful in terms of trying to decide on progress on sustainable development and, secondly, I think it is quite important, which has been touched on, that the Commission should try to focus a bit on where the particular bottlenecks, barriers and so on and so forth are, maybe using again other information than indicators.

  105. So it will not be pursuing what I might call a classic audit trail through what has happened and what progress has been made against various indicators; it will be using its judgment and experience to see where we are going and to spot the problems?
  (Mr Bidwell) I think that is right, and drawing on information other than the indicators which have been listed so far in the strategy.

Mr Savidge

  106. I wonder if I could ask you to expand a little further on one of your responses to Dr Iddon, the whole issue you raised in your memorandum about devolution, about the involvement of local government and of course the European and international dimensions as well, that they need an integration of policies and you suggest that perhaps not enough thought has gone into this yet. I would be really interested if you could expand on that and if other witnesses could give their own views on it, whilst recognising obviously that particularly in the case of devolution we are at such an early stage in Scotland and Wales and a sort of not-quite-started stage with Northern Ireland that it may be difficult to do more than speculate, but may I just invite you to do so.
  (Mr Osborn) In a speculative way then, I think I would start with the rather untidy pattern that has emerged on what statutory duties are placed on any of those levels at the moment in relation to sustainable development. I think I am right in saying that the position at the moment is that the Welsh Assembly has been given a specific duty in this regard, the Scottish Parliament has not nor with Northern Ireland. There is not a statutory duty in relation to the United Kingdom as a whole. At the regional level, the regions have been asked to take some account of sustainable development. At the local government level, there is no statutory duty in this regard yet, although you have recommended action already to follow through on the manifesto commitment to have regard to the social, environmental and economic well-being of an area and perhaps to link that with creating a local strategy. If that is followed through at some point in the near future, then you would at least have the local base for that. It is confusing in a statutory sense at the moment which I think reflects some ambivalence in the Government about quite how they want to see this happening and whether they really want sustainable development to be the overarching idea at all levels, enabling it then to be integrated from top to bottom. Now, I do not mean integration in a heavy-handed sense of top-down, but I mean that you would want to have strategies where at least people talked to one another and saw how they fitted together, so what central government was trying to do was provide a context in which the regions could create their plans. At the moment I fear there is a danger that the regions are going off on their economic development strategies and they are being told, "That is the prime thing to do and, by the way, there is sustainable development over there somewhere". At the local government level they are being told, "Do your best value stuff and, by the way, as you do, remember LA21—it is over there somewhere". The sustainable development idea, in my view and I think in the Round Table's view, needs to lead much more centrally into the role of all those different levels so that what happens at each level can be related to the national strategy. So I think the Commission could be a good body for pursuing that line of thought, perhaps aligning itself with your Committee in that respect. We are planning to arrange this autumn a seminar with the new RDAs to discuss what they are doing on their strategies, how they fit together, how they see them linking with the national strategy and we would hope to build on that as a way to handle these matters. I think I have run out of steam there.


  107. Does anybody else want to come in on that?
  (Mr Madden) Just to add one point. The UK has signed up to various European and international responsibilities and targets and how we parcel those responsibilities and targets out amongst the devolved nations and amongst the regions is not clear at the moment. I think it is going to be a major political issue and battle, something we have to get right, and it is not yet clear what will happen if the Scots come forward and say they do not agree with these headline indicators that we have set out in the UK-wide strategy or they argue that they should only make a certain percentage contribution to meeting the Kyoto targets because of social or economic reasons, so I think that is going to be the major challenge about how we make sure that all the parts of the UK fulfil their responsibilities for meeting the EU and international targets.

Mr Gerrard

  108. You mentioned in the memorandum the possibility of disaggregating national figures either geographically, regionally or locally, or possibly by sector. What thought have you given to how that might be done and what might be the most important areas?
  (Mr Osborn) Well, following what Peter Madden has just said, if you took the climate change indicators, some of the most important and politically weighty at the moment, you could certainly envisage it would be important to have some geographical breakdown of the targets into what ought to be attempted at different levels. You could also envisage, and it is part of the Government's strategy at the moment, having discussions with each major industry sector about what that industry could be expected to achieve in terms of greenhouse gas reductions. Indeed this is even being linked in the present discussions to what relief they might then get from the climate change levy, so that is giving a very strong impetus to establish some appropriate breakdowns sectorally in that area. Those are some examples. We learned from the Department, and I think Mrs Hillier has already given you evidence, that they have some ideas about how actually to do that, which indicators lend themselves to geographical analysis and which are more difficult, so I think they will be really under encouragement to come forward with some geographical analysis and in due course with some sectoral analysis.

Mr Savidge

  109. Can I first of all come back on this specific point made a moment ago by Mr Madden. Are you really implying that perhaps the Government ought to be starting to think now about setting up some sort of consultative arrangements so that in a sense all the different devolved governments can actually be involved in the decision-making process?
  (Mr Madden) The devolved governments and the regions are going to have to know which targets they need to meet as part of the overall UK-wide strategy and that needs to be agreed. In a situation where certain powers have been devolved and not others, if you take Scotland and energy, energy policy stays at the UK-wide level, but Scotland is going to have the responsibility for meeting Kyoto and environmental targets, so I think there is an urgent need to sit down and to work that out.

  110. From what you are saying, you would feel that the regions should be involved in such a consultative body as well?
  (Mr Osborn) Can I come in there with a thought about that? If you were talking about the new Commission, I think it would be perfectly plausible to have one or two, an appropriate number of Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish representatives, we have that in the Round Table and it would be possible to do that in the Commission. To have a representative from each region on the Commission is already getting rather large and I think some separate consultative machinery between the national Commission and the regional bodies would need to be established.

  111. I suppose I was also thinking of at the governmental level, whether there should be some sort of consultative machinery?
  (Mr Osborn) You probably take us out of our areas of specific knowledge. I believe there is quite active debate going on in Whitehall about how to do that at the moment but I do not know where they are going to end up. I am sure that on the environmental side, the DETR is already trying to establish appropriate consultative machinery with the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish so that when they go to the European Council meetings and so on they can speak with a unified voice.

  112. What do you think the prospects are for getting regional strategies?
  (Mr Osborn) As I understand it several of the regions have made some progress on developing regional strategies already and some of them have regional round tables as well. My impression—I will not say more than that—is that the documents and strategies that are emerging are of somewhat mixed quality. The people producing them feel a little bit at sea as to what they are meant to be doing and how they are meant to relate to anything else that is happening. As long as we do not come in in a heavy-handed way—I keep saying this—I think there will be people in the regions who will be glad that the Round Table or Commission are taking an interest in what they are doing and trying to relate it in a coherent way to national objectives.
  (Mr Madden) Could I just add two quick points to that. One of the exciting things is that the scale of starting to produce these strategies and plans at the regional level is probably the right size, the right geographical area in which to build these things. I think that will take the debate forward. One of the problems is that there are not clear lines of responsibility and accountability in these regional strategies about who should be responsible for what and what happens if the targets are not met.

  113. How can we ensure that local and regional sustainable development strategies address all the aspects of Government policy and all four strands of Government policy as well as taking on board the particular needs of urban or rural environments in such a way that they are active strategies for change and not just becoming bureaucratic or academic exercises?
  (Mr Osborn) My own view about the local level, taking that first, is that we have had a period of fruitful experimentation under Local Agenda 21 and some authorities have made a great deal of that. Local politicians have taken hold of it and made it a good means of thinking about the interactions between different strategies and making a real change in their areas. In other places it has been delegated to too low a level and what has been done seems to me frankly disappointing and paper pushing. The conclusion that some of us are beginning to draw now is that the time has come to move on to make this a statutory obligation where after full discussion with the Local Government Association and others the framework of what is needed at local level is defined, is linked to the duty that is referred to in the Labour manifesto, is linked to best value so that best value should comprehend the idea of sustainable development rather than it being, as it sometimes seems at the moment, mainly economically driven. It should become the core strategy at the heart of each local authority area. Does that begin to answer your question? That is the way I think we should be moving forward.

Mr Thomas

  114. Can I ask you, to draw together some of the points you have made, the Government has said that they want to have further discussions with the Round Table and Panel about the precise remit and working methods of the Commission. I wonder if you would set out for us what you think the headlines should be for those discussions? What are the key areas that you think further work is needed on?
  (Mr Osborn) We had some discussion about this with the Government representatives at our away-day two weeks ago and we agreed that the next thing to do would be to have a larger seminar, or conference, in September. The date has been fixed for 21 September. At that meeting we have agreed that the Round Table will present some further thoughts developed from what we have put in our memorandum to you about how they think the Commission might operate. The Government has committed itself to producing its paper, or a consultative paper, for the same meeting. It is envisaged that other people should be invited.

  115. I understand what the process envisaged is. I am saying what should be the topics that you think need to be discussed?
  (Mr Osborn) The principal thing is to get clear on the remit, the terms of reference, whether as Annex D to our memorandum or some different version of it. I think we need to have a clearer understanding of how this monitoring of indicators and what you could and could not make of it would work. We are envisaging a second seminar on that subject in November to get a real handle on that when the Department has produced its new set of indicators. We need to have some views taken at that time about the scale of operation that will be needed for this Commission, what resources they will need both in terms of the Secretariat and perhaps an ability to finance some research, the point the Chairman put earlier on about how frequently they will need to meet and so on. Terms of reference, what its central tasks should be and how it goes about them and its mode of operation and resource base: I think those are the three principal tasks.
  (Mr Madden) I have got three more. One is membership: who should sit on it and who should not, what sectors we need to see represented on it. Another is who it should report to in Government and what the interaction should be with ministers. The third one is the issue we have already raised about devolution and its relationship to the devolved powers. Can I just say that because we want to consult over the summer and get buy-in from other bodies within the UK, devolved and regional, we do not want to be too prescriptive at the moment about the shape of this new Commission. At the moment we are putting out ideas but we want to make sure that we do not prejudge those discussions that are going to happen.

  116. Aside from the Commission, a cynic might suggest that the document itself is just a lot of warm words. You do not put it in quite those terms but the Green Alliance, for example, criticises the lack of a blueprint of action and there is a comment that the "achievement of sustainability in the UK will be an even bigger task than the Strategy suggests". I wonder if you could flesh those comments out a little further? What should there have been in the document that there was not?
  (Mr Osborn) I think much will depend on what happens after it. It is fine as a framework but what is it a framework for? One set of things which is referred to every now and again is the response that Mr Adams and Mrs Hillier gave you when you examined them, that it will need to be supplemented by a lot of specific strategies, some of which already exist and some of which are still to come, like the Climate Change Strategy, the Waste Strategy, the Public Health Strategy, the Overseas Development Strategy and so on. If those can be seen to be related to this in a coherent way and following through the principles of a Sustainable Development Strategy then that will be giving more substance and there will be more specifics to the overarching idea. Another way that we noted, and which we attach importance to, which we now recommend to you, is that the indicators, and the targets that are making them have some function, would be much assisted if for each indicator and target somebody, probably some minister, could be assigned the lead accountability. Ministers will recoil from that and they will say "we cannot be responsible for some of these very vague things, they are society wide". That is why I say "lead responsibility". For example, a very vivid example was given to us at our away-day. The birds indicator, which is quite a good surrogate for the whole state of biodiversity in the countryside, who should be lead responsibility for that? It was suggested, and I think it has been put to the Minister for Agriculture, that the Minister for Agriculture should accept the lead responsibility for that. Not meaning that he alone can deliver it but that he should feel himself responsible for getting together the other Ministers, the other bodies in society, and saying "yes, what is happening to wild birds is dominated to a large extent by what we do in agriculture and some other things as well and I will take charge of thinking how policy needs to be adapted to do that". If you begin to put lead responsibilities for these targets and indicators in appropriate places and get people to accept that they will be in charge then the whole thing will have a great deal more dynamism to it.

  117. Let me play the devil's advocate. What you have said is that the Sustainable Development Strategy in itself, or you appear to be implying, cannot have a more detailed blueprint for action included in it, that is reliant on other strategies that may or may not be forthcoming. The only idea you have suggested so as to inject some urgency and some weight into the document is to give Ministers responsibility for the indicators. Is that a fair summary of your view?
  (Mr Osborn) Well, as to the first part of that I think you slightly changed my words. I said that I think you should identify what supporting strategies are necessary to turn these rather vague words into something with some meat in them and having identified them, make sure that they come through and are consistent. Secondly, as to the idea of Ministerial responsibility for indicators, yes.
  (Mr Madden) Can I add a third one and that is targets. It may be that over time the indicators become targets de facto, but we certainly would have liked to have seen more targets and an idea of the future goals to which the strategy and, therefore, society and government as a whole is working.
  (Dr Bidwell) Can I take myself off in a slightly different direction. Possibly what is missing in the strategy (although there is a heading under which I do not think they are) is guiding principles for subsequent decisions. I think that the goals are well articulated, but it is very unclear what the Government is committing to in terms of integrating sustainable development into other policies. It is not clear that it is going to look at all its other policies taking account of the need for sustainability in energy, transport, water, all of those sorts of issues, and if so, how that is articulated. So again when we are talking about the regional strategies and so on and so forth and what should be in those, there is no clarity at the moment, I do not think, which says, "these are the things which are felt to be very important which need actually to be pushed through", renewable resources and so on and so forth, so there is a lack there. It is a lot of good words and quite a lot of fairly specific things which have been done, but not, "this is what we believe needs to be integrated across the other types of policy".

  118. Can I move on to the concern which has been touted that sustainable development is becoming too wide a concept and the notion of the environment at the heart of that has been lost because it has become too broad. I wonder what you think of that view.
  (Mr Osborn) I am going to borrow something that Peter put to me just before this meeting because it is so good and he will elaborate on it, I am sure. That is that if the strategy had been put forward, and it ought to be put forward, as a government-wide strategy, then showing balance between the environment, the economy and social aspects would be quite right. If it is put forward as though it is a DETR strategy and they appear to have gone soft on their environmental objectives because of all of these other things that other people have to take account of, then it is less satisfactory. So in a way a balanced sustainable development strategy at the heart of government, fine, but a balanced sustainable development strategy as a means for softening environmental objectives from the Department of the Environment, less good and which it is a little bit in question, I think.
  (Mr Madden) On a more positive note, we do think that it was important to tie the different elements of sustainable development together conceptually, but also politically, to tie them into other bits of the Government's core programme and to see how the competitiveness agenda, the social exclusion agenda, the health agenda fitted together. That was an important political statement. But we think that the Department of the Environment is doing an excellent job of looking at other government policy areas and taking them on board and we are not convinced that other areas of government are doing quite the same with environment yet.


  119. So that makes your position very clear, does it not, because this document was laid before Parliament by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, by the Deputy Prime Minister, and in no sense was it laid by the Prime Minister himself with the whole Government adopting it. Therefore, you are saying it is not supported because it actually is not what it could be as a wholly sustainable development strategy, but it is simply an environment strategy and, therefore, the criticism which Mr Thomas has related, which is that increasingly sustainable development is a meaningless topic because it simply waters down the sharp edge you need to push your environmental policies, is that that is an argument you buy.
  (Mr Osborn) Well, I think you are putting it very strongly now. I think sustainable development is an important concept and it ought to be a government-wide concept. I do think it is disappointing that this strategy, unlike its predecessor, was only put forward by the Department of the Environment ministers, whereas its predecessor had some 20 ministers all of whom had signed it and were joining on the front page as presenting this report jointly to Parliament.

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