Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)

Question Number



  200. Would you like to give us some examples?
  (Mr Porritt) One of the things we are looking at, at the moment, is the whole Green Paper on Planning. Although there are obviously some quite proper and perfectly convincing references to the importance of continuing to protect the environment through development controls and through planning processes, you could not possibly point to that Green Paper and say that it is fully understood what sustainable development is all about. It simply is not embedded in the conceptualisation of a planning system; it does not work its way through all the different recommendations. I think—and perhaps we have started off, a bit unfortunately, on the negative end of things rather than the positive end, because there are a lot of positive things to be said as well—there are question marks about the degree to which government departments have understood the degree to which sustainable development needs to act as the framework within which policies are pursued rather than being seen as something that is added on to everything else that they are doing. I think that is the crux of what the Commission is trying to work away at and certainly forms the main element of our work with central Government, which is to say "Stop thinking about this as an add-on. Some of the language is right, some of the policies are right, some of the practice is right, but what you have got to do now is to see sustainable development as the overarching framework within which these things need to be brought together."

  201. In order to take the whole debate forward, we are preparing for the Johannesburg Summit, and you are now a member of the MISC18, or whatever the Committee is called (you have got a seat on that). Do you feel that we have really got an opportunity to embed these environmental concerns right at the heart of this whole wider development agenda? How frustrated are you? How hopeful are you?
  (Mr Porritt) I think that goes to the heart of the role that the Sustainable Development Commission was given when it was set up. No complaint about our role, we were given a very constructive, open-ended, remit to be fully engaged in all aspects of both government, and other sectors, in developing sustainable development in the UK. We were not given a particularly strong steer on the international scene and, indeed, have no real locus through the formal committee processes around WSSD. So what we are doing is pursuing a engagement role much more informally through DEFRA, through relevant committees, through a meeting coming up with the Deputy Prime Minister, through our engagement with UNED-UK and the NGO effort, but it is interesting that we do not actually have a formal role in that regard as that was not in our starting remit.

  202. Perhaps, for the record, I should say that I appreciate that it is the inter-departmental advisory committee, and that you are not actually on MISC18. Presumably that is key to setting the agenda to making sure that all the environmental issues etc are embedded.
  (Mr Porritt) Absolutely.

Mr Barker

  203. Could I just develop this theme slightly. I noticed in the memorandum that you sent us that you said: "However, we are as yet nowhere near the kind of structural and policy changes that will need to be made to the economy and to society to deliver sustainable outcomes". "The key Rio principle `Think global, act local' has been adopted only in a very patchy way, and tangible government leadership is needed to deliver the real outcomes that the Rio process demands". Do you actually think we have our own house sufficiently in order to go to Johannesburg with credibility and urge this agenda on other more reluctant nations?
  (Mr Porritt) I think our house is more in order now than it was, let us say, back in 1997, to take a date. I think that bits of the house have been better ordered since that time, and I think there is a process of incremental ordering (to carry on with the metaphor) that is encouraging. There is a seriousness of intent in trying to do that. If you were to ask me to put a tick in the box to say the UK Government can go out to Johannesburg with everything hunky-dory back home, and speak to other governments on that basis, I think that would be an extremely unwise position for the Government to take to Johannesburg, as there are many, many areas where the house is not in order. I think it is interesting you picked up on that part of the memorandum we put to you, because it is this question of quite detailed systematic approaches to embedding sustainable development process and practice in what goes on. I think it is easier for me to give you a couple of very quick, concrete examples.

  204. In fact, that was my next question, to give us a couple of examples of failures and, also, successes.
  (Mr Porritt) Let us just look, very, very quickly, at three quick areas. Regional Development Agencies—very powerful regeneration bodies now in England—had a sustainable development remit when they were set up as well as all the economic remits that they had. They are now in the process of revising their economic strategies. If one actually looks at the degree to which guidance from DTI has helped the RDAs to get on top of its sustainable development remit, you would have to say it is not; it just is not doing the job; it has not helped the boards and the executives of the RDAs to think more carefully about the combined outcomes—sustainable development outcomes as well as economic outcomes—that its statutory remit asks them to do. So it is there, they have created the platform but the platform is not being used. The same with local government. One can say that in terms of the new emphasis on the well-being powers that local authorities have to push forward community planning and the new emphasis on local strategic partnerships—all of these things theoretically should be very helpful to a sustainable development framework, to thinking more sustainably about these issues, but in practice a lot is falling through the cracks, so that the guidance on local strategic partnerships, for instance, very, very grudgingly refers to the importance of Local Agenda 21, which was one of the great outcomes of the Earth Summit back in 1992. So it is almost as if you can put in these minimalist platforms and then you think the job is done. We would argue very strongly that it is good the minimalist platforms are in there, but they are not worked as much as they should be until they are properly embedded in the decision-making processes at each of those different levels. You could talk in the same way about the business community and how there is a lot of exhortation from Michael Meacher and, indeed, from the Prime Minister himself about business doing more on this agenda, but falls short of creating the kind of framework which would permit business to do what it does on a more environmentally and socially responsible basis.

  205. I cannot think of a better word so I will use the word "blame", but where do you think the balance of blame lies between central Government and local government?
  (Mr Porritt) I think that is difficult because, as always, it is such a patchy picture. If you look at the local scene, you could point to some really fantastic, leadership authorities—champions, or beacon authorities, to use the prevailing jargon.

  206. Who are your champions?
  (Mr Porritt) I am not allowed to say that! There are known champions in the local government scene which have been working away on this stuff since Rio, ten years ago, and have succeeded in mainstreaming it into the corporate work of that local authority as a whole. You would have to say that that has largely been done off the back of their own understanding of why that will work for them as a local government body. At the other end of the scale, as this Committee will know, there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of local authorities who are doing no more than ticking whatever box it is they are asked to tick and playing around with sustainable development tokenism of the kind that is bringing no benefits to anyone. So where does the blame lie there? You have to say the blame lies there with the individual local authorities for not taking advantage of some of these new modernisation initiatives to bring themselves into a very different way of doing business.

  207. If I could change tack slightly and go from local government to the global environment, you describe climate change as the single most significant environmental, social and economic challenge facing the planet. Yet it may not make it on to the agenda at the Johannesburg Summit. How concerned are you about that and what should this Government be doing?
  (Mr Porritt) It need not necessarily be damaging to the effectiveness of Johannesburg. There is an on-going international process around climate change, as you will know. There are a large number of elements, agenda items, statutory processes and targets in play already. The fact that it is not going to be a major item on the Johannesburg agenda does not mean to say that it is not, as we have described it, the single most important issue—set of interlocking issues—touching on the global economy, on the environment and on society. I do not think it is a tragedy if Johannesburg does not have it as one of its absolute mainstay agenda items because it will certainly come in through a whole lot of other concerns about resource use in general, about equity issues, about the shape of the global economy. That is where, I suspect, climate change can be dealt with as well as dealing with it as a headline issue in its own right.

Mr Francois

  208. Mr Porritt, also in your memorandum you said to us that "Government has yet to embrace sustainable development as a central driver of policy formulation". If that is your view, what changes would you like to see to the structure of Government in order to do that? How do you see your own organisation, perhaps, playing a part in that?
  (Mr Porritt) I think what we would like to see, first and foremost, is a much greater level of ownership within each government department that this is something that they have to do as well as DEFRA. For historical reasons—and this is always a big issue, which is standard throughout all western European countries—because sustainable development has been seen to come largely out of an environmental history and a set of environmental issues, it tends to get confused, even now, with environmentalism of what I would describe as the old-fashioned, narrow-focussed kind. So when sustainable development is being driven out of an environment department, there is an understandable temptation for other government departments to say "Sorted. That is their job. There is this little unit called the Sustainable Development Unit, beavering away at the heart of DEFRA with a remit to take sustainable development out to the whole of the rest of government, but we can leave it to them." With a few exceptions, and there are some important exceptions—the DTI, for instance, has addressed these issues through its own strategy and through a team of people within the DTI; the DETR is looking at these things, we are talking to the Department of Health about it, and the Ministry of Defence would undoubtedly want to put its hand up and say "We are beginning to address some of these sustainable development issues"—by and large the level of ownership at the most senior levels in each of these government departments is inadequate if one is talking about sustainable development as the overarching framework for promoting government policy. That is the starting place. So the starting place, for us as a Commission, is to track the degree to which the understanding of sustainable development is embedded in each of these different departments, where the championship lies and how effective DEFRA is being in doing its job to get government as a whole to take up sustainable development. You will have seen in our memorandum that something we are keeping a very close eye on is the role that DEFRA has been properly exercising to persuade other departments to take their share of this burden. That is the starting point we would look to. Without that and without the Prime Minister's own significant leadership contribution to that, through No 10 and his influence over government process, with the best will in the world a lot of other government departments will go on saying "This is not mainstream for us; this is someone else's thing".

  209. You mention in your memorandum that you would like to see the publication of individual department sustainable development reports. How likely do you think that is and what sort of impact do you think that would have towards the objectives you have just outlined?
  (Mr Porritt) How likely? We have genuinely welcomed the sustainable development focus that has come into the Comprehensive Spending Review this time round. It was there in the earlier Comprehensive Spending Review but it was not really used pro-actively as part of the process. It is there this time. Every government department has to indicate the degree to which their spending plans will impact on sustainable development, and we think that is very important. We regret that that will not be made more publicly available. We will not be able to see how the Treasury has assessed the sustainable development analysis coming from those departments. So there is not going to be an easy way of following up on what was an important process development; it could just remain within Treasury and that will be the end of it. How likely is it that they will move towards reporting? I do not know. I think an awful lot of people are quite tired of certain levels of exhortatory enthusiasm from government into the private sector berating FTSE 100 and FTSE 350 companies for their failure to report properly on an integrated sustainable development front. They look to government and they think to themselves "We get an annual sustainable development report which aggregates the net contribution of all these government departments, but these are huge entities in their own right. If they are asking the private sector to do that, why the hell should they not do it themselves?" I think there is not a lot of joining up going on—a walking-the-walk bit—that is so important. Think of the Department of Health: a massive, massive presence in all of our lives, in the economy, in people's communities, the impact on resources, on transport, on pollution issues, on public health—vast impact on quality of life throughout the UK. For the Department of Health not to be publishing a report seems peculiar when it would expect every single pharmaceutical company in the land to publish a report and when it would expect others involved in wealth creation at different points. It seems to me there is a failure to join it up in a way that we would like to see. Of course, the Government is reluctant to mandate this reporting process, so it may not necessarily mandate it even for its own government departments.

  210. You used the phrase "not walking the walk".
  (Mr Porritt) On that score.

  211. Yes, I understand that. Our Committee has asked the Treasury to be allowed to see these reports so that we can take a view on them, and they have also said that they will not allow us to view them either. I am sure we intend to continue to press the Government on this matter. Can you give us some assurance today that you expect you will continue to press them too?
  (Mr Porritt) Indeed, and we have been very clear about that. We have been very supportive of how that process has helped mainstream sustainable development in the Comprehensive Spending Review process (I think that should not be forgotten, it is an important innovation) but the next stage is equally important, because as that data becomes available it can be used to look for ways of improving departmental performance.

  212. Can I also just press you on planning? You mentioned the planning Green Paper and some of your concerns. For all the fine words in the Green Paper, very often in planning the key issue is where does the decision power ultimately lie? It is a very big thrust in the Green Paper that a lot of the decision-making power is going to be taken away from local communities and is going to be centralised—some of it regionally but a lot of it with central Government, particularly for the large projects. That is inherent throughout the Green Paper. What is the point of telling people to think globally and act locally if you continue to reduce the amount of actual influence they have on the planning decisions? Is this a point that your Commission is prepared to make to the Prime Minister?
  (Mr Porritt) We have commissioned some research into this, which we are looking at. We happen to have one of our regular, plenary meetings with the Commission next week in Belfast and one of the major items on the agenda is to look at the Green Paper. We will then come up with our opinion about that, as part of the consultation process, and we will certainly seek to make those views known as widely as we can with as influential a set of people in government as we can. I think there is an issue here which has not been properly reflected in the way ministers have talked about this, and that goes to the heart of governance issues, which is a strong and prevailing set of concerns about weakening governance systems in the UK—falling votes, lack of participation, indifference towards the democratic process and a larger number of disaffected people. I am not seeking to change our understanding of sustainable development away from social, environmental and economic, but governance issues are central to making sense of this way of looking at improving quality of life. You cannot detach the governance issues from the planning debate, because the planning system is one of the principle mechanisms available to people at the local level for engagement in decisions that touch their lives.

  213. If the Chairman will indulge me, because this is a particular bug-bear of mine but you have touched on it, I think it is an open secret that all of the political parties are finding it difficult to get suitable candidates to stand for local elections. One is not exactly giving away the trident codes by mentioning that. One of the reasons is why should people go out and vote in local elections if they see that the people they are electing for local government actually have fewer and fewer decision-making powers, and planning is an absolutely central point in the whole debate? How are we going to get people to give up three or four nights a week of their spare time for very little money to act as local councillors if, when it comes to planning decisions that really affect their localities, all the power has been taken away from them?
  (Mr Porritt) I have to be a bit careful here because I do not think the Commission has a collective view on this as yet. I need to draw a line between me and the Commission. We have got a collective view on a lot of things and we will soon have a collective view on planning issues. I can assure you that collective view will link up to that governance challenge absolutely head-on, because if we are not putting the planning debate as part of the broad debate about the vitality of our democratic systems in the UK at every level then it is a disconnected debate. I think that we would be very keen to join those two things up. I am conscious we have not signed off on our contribution to that yet.

Mr Jones

  214. You spoke earlier and rather disparagingly of narrow environmentalism, which is interesting considering your background, Mr Porritt. I wonder how useful a concept sustainability is. During the last decade its use has grown enormously and a huge industry has grown round it, of which you no doubt are part. We went last year to Canada and we found a vast amount of work going on and a vast amount of reporting going on within the various departments and within the different federal governments in Canada around sustainability, but we could not really draw much conclusion about what actually was being achieved, apart from an awful lot of paper being produced. The problem, surely, with sustainable development is how it is defined, and because its definition is so convenient and changeable it means everything and, therefore, means nothing at all.
  (Mr Porritt) Were the Canadians able to shed any light on what they thought they had achieved through their process for you?

  215. Vast amounts of literature.
  (Mr Porritt) Which was unimpressive, as far as you are concerned.

  Mr Jones: The problem with having a concept which means different things to different people is that people can then point to achievements in one region and call them sustainable development but if they have not got a phrase for sustainable development they could still point to the same achievement and call it something else.

  Chairman: The great block in Canada was actually the governance, because we found for example that everybody in Toronto said there should be a public transport system, but there could not be a public transport system because the city of Toronto disagreed with the province of Ontario, which disagreed with the Federal Government of Canada, and no one could agree. So, despite all the words produced, nothing happened.

  216. The point I am trying to put to you, perhaps aggressively, is that within Canada—and we know of other countries—rather than address the really difficult issue, say, on transport, sustainability and the vast array of information and concepts around sustainability could be used in order to say "Well, we are doing this. We are not actually achieving anything on transport but just look at that, because we have got some wonderful literature on sustainability". It is a concept ill-defined, which is the problem.
  (Mr Porritt) Yes, I think it is a problem for those who like it to remain a problem. There is undoubtedly a gap between the conceptualisation of what sustainable development means at a theoretical and a policy formulation level and the operationalisation thing. There is always going to be a gap, and it would be very wrong of anyone who feels passionate about sustainable development to argue that it will solve all your difficult decision-making problems for you, and it is a substitute for the kind of political and economic judgment that you are being asked to make as legislators or community activists; that by just putting the data into your sustainable development black box, out the other end comes this magic answer. Anyone who has thought that sustainable development is of that kind, undoubtedly set off with an illusory notion of what it is. I am sure that does not apply to you, but just in case it might apply—

  217. It may apply to me. It applies to a lot of people.
  (Mr Porritt) Maybe it applies to people in Canada, in which case they will have come up with some very muddled outcomes. I feel very strongly that sustainable development is a concept of enormous significance at this stage in the development of the industrial revolution, if you like. The reason why I feel that is that we had a model of progress that largely permitted us to grow our economies without taking a great deal of care about some of the environmental and social externalities which were generated as a consequence of that industrial process. The upshot of that has been that we are now trying to back-fit our model of industrial progress to take account of these externalities—to use the economists' jargon—and to seek to go on growing both GDP and per capita well-being without those externalities. I know of no other conceptual framework that enables one to bring together those concerns more effectively than sustainable development. It does so for two good reasons: one is you have got to weight these things in such a way that you are pressing for integrated economic, environmental and social benefits and you have got to do it for today's generation and for tomorrow's as well. There is no other conceptual framework that enables better decision-making to emerge against those two sets of challenges than the one provided by sustainable development. I only urge you to look at what is happening in other parts of the world; to look at the impact of sustainable development, for instance, on business decision-making. Look at those companies that are now beginning to get serious about sustainable development and are beginning to integrate their economic and financial obligations to their shareholders with their sense of obligation to society, to communities and to the wider environment, and are able to call on the theoretical framework of sustainable development to provide them with a very powerful rationale for integrated accountability to different stakeholders. That was not there before sustainable development arrived as a conceptual framework within which they could locate those issues. The debate we have just had about government: what would be an equivalently powerful convening principle to persuade the DTI and the Department of Health and every other bit of government that it was not just pursuing a narrow focus, it actually has overarching generic responsibilities to promote people's well-being, improvements in their quality of life, without the externalities that had previously been an automatic consequence of economic development?

  218. With respect, I do not think you need to invent the concept of sustainable development in order to give the Department of Health a reason for promoting well-being.
  (Mr Porritt) That is not quite what I said.

  219. It is what you said.
  (Mr Porritt) It is not what I said. I said that it is open now to the Department of Health to use the concept of sustainable development to do what it should have been doing and what legislators should have asked it to have been doing for decades but somehow had not.

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