Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
TUESDAY 15 FEBRUARY 2000
MP AND RT
180. Can I follow that line about compulsion
or persuasionthis game you have to play, in a sense? How
do you foresee that working? For example, documents have put a
lot of the responsibility for creating targets in Wales in the
hands of the Welsh public. There is a lot of public involvement
actually. What I would like to knowand I am sure other
Members of the Committee would as wellis how you will ensure
that the national United Kingdom target will be met? For example,
if you take energy saving and renewable energy, the potential
is there, it might be thought, for Wales to contribute quite a
bit in terms of wind power. When you come back to the National
Assembly for Wales, in terms of planning applications and the
public objections to that, in what way are you, specifically,
going to ensure that United Kingdom targets and international
obligations are being met by the regional and devolved committees?
Would you, perhaps, change the United Kingdom targets, if you
like, if you see work is progressing in Scotland which reflects
a different way of doing things?
(Mr Meacher) You mentioned renewable sources of energy,
for example wind energy. That is part of the tripod for climate
change: transport policy, improved energy efficiency and the shift
from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. As I say, we
have got legally binding agreements under the Kyoto Protocol,
so we need co-operation from Wales and Scotland, both of which
are strong on renewables, both in terms of wind energy and hydroelectric
power. Although we have the capacity to override if we look like
being seriously short of our target as we approach the timescale2010(and
I do not believe we will be in that situation but if we did) we
would have to use the override. However, at the moment, although
we do have an override it is much better if it is done by agreement,
and I have to say that relations with the devolved administrationscertainly
as far as the environment is concernedare extremely warm.
I would never, as a Minister, underestimate the possibility of
future problems about to hit us, but, at the moment, there is
agreement about the targets; there has been no conflict, they
realise very well that the environment is one that we all share,
that it is not territorially drawn and that they have the same
interests as we do in trying to optimise it. So I am getting full
(Mr Prescott) May I say that there is a very important
point there, Chair, which I have been giving some thought to,
about how the Committee deals with it. It is all right having
objectives, but how do you achieve them? Here we are talking about
the difficulties that occur between Central Government and, say,
Scotland, England and Wales. At the end of the day, however, it
is in a number of areas. If it is a conflict between incineration
and recycling whether in waste management or in housing, we have
an overall objective to meet that requirement and then you have
to translate that down into the regions. There is often disagreement
in those regions as to how it is to be achieved and if we are
to achieve the targets that are set for us in waste managementMichael
uses the word "override"then central government
is going to have to say that in order to meet those objectives
you have got to carry your share of that. The real difficulty
is, whether in Wales or England, if you talk about wind farms,
the planning and the objections to that are considerable. Incineration
is another example. We can see where we set our targets and whereas
we are in the foothills at the moment of saying too much, there
is going to come a time when public opinion is still there, probably
anti and against doing those things. We want to achieve those
objectives. That is going to be very interesting. It is highlighted
with housing at the moment, but I can see it coming in other areas.
It is alright sitting here saying there is a target, but at the
end of the day, like with the fuel duty escalator, there comes
a political consciousness that you have to deal with and you have
to find a balance on it.
Chairman: Can we move on to Europe.
181. You mentioned Europe just now in the context
of the devolution issue, but there is a further dimension in respect
of the Sixth Environmental Action Programme. It is envisaged that
you are going to make progress with this. How are you going to
have an over-arching Sustainable Development Strategy and how
are you going to have the different sectoral integration strategies
with Europe? How is the Sustainable Development Strategy going
to link in to each of those three things? How will you work with
Europe to get this overall outcome either in terms of the contributions
that the UK can make or in terms of us commenting and perhaps
preempting and trying to initiate initiatives which would come
(Mr Prescott) The Helsinki Council dealt with putting
these things together, environment, economic and social justice.
It is very much at the heart of the discussions we are having
at the moment. Michael was involved in that. We are approaching
the sixth programme.
(Mr Meacher) The proposal of the Helsinki Council
in December was for an EU-wide strategy dovetailing social, economic
and environmental objectives to be presented to the European Council
in June 2001. I think this is an absolutely crucial objective.
For the first time Europe is preparing a plan which covers 350
million people in which environment as well as social and economic
objectives are clearly integrated in a manner which covers a wide
range of public activities. You asked how that is going to be
integrated with the sectoral strategies. I think nine or more
of the councils have now been asked to make their own contribution
to the Sustainable Development Strategy. Again, it is something
of a patchwork in that some are considerably better than others.
It does include the financial directorate as well for the first
time, ECOFIN and I think we all agree it is very important that
the Treasury and the finance departments are written into the
sustainable development process. Most of the nine have been presented
and discussed. They will mark the foundation for the preparation
of the EU-wide strategy. The other issue you mentioned is the
Sixth Environmental Action Programme. The fifth turned out to
be a rather different kind of document and it produced considerable
conflict between the council and the parliament. This time I think
the idea is that it should be one of the foundation stones of
the development of the EU-wide strategy and I think that is probably
a much better role, shorter, sharper, better focused and in a
way which contributes to that overriding strategy.
182. I understand all of that and I think the
progress that we are making is really good, but my concern is
about the mechanisms we have to deliver sustainability, for example,
in terms of the UK commenting on what Europe is doing and at what
stage do we say, "We'll have to go down this route because
of our concern about this, that and the other"? My concern
is where sustainability fits into that. For example, I am looking
at the European seed list. If we were in a situation where the
UK was being asked to agree or not to agree, say, for five GM
varieties of seed for wheat to go on to that register, what mechanisms
have we got for assessing their sustainability and is that part
and parcel of that process of decision making and what the UK's
position would be?
(Mr Meacher) In the particular example that you have
given, which may or may not be an exemplar of what happens in
other areas, the answer is that a proposal is made. One of the
Member States' competent authorities will make an assessment.
They will provide to the Commission information as to whether
they think it should be put on the list or not. That will be circulated
to other Member States whose competent authorities will look at
the assessment made by the original state and give their own views.
If there is unanimity it will proceed. If there is not unanimity
then it will go to an EU scientific technical committee who will
attempt to reach agreement. If they are not able to reach agreement
then the matter could be referred to the council. I think that
is unlikely to happen, but that is the process. In other words,
each of the Member States, including the UK, does have a full
opportunity to express its view.
183. That is precisely my point, because it
is where within the decision-making of the UK would DETR possibly
override MAFF and say, "No, we should not be supporting,
for example, five new seed varieties of GM wheat going on to this
register"? Would you be able to override as a Government
department through the Green Ministers' Committee in that respect?
(Mr Meacher) If we are talking about seed listing,
MAFF is in the lead.
184. So you could not override?
(Mr Meacher) Because of the extreme sensitivities
in this general area, because of genetic modification, these matters
are widely discussed and relations between DETR and MAFF are extremely
close. If there was controversy about one of these seed listings,
there is no question about it, it would be discussed between the
departments and we would certainly have an opportunity to express
our view. If there was great controversy then it could be resolved
by a meeting between Ministers, but we would certainly not be
left out of that process.
Joan Walley: So you will be part of that
185. Could we come back home and look at RDAs
and perhaps you could tell us what assessment you have made of
their progress under the Sustainable Development Strategy?
(Mr Prescott) We have just received their reports.
We are giving a general response at the moment which is to say
that they are going in the right direction, but we have not commented
in great detail on those strategies. We met with the regional
chairmen about a fortnight ago to discuss their reports and we
are now formulating our own response to them in line with what
they are concerned about, i.e. getting the resources out of the
new spending reviews that are underway, how could they use public
money much more effectively. We talked about sustainable policy
and particularly housing and development and their transport policies.
I think their transport policies show they are well aware of the
desire to get more sustainable development and they are aiming
to put the resources and investment into the transport infrastructure.
Housing, of course, is going to become a critical issue there
and obviously a priority is building on brownfield sites rather
than greenfield sites and making sure we make the transport connections
to them. I hope to give a response to the South East one very
shortly and it should show precisely how we see sustainable development
coming within the first report received on the South East and
that should not be very far off now. Obviously there is a lot
of press attention on it and a lot of the principles will be determined
there in that first report and at the same time our White Paper
is coming out on both urban development, rural development and
the housing paper. All of these papers will give an opportunity
for Government policy to be reflected in our response to the RDAs.
186. Is your initial impression that they have
placed sufficient priority on environmental concerns or not within
their regional strategies?
(Mr Prescott) I think my overall impression is that
they are aware of it, but, like in most of these cases, they are
concerned about economic development and, of course, we can say
how we think those structure plans should be developed and feed
in what we consider to be the sustainable priorities. To be fair
to them, whilst they are aware of what we think is important in
urban and rural development, most Regional Development Agencies
cover both urban and rural development and housing policy and
they will want to see what we say in our White Paper reports.
187. If they are putting economic sustainability
at the top of their list, will you be asking them to put environmental
stability on a par with it or below it?
(Mr Prescott) I would say it would influence their
priorities and I think that is what sustainability is about. They
are concerned about the regeneration of the economies in their
own region. I would say that, for example, if you are looking
at the growth of the region and the development of housing, that
may be a different problem in the South East than it is in the
North East for a number of reasons which are so different. We
will implement environmental sustainability in our response to
their programmes. Their programmes are very much more concerned
with the economic viabilities at the moment and our job is to
make sure they take that fully into account and not just make
reference to what the environmental considerations are.
188. So it is an influence but subservient to
the economic possibilities?
(Mr Prescott) Yes. The Regional Development Agencies
tend to feel that their job is to get on with economic prosperity.
They are well aware of it and they do talk of the sustainability
of the environment and their programmes reflect it. I think the
key test will come in the priorities of resource allocation for
which they are making a bid and for which we are negotiating in
the second round of a three-year public expenditure programme.
189. So well aware is as good as it is going
(Mr Prescott) You always have these little throwaway
190. I was repeating your words.
(Mr Prescott) But you do it in a certain way. Perhaps
I could repeat what I said. I think they have reflected proper
priority in these areas. I will make sure when judging them that
they get in line with the sustainable programme that we are setting
as a priority.
191. What guidance have you given them as to
how they should mesh their strategies with the developing Local
Agenda 21 strategies of local authorities?
(Mr Prescott) In that sense we put more pressures
onto the local authorities, though, to be fair, before we came
in something like 70 or 75 per cent of them did not recognise
that as part of their local authority programme priorities in
environment. We have made it clear to the local authorities that
that must be reflected in their transport or their housing programmes
and that is what we are doing with them at the moment.
192. I want to pursue one very important detail
and it links the Regional Development Agencies with the European
question and that is the question of Objective 1 and the RDA funding
because that funding has to be presented on the basis of each
of the regions and England and Wales as well on the basis of single
programme documents. Those documents have a lot in them about
sustainable development and meeting sustainable development targets.
Have you had any overview of the regional development SDTs? Have
you been able to look at them to see whether they are going to
help achieve the Sustainable Development Strategy and will you
be monitoring the way Objective 1 money is being used to ensure
that there is a very good reason for doing this? It is not just
about sustainable development, it is also about ensuring European
money is not wasted and shows social sustainability in local areas.
We do not want white elephants or empty factory units coming out
of European money, we want actual real regeneration in local communities.
Are you taking an overview of Objective 1 and how that is being
applied at a regional level?
(Mr Prescott) We are, but we have some differences
of opinion with Europe about the allocation of resources, whether
it is on Objective 1 or the assisted area programmes, for example.
They agreed the programmes. We get the total amount, but Europe
has more of a say on how that is distributed. I will give you
the example of the assisted area status programmes. We have tried
to be much more definitive as to how the money should be allocated
where it is necessary and we have measured that by deprivation
and said it is not just unemployment that is taken into consideration,
all sorts of factors should be taken into account. We should be
more selective in that and identify more wards than regions, I
think that is proper so that areas in the South can recognise
where the prioritisation is and they can get some assistance as
well rather than it being done simply on a regional analysis of
whether it is the North East, the South or the West. That is a
controversial matter within the Commission and they are also making
claims about monies that we use in partnership at the moment for
clearing up land and whether it is a state subsidy. I think most
of our energy at the moment is going in to making sure we get
the proper amount of resources within Europe and to make sure
within that programme they meet the sustainable requirements.
At the moment that is somewhat controversial.
193. Deputy Prime Minister, earlier in the discussion
you mentioned the fact that you believe 80 per cent of local authorities
have now signed up and have organised Local Agenda 21s. What are
you doing about the reluctance of the 20 per cent and, secondly,
how are you monitoring the performance of the 80 per cent that
have already created those local agendas?
(Mr Meacher) The Prime Minister indicated in a speech
he made at the Earth Summit in 1997 shortly after coming into
office that he wanted to see that 70 per cent figure that John
mentioned, which we inherited of local authorities who have Local
Agenda 21 programmes, brought up to 100 per cent by the end of
2000. So we are looking at all local authorities having a Local
Agenda 21 programme by the end of this year. On your second question
of how we monitor it and again exactly the same patchwork or mosaic
appears, I have seen some which I think are extremely good and
others less so and I am afraid the reason for that is simply that
they depend on the catalyst skills of a few dedicated drivers
locally. If you have a handful of people who are really keen,
who are informed and who can network then you will get a very
good Local Agenda 21. If you do not then I am afraid it may be
a rather ineffective talking shop. Your question is how far Government
should intervene on this and supervise the process. I am reluctant
to do that on the grounds that we could, of course, orchestrate
it from the centre, but that would destroy the whole purpose,
which is that we should have an organic development at a local
level of people deciding their own priorities, networking with
the council and with local business to try and nudge them into
acting in a more environmental and sustainable manner. I do not
think Government can or should direct that from the centre. It
may be when we have seen all of these (and it may be some of the
weaker ones may be in the last batch) we will need to see how
we can give encouragement and support in order to enable them
to do it better and that means monitoring, but I do not think
we should take over the process. I think it has to remain local,
it has to remain organic and it has to remain devolved otherwise
I think it loses its point.
(Mr Prescott) We have set a target for December of
100 per cent and we will wait and see the end result. Our evidence
so far shows that most of them are working to achieve that. Some
have argued they do not have enough powers to achieve some of
these objectives, so in our new Local Government Bill we have
put in new powers for the local authorities to deal with and have
the objectives of social, economic and environmental issues. That
should deal with some of the criticisms they have made about that.
So a combination of a change in legislation and the targets set
for December hopefully will meet the kind of targets the Prime
Minister set for us a year or so ago.
194. You have just mentioned the Local Government
Bill. I am a newcomer to this Committee, I have only just arrived,
but I believe that one of the concerns of the Committee was whilst
welcoming in the beginning the fact that there seemed to be an
integrated duty to the local authorities to care for the social,
economic and environmental well-being of local people and that
was repeated in the White Paper, there is a worry now that the
idea in the Bill is to create three separate powers. Would you
like to comment on that because I think the Committee has had
the worry that for some local authorities, like the RDAs, the
emphasis may be on the economic and may be on the social and the
environmental will get put on one side now that it appears not
to be quite the same integrated approach.
(Mr Prescott) I think if you talk to the local authorities
and look at the chairs who are appointed to the committees, you
will see environment is considered a very important committee
by the councils. As Michael said, it depends on the individuals
involved. It is not the intention of the Bill to separate them
in this way. There will always be a concern because economics
has always dominated so much that I think the sustainable programmeand
it is what we envisage in the Billwill give new powers
to local authorities and I would like to see more integration
in the local authorities on decisions like this. That is why we
are making changes in local government structures, that is why
we hope the Cabinet Committee will take an overall view rather
than committees just pursuing their own agenda which in a way
is a bit like departments. It is a major change towards getting
decision making to take into account the sustainable objectives
we are talking about. Again, in local authorities it is as much
a culture problem as it is within our own Government.
195. Although as a Department you have no concerns,
have you actually received any representations from local authorities
on what in some quarters now is perceived as a fragmentation of
(Mr Prescott) Our view about that is that we do not
envisage that fragmentation. I understand the Bill makes it a
requirement that they have to report on achieving these sustainable
objectives and this is where the constant dialogue is going on
between central government and local government. We do it with
local transport plans. They may have certain ideas about the transport
plans, but the expenditure has to be agreed by us in central government.
There is always a fine balance between the powers of central government
and local government. We want to see them have sufficient powers
and that is why we have put these new powers in for the local
authority. If they simply did the economic and failed to meet
the social and environmental objectives they would be failing
in the obligation we have put on local authorities. Of course,
that would lead to discussions, as is often the case, on the allocation
of resources to meet those priorities.
196. One of the aims of the strategy is the
prudent use of natural resources. I know one of the big concerns
of local authorities is the fact that it costs them probably three
times the amount to recycle waste than it does to use landfill
or incineration. Could I ask what the Department is doing to stimulate
a market for recycled materials because I think it is a real issue
for local authorities? They want to do it.
(Mr Prescott) It is a real and big issue and it has
cost considerations and environmental considerations and jobs
and prosperity implications, etcetera. We have had some discussion
about this because Europe has set targets for us and we will have
to try and achieve them. It is back to my point about you can
have targets set but how do you get people to implement those
programmes. Perhaps Michael had best talk about that because that
is at the heart of some of our own bids on public expenditure.
(Mr Meacher) We are about to publish our Waste Management
Strategy which sets out how we are going to meet the requirements
of the EU Landfill Directive which requires us to reduce the amounts
that we put to landfill. In the case of municipal waste it is
about 85 per cent and that is going down to no more than 35 per
cent at 1995 levels by the year 2016. We estimate that at the
end of that process something like 33 million tonnes a year is
going to have to be shifted away from landfill. There are only
two real alternatives, one is recycling and the other is incineration,
although there is a third alternative which I am extremely keen
on which is waste minimisation and that is we do not create it
in the first place. I do think we will have to write into our
strategy ways by which we can try to deliver on that target because
waste is increasing by about 3 per cent a year which over a period
of the first two decades of this next century is not going to
be far off double the amount of waste generated and that is not
sustainable. In order to recycle, which is certainly more expensive
than landfill and slightly more expensive than incineration but
I think widely supported by the public and clearly right in the
case of most materials and I am certainly keen to have the maximum
increase in recycling which is feasible and which is the best
practical and environmental option, it is about eight per cent
at the present time. We have a target of 25 per cent by 2005,
30 per cent by 2010, so quadrupling in ten years. So we have got
a very steep target to reach. How do we do that? The mechanisms
will be set out in detail in the Waste Management Strategy and
they do include exactly the point that you have made, which is
that we have got to generate markets for the use of recycled products
because there is very little point in collecting and recycling
it if it then cannot be utilised, if it does not have a value,
if it cannot be returned into the economic system in a viable
manner. We are giving thought to that and again there will be
a number of suggestions in that strategy about how we think that
can be done.
197. I want to come back to the Sustainable
Development Strategy and how we are going to deliver it. I think
there has been a lot of criticism. There is a great deal that
is really good in this, but it is a bit weak on the last couple
of pages or so on the mechanisms for delivering the strategy.
How would you answer that point, and how do you see the Government
(Mr Meacher) Are you talking about the Waste Management
198. No, I am talking about the Sustainable
(Mr Meacher) This probably goes back over the discussion
throughout the last hour or hour and a half in which we have been
talking about how we are trying ourselves in DETR to act. We have
got the environmental assessments being published as part of our
2000 departmental annual report in April. Several of the policy
programme guidance notes on housing, waste, planning, development
plans and transport have all been revised to take account of sustainable
development. In terms of other government departments, I have
set out the progress which we think they are making, which is
not enough but I think substantial. If you look at other levels
of government, the RDAs have a statutory function to take account
of sustainable development. We are looking to the regions to produce
regional sustainability documents. I have been present at the
launch of three or four of these at breakfast meetings where there
has been an animated discussion amongst the business community
about how this can be implemented. We have got Local Agenda 21
which as near as possible, I hope, will be 100 per cent by the
end of this year. We have sectoral sustainability framework documents
being worked on in several areas of business, motor manufacture,
aluminium, chemicals, printing, oil and gas, small retailers and
I expect others to be added. This is a considerable range of documents
which are consulted on and done with the support and approval
of those to whom they are applied which are now being produced.
Okay, in the end the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we
will have to see what it develops on the ground in detail, but
it is a formidable panoply which is now in place.
199. I think we accept all that, but in one
of our earlier reports we did say that we wanted leadership for
this to come from the top down. One of the things that we would
like to see would be key actions and commitments assigned to lead
ministers or departments. If we are starting to look now at how
we shall measure the progress that we are going to make and we
have set out what the agenda is, we want to see where the responsibility
rests, who is going to take that responsibility, who are you going
to pin down for something either happening or not happening, so
there is somebody with responsibility where the buck stops at
every level within departments and between departments. It is
really what progress you have been able to make on that that we
would like to have some dialogue with you on.
(Mr Meacher) I entirely share with you the objective.
I am extremely keen myself to pin down on an individual or individuals