Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  180. Can I follow that line about compulsion or persuasion—this 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 know—and I am sure other Members of the Committee would as well—is 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 timescale—2010—(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 administrations—certainly as far as the environment is concerned—are 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 co-operation.
  (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 management—Michael 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.

Joan Walley

  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 from Europe?
  (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 process.

Mr Loughton

  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 to get.
  (Mr Prescott) You always have these little throwaway remarks.

  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.

Mr Thomas

  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.

Christine Russell

  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 programme—and it is what we envisage in the Bill—will 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 the duties?
  (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.

Joan Walley

  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 really delivering?
  (Mr Meacher) Are you talking about the Waste Management Strategy?

  198. No, I am talking about the Sustainable Development Strategy.
  (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 their responsibility.

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