Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 120 - 142)



  120. Why do you think that happened this time? Why do you think there was not the same concerted approach across government this time as there was last time?
  (Mr Osborn) Well, I do not think I can speculate on that. The question to which there is collective buy-in on this is something you will want to probe.

  121. I just wondered if you had any evidence as to why it did not happen.
  (Mr Dale) Could I just add, Chairman, that there was a substantial process of consultation across Whitehall in preparation of the document.

  122. It seems even more disappointing, therefore, really, looking at it collectively from your point of view and our point of view that this was not evident in the way it was presented to Parliament.
  (Mr Dale) And when I say "consultation", even that does not really go far enough and, as far as I understand it, there was a joint effort of putting it together.

  123. This all makes for a strange failure of presentation curiously for this particular Government, that it should not have made the most of what it had actually done.
  (Mr Osborn) The Prime Minister contributed a foreword and I am sure that if you pressed ministers, they would all say there is collective support for this, so the proof of the pudding is in the eating as tohow far they are all going to follow through in their areas.
  (Dr Bidwell) I just wanted briefly to defend sustainable development. I think at the beginning of the document it talks about the goal is to improve quality of life now and in the future. Now, it is clear that environment is part of that and it is also clear that we cannot deliver on the environment future we want unless we deal with the economic and social aspects as well, so I think, dare I say it, it is not a meaningless concept and I think that the missing links are that there is insufficient about integration and the way it happens.

Mr Thomas

  124. I am still trying to get a handle a little more on what you actually want in terms of giving further detailed substance to the strategy. You have said you want some targets, you have said you want a minister to take responsibility for each of the targets and Dr Bidwell wanted some more warm words about principles, but that is not a blueprint for action.
  (Mr Osborn) Well, let me try and respond in relation to some of the areas where this list could be extended. If you took some specific areas, where we are not as sustainable in society as we ought to be at the moment, in the transport field we are not sustainable because we have got this enormous growth of road traffic and climate change flowing from it and we have not yet established the basis for trying to slow down that growth significantly and re-establish public transport and all the alternatives. There are words about it, but there is not enough actual shift yet. In the energy sector, we have had the big move from coal to gas, but we have not had the significant move yet, just a very small move towards the next step which is renewable energy and that needs to go further to make it more sustainable. In the agricultural field, we are all very aware of the strong pressures to go on with intensification and a greater use of chemicals; the move towards better protection of the countryside, less application of chemicals, more extensification and more organic farming is still lagging behind in this country, and some of our European competitors are more sustainable than us there. So those are various examples of areas in which one would like to see significant policy commitments. There are gestures in this direction and some movement, but the perception in the Round Table would be that that has got a lot further to go and the targets and the indicators and the strategy need to be used vigorously to push that programme of action further.


  125. But carrying on Mr Thomas's point, surely what he was saying was that there is a lack of prioritisation in this document and you seem to be agreeing with that, that there is a lack of prioritisation and prioritisation is precisely what we need at this stage.
  (Mr Osborn) Indeed.

  126. And there is very little in this document. Does this not point to the danger with the sustainable development idea that precisely because it is an all-embracing idea, with social and economic elements as well as environmental, we lose that sharp edge and that prioritisation for the environmental considerations which we do need?
  (Mr Osborn) Well, always a balance has to be struck and even if we did not have the concept of sustainable development, there would in fact de facto be a kind of balance between economic, social and environmental objectives at any one time in society. Sustainable development has tended to be used, insofar as it has got dynamism, as an argument for saying that particularly the environmental and to some extent the social aspects are not being emphasised enough and they need to be brought more centrally into the overall management of the economy and I think that is what sustainable development as a transforming idea is about. I agree with you, that we need to make sure that this strategy is a way of giving a further push on the environmental and social objectives, that perhaps do not get emphasised enough in government formulation of priorities.

  127. Are you redefining sustainable development as the process of bringing the environment closer into the economic and social parts of Government in practice?
  (Mr Osborn) Yes, in practice I think that is what it is. As an instrument of making change, that is what it is about.

  128. Is there not a danger that there is a trade-off between the Environment Department on the one hand and, say, the Treasury and the Social Security Department on the other, that if you pay more attention to the environment we will pay more attention to economic and social consequences and you will actually not get very much progress?
  (Mr Osborn) Might you not get progress that way? I am an incrementalist in principle and I think that is how you do get progress in our sort of politics. You have to have trade-offs, you have to build support. You are never going to say "all power to the Department of Environment" so you have to look for the win-wins and look for the alliances.

  129. There is a conflict, is there not, between some of these objects? Take the policy for the coal industry for example. There was a clear conflict there and yet under the Sustainable Development Policy you could argue that the policy of the Government of limiting consents for gas fired power stations, which the Government has pursued to protect the coal industry, has in fact been perfectly consistent with the Sustainable Development Policy but it is not consistent with their environmental policy. That sort of conflict is not brought out by this rather bland "we agree with everything" sort of line.
  (Dr Bidwell) Can I slightly disagree with that last comment and go back to my guiding principles. It seems to me that we are in particular talking about other Government departments bringing these principles into the policies which they are developing. If you had a set of principles which in fact was informing the decision making in terms of the coal debate then you might have come to different conclusions if you believed that sustainable development was particularly important. If Government decided that this was one where they wanted to override it, again if those principles had been well articulated the Commission could come back and say "look, Government said that these are the principles they would take into account in all their policies and integrate these in, but here Government is clearly not doing so". You are clearly right about priorities and, to tie it back to what we said about the Commission, we do believe that the Commission is going to need to focus and to say "here are some of the key problems and there are these things which we think particular attention ought to be paid to".
  (Mr Madden) I do not think we can have it both ways, on the one hand to argue that the environment needs to be a core part of the Government philosophy and integrated into it and then complain when that happens.

  Chairman: I am just very concerned that in a document that is warm words like this that in fact my experience of Government is if you are going to succeed in a policy you push very hard with a lot of local leadership and that does involve conflicts with other departments which have other priorities. I am afraid in the process of doing that you may lose a lot from the pure environmental point of view, that is the danger of this approach.

Mr Robertson

  130. I think with sustainable development there is always what might be described as a conflict of interests, although more adequately described as "difficult trade-offs" in the paper, between economic growth and indeed natural resources and preserving them. What do you see as the main areas of possible conflict here?
  (Mr Osborn) Perhaps I could take one or two and I think colleagues may want to add some. I think it follows through from what the Chairman has just been asking. The potential conflict between social objectives and environment/economic ones is one very important area. I think I would like to follow what the Chairman was directing us towards a moment ago. There is one way of doing that that is a fudge and there is one way that is much clearer. The clear way is to say "yes, economics and environmental policy was pointing us towards closing down the coal mines quickly and then we get a more prosperous economy more quickly and we get environmental benefit", but that has now been fudged by "but we need to proceed slowly and cautiously because of the social effects". A more positive way of integrating them and getting dynamism into the situation would be to say "we must have those changes but we must deal with the social effects in a positive way, more retraining or change-over more quickly". In a similar way with the Climate Change Levy, one of the arguments brought against extending that into the domestic sector was the difficulty that overtook the VAT proposals, that it was going to bear too hard on the poor. The compromise that has been achieved is the weak compromise of retreating from the whole proposition. The stronger compromise would have been to say "we need tax on fuel for economic and environmental reasons; and to deal with the social effects we will have benefit changes or adaptations to people's houses so they can deal with that". I think there is a positive compromise that we can be aiming for that would be much stronger than the weaker compromise that we have gone for. What we need is ways of getting strong dynamic trade-offs rather than weak compromises.

  131. That addresses the social side of it but what about the business side of it?
  (Mr Osborn) The business side of it?

  132. Take, for example, the energy tax which is couched in a more acceptable term which I cannot bring to mind at the moment.
  (Mr Osborn) The Climate Change Levy.

  133. That kind of thing I suppose you would say should be addressed in a similar sort of way?
  (Mr Osborn) In a similar way, yes. To some extent it is being. I am not a 100 per cent. advocate of every detail of the Climate Change levy in its present form but nevertheless I think it has got the right idea, that you want to make the price of energy reflect the damage to the environment that is being done by greenhouse gas emissions. You need taxation in that area to get the price signals right. Then you need to incentivise. You want to use the proceeds not just to swell the Treasury coffers but to go back into the industry sector, either through the reduction of the NI contributions so as to encourage the employment of labour or through some means such as the incentives that the heavy energy users might see to encourage them to adopt more efficient methods more quickly. That way you have got a tax that rightly captures the environmental costs that have been missing up to now but also provides incentives for a dynamic change in getting industry moving forward to what it will have to be in five or ten years rather than continuing to do the old things that will be out of phase in due course anyway. Dynamic trade-offs is what I think we should be looking for.
  (Mr Madden) I think you have covered the trade-offs in areas of economic and social, I would add one other which is a political one and that is about people's perceptions of their individual freedoms and their freedoms to drive their car or their freedoms to use resources or to shop how they like versus the need for changes in individual behaviour in order to reach the sustainable development outcomes we want. I do not think that they have addressed that squarely enough.

  134. Do you think that the Strategy really addresses these issues? As a body does it give you more guidance than perhaps you had before?
  (Mr Osborn) Does it give more guidance to the Round Table?

  135. Does it give you a clearer picture than perhaps you have had before?
  (Mr Osborn) Yes, I think it will be a good document for a body like the Round Table and the Commission, and perhaps even your Committee to think "okay, this is a good survey of the scene, this is the framework" and then to focus on particular areas where either the indicators or the obvious inadequacies of the text direct one's attention, "this is not strong enough, what can we do here? How can we press for more action in this area?" I think this will be an extremely useful framework reference document. I am not sure that it will be a very useful blueprint for what we have all got to do, that is still to come.

  136. What about targets? Do you see them as being the natural move forward? Would that be more helpful if more targets were set?
  (Mr Osborn) We certainly do think that. The Round Table published a report on that subject previously and you picked it up and endorsed it in your report, so I think we are absolutely at one on that. Targets will be one way to make this more sharp, more dynamic, perhaps something where vigorous debate can take place.

Mr Savidge

  137. What institutional barriers are there within Government to the development of a more sustainable approach and in what ways do you think the Strategy could have tackled this?
  (Mr Osborn) I am not sure I would refer to institutional barriers within Government. I referred earlier to the need to strengthen what regions and local government need to do about this. I think the basic structure of ministerial responsibility for particular areas, supplemented by integrating committees which you have examined on several occasions, plus the role of the green Ministers to keep the subject alive in their areas, I think that is all right as an institutional structure. What it reveals of course, as you keep discovering in your examination of this, is that an institutional structure does not do the trick unless people want to make it work, so it is finding the political will which is the real issue here.

  138. Could I also ask you to give a bit more detail on what you think of the importance of sectoral strategies and how far you feel that the present strategy falls short on the subject sectorally?
  (Mr Osborn) I think Peter may want to say something here and perhaps Robin too. The history of the last two years has seen a number of attempts in this country and in some other European countries, and I think of the Netherlands in particular, to have central dialogues with key industry areas to establish what they can do on particular environmental sustainability objectives, whether it is the climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or the better management of wastes or the management of other use of resources, and I think there has been a rather mixed outcome of those. Sometimes voluntary agreements appear to have been established, but then are not strong enough for action to be followed through and sometimes they have actually been a part of the way of encouraging new technological development and new, more stretching targets for achievement by industry. So I think they have got something going for them, but I do not think we have yet discovered the way to do them that makes them powerful agents for change.
  (Mr Madden) If I can add to that, negotiated voluntary agreements and the kind of various sectoral strategies are being seen as a new tool, a new part of the toolkit along with regulation and taxation to deliver sustainable development and, as Derek says, if that adds to the sum total of progress, then very good. From the NGO movement there are a number of worries. The first is that they will disguise business as usual and companies will dress up what they were going to do anyway as a sectoral sustainable development strategy and there would not be any additional gain in there. The second concern is about accountability and transparency, that there is a tendency for government and industry to go behind closed doors and negotiate one of these packages and come out and present it to the world, and if there is not wider buy-in by civil society and by other groups in the process, then we think that there are lots of dangers. You would not legislate in that way and since this is bypassing legislation maybe in some senses, then there is a worry there. The third worry obviously is about whether they are the most efficient way of achieving these goals and there are strong arguments for economic instruments in the wider sense, that taxation and economic signals lead to more efficient responses by industry to these kind of issues than negotiated agreements which are the lowest common denominator and may reward those who have not moved rather than those who are moving.
  (Dr Bidwell) Can I take us back to sectoral strategies perhaps and just slightly away from just voluntary agreements. It is clear that we all have difficulties thinking about sustainable development at the top level, what is going to happen and what are the issues. It is clearer, it seems to me, when you are talking about what does sustainability look like in relation to transport or housing or agriculture or, in particular, what does it not look like. So I would have thought that this is their value and why I think that certainly some emphasis should be put on sectoral strategies is that it does push other departments to be much clearer on how they see themselves focusing on what their policies are going to be in order to take account of the goals of sustainable development.

  139. Can I pick up for a moment that point you were making, Mr Madden. You were saying that to some extent sectoral strategies rather too often end up in bilateral discussions between government broadly and the industry and that they possibly ought to involve wider involvement, shall we say.
  (Mr Madden) If they are going to be seen to replace regulation and economic instruments, then we think they need to have a wider involvement of other stakeholders in the process of negotiation, monitoring and setting targets because, to think about it practically, a hard-pressed civil servant is probably sitting there negotiating with the whole industry which knows its own figures and capabilities and so on much better than that civil servant will and that you may need to involve wider actors in order to get the best outcome.
  (Mr Osborn) If I may just add one more there, there are examples of doing this successfully. There were the very lengthy negotiations that took place mainly under the last Government about the Packaging Directive and then setting up industry-wide agreements to achieve the recycling targets. Now, they are not getting there yet, but they are making some progress and the whole process of forcing the industry to propose itself how that should be administered and enforced and so on was, I think, quite a good model of the way forward, so setting a very clear target and then saying to the industry, "Now, you tell us how this can be best delivered".

Dr Iddon

  140. The strategy says that the Government is encouraging trade associations and other representative bodies to develop and implement sustainable strategies, and is seeking to do so within six business sectors by the end of the year 2000. I think you agree that that kind of strategy is vital, but you are worried about the timescale, so would you just like to elaborate on that a little further for us and tell us why you see sectoral strategies as being vital?
  (Mr Osborn) I think for the similar sort of reasons we have just been saying in the previous answers, that if you can set them up with a clear target of what has to be delivered, then there is nobody better than an industry, a particular firm or a group of firms for finding a way forward. There are a lot of examples now of progress where that has been achieved by an agreement, or an agreement backed up by the threat of legislation, or by some regulation which has actually been asked for, which has been the best way forward. Apart from the Packaging Directive, which I have already mentioned, I think there is the whole series of improvements in the outputs from vehicles that have been achieved under the Auto Oil Directives and the gradual improvement in the quality of fuel which have set down targets for several years ahead. It has been a good process really and I am sure people think it was not far enough or fast enough, but they have at least got somewhere, they have got buy-in, and there will really be progress in these areas. So I think, looking at the climate change thing, it is bigger and faster than anything that has gone before and breaking down how much of the climate change targets can sensibly be allocated to different sectors of industry is an enormous intellectual and political problem, but I am sure it is better just to try and work through that with the key sectors and I think it is encouraging that the Government is attempting that.

  141. The strategy also talks about the Government's commitment to spread best practice, supporting scientific research into climate change, et cetera. As far as I am aware, the Global Environmental Change Research Programme has come to an end and there was to be a successor. I am not sure where we are at with that. However, do you think the Government has demonstrated enough commitment by putting enough money into research, including supplying a successor to that programme if it has come to an end?
  (Mr Osborn) Well, I am very saddened that the ESRC apparently has reached a conclusion. I am not sure at the moment whether it is irrevocable or whether it is a preliminary decision by the Resources Board, but it does seem to me and to the whole of the Round Table which has discussed this briefly and I think to the DETR which gave evidence on this point to you, that this is really an unfortunate decision by the Resources Board. Of course the research councils are their own masters in this respect and they have to take their own view of where the priorities lie, but it does seem to me odd that at a time when so much effort is attempted to be put into this area, when there are so many fundamental questions that need research that the ESRC should have reached that conclusion.
  (Dr Bidwell) I sit on the council of NERC, the Natural Environment Research Council, and in the last round of the spending review additional money was made available for climate change and I think that we certainly felt that there was a focus on this particular issue.


  142. Could I ask you, Dr Bidwell—you are a Consultant, Chairman of ERM—how you would compare this document to an environmental management system which you would recommend to a company?
  (Dr Bidwell) That is a nice question and it goes to the heart of the issue that I was trying to get at, probably not very coherently. I think the first thing we would say to a company or to a Government is "you need to be clear about your goals" and I think the goals are fairly well articulated in this report. Then you need to say "how does that then translate in looking at every subsequent decision? What are the important guiding principles you are going to use?" One needs a second level there. Then you need to go down to saying "all right, in terms of the different issues that you are dealing with", obviously in terms of a company with transport production and so on and so forth, "what are the specific concerns we have over the resource use, waste management and so on and so forth, bearing in mind what your goals, your principles are, what do these look like" and then to bring it back again and say "let us set some targets so we know you are making progress in terms of goals, principles, specific measures in your different areas". I think the answer is there are a good many elements of that in this particular report but in terms of creating a strategy where progress can be measured and in terms of clear commitment as to how decisions will be taken in the future it is a bit thin.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. That has been a very, very helpful and I think illuminating session, we have enjoyed it and we hope you have. Sorry for the interruption but I do not think it put us off our stride. Thank you very much.

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