Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)
RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER MP, MR JOHN ADAMS AND MR STEPHEN HALL
WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002
140. Let me put the question another way. Were you concerned to see this fact emerging, of Britain 91st on their list of economic sustainability indices, were you concerned about that?
(Mr Meacher) If I thought that it was accurate, I would be concerned.
141. So you could prove these entirely, there is no relevance?
(Mr Meacher) I think it is so profoundly flawed that, I have to say, I do not take it terribly seriously.
142. You do not?
(Mr Meacher) No, I do not.
(Mr Adams) Can I just quote from the report itself, Chairman, which says: "The Index is not without its weaknesses, however," and then it lists several, "including," which seems to me conclusive, "that it lacks time series data, preventing any serious exercise in validation and limiting its value as a tool for identifying empirically the determinance of good environmental performance."
143. Some of that criticism could be levelled at some of the things on here as well, and it would be equally valid?
(Mr Adams) But what we do not do is change the weighting so that the indicators (can be ? inaudible -).
144. Let me read out what you just said, and we can point to which bits on here that it would also apply to.
(Mr Adams) But we do not lack time series data; it is possible to validate and we are (attempting to do that ?).
Mr Jones: Time series data. Where is the time series data, we have been asking you, time series data on climate change gases, and we cannot get any . . .
145. Where is the time series data on waste, which we are still waiting for?
(Mr Meacher) It is here.
146. Then why is there not a figure?
(Mr Meacher) We have already been into that. There are two columns, in fact there are three columns, there is 1970, 1990 and 1999 which is the Strategy baseline; now all of the assessments relate to those three dates, we have not changed them, and we are not going to change them. Whereas, if you move about with different baselines, and can I just add to what Mr Adams has just said, which surprises me, many countries, not surprisingly, particularly developing countries, there are missing values; in 90 or 100 cases, the water and air quality indicators are just imputed, someone has plucked a figure out of the air and assumed that is about right for this country. Some indicators are themselves complex indices, ecological footprint; well, how on earth do you work that out, this is just one out of 67, and it itself is extremely uncertain.
147. Minister, in the introduction to your document you quote the ecological footprint of Wales, and then you say: "What is an Ecological Footprint?" it says, it is on page 23, and it says: "A Footprint can be calculated for an individual, a family, . . ." and then it goes on "The Footprint of Wales has been estimated at 5.25 hectares per person. This is significantly below the UK and European average, and well below . . ." So you cannot rubbish a set of statistics and use it in your own document?
(Mr Meacher) I was not rubbishing it, I was simply saying that it is a complex concept. It is perfectly possible to give the criteria by which you can operationalise its quantification, you can do that, we have tried to do that, but the idea that that has been applied to 180-plus countries across the world on the same basis is just simply profoundly untrue.
148. Minister, you have been extremely generous with your time this afternoon.
(Mr Meacher) I have had no option, but it is a great pleasure.
149. Very briefly, I just need to clarify in my own mind your response to Mrs Walley's very important points about land use. On H14, the Government has got, effectively, no marks, it is two amber lights, we are below the 60 per cent target. You have very clearly stated that this is not an archive of performance, this is a call to action. Is relaxing the rules on green belt building a `call to action' response to H14?
(Mr Meacher) It certainly is not. The green belt paper, which is published today, is not published by the Government, it was published by the Royal Town Planning Institute. So I think it is quite wrong to assume that any recommendations or proposals which it contains are Government policy; obviously, we take it seriously, coming from that source, but it is not Government policy.
150. Can I take it, therefore, as champion of the green cause within the Government, that, in the light of these indicators, you would fight any attempt to relax the green belt?
(Mr Meacher) I believe that we made a commitment significantly to increase the amount of brownfield development and to reduce development within the countryside; we have made that, as a Government. I am not aware of any commitment on the part of the Government to go back on that. It is a difficult task, it is one which is very testing, it is one on which we may fail. I believe, personally, it is more important to keep to a good target and fail, whilst trying as hard as you can, than to relax the target and then easily meet it.
151. Finally, to capture a well-known phrase, is the green belt safe in your hands?
(Mr Meacher) Of course.
152. I just want to move on to something slightly different, if I may. As I understand it, the headline indicators on sustainable development are there to underpin, reinforce, shape, provide the challenges, and so on and so forth. In view of the various amounts of different indicators which relate to matters which are very much matters for local councils, some of which come within Agenda 21, but many of them relate to improving the local environment, do you share the concern that I have that the forthcoming review of the Standard Spending Assessments is going to be absolutely critical, if all local authorities are going to be able to address particular problems of deprivation that they have, whereas many of the responses that the Government has had so far have been to set up perhaps five pilot projects here, or six Beacon councils there? Would you share my concern that, if local government is able to respond through the public services it provides, the SSA should be taking full account of these headline indicators in terms of sustainable development, and, if so, how should that be?
(Mr Meacher) In drawing up the SSAs, and indeed the Public Service Agreements, that are the basis on which the Government provides money to local authorities, we do, of course, take account of the headline indicators, these are the basic core data which are, as I say, shared by Government as a whole, and which in its policies, and those include its relationship with local authorities and the targets which we set them, they are contained within this overarching set of indicators. Then the answer is yes.
153. Good; because my concern is that some local authorities, because of the funding arrangements that they have, are just not able to deliver the kinds of services in a way that would be going hand in hand with sustainable development?
(Mr Meacher) That, of course, is a matter of judgement. The Government's belief is, whilst getting away from targeted, ring-fenced money and giving more freedom for manoeuvre for local authorities, nevertheless, they are given targets, contained in the PSAs, a whole, large set of targets, and other targets like the statutory recycling targets which I have set, they are expected to meet them. And we would insist that the overall sum of money going to local authorities is adequate for that purpose; obviously, local authorities always say to us that they want more money, but we would need a very convincing case to indicate that the targets set cannot be met on the basis of funding made available.
154. And are you confident that you have a mechanism in place that can properly, if you like, judge the extent to which local authorities are meeting that?
(Mr Meacher) The PSAs are going to be rigorously monitored; not only the SSAs but local PSAs are providing some extra funding on the basis of going beyond the targets set, they will be annually monitored and they have to be met, there is no question about that. I absolutely give you an assurance that this money is only provided on the basis of our rigorous investigation as to the capacity of the local authority to deliver, and then whether or not it does so.
155. As someone with a considerable amount of green belt in my constituency, I would like to thank you for the words that you have said about the protection of green belt, as I am sure a number of us around this table would welcome that. Can I just endorse what Mrs Walley was saying about the review of SSAs; clearly, some councils will win and some councils will lose. Could one just put a point to you in your discussions, as it were, behind closed doors, within Government. Some councils are already finding it very difficult, because of the money they get, or do not get, to meet some of the environmental objectives that Government gives it; in all seriousness, some of them are really genuinely struggling to do what Government is asking them to do on the money that they get. Could we please ask you, at any discussions that you have, to bear in mind that if the SSA review goes badly against some councils it will make it even more difficult for some of those people to continue to deliver the environmental performance the Government wants?
(Mr Meacher) Obviously, one will look at the case that is made. But I must say that I am not aware of what you are referring to, because the main environmental requirement is unquestionably waste. In the current financial year, which is the third and final year of SR2000, the increase in the provision for what is curiously entitled EPCS, Environmental Protection and Cultural Services, an odd oxymoron linkage, it seems to me, but that figure is £1.1 billion over the baseline in 1999-2000; that is a very substantial extra sum. In addition, we have just announced a £140 million ring-fenced challenge fund for local authorities to apply for, to meet their statutory recycling targets; there is an extra, I think it is, £49 million in the New Opportunities Fund for community recycling.
156. What about the ones that do not succeed?
(Mr Meacher) And there is £220 million PFI money for waste infrastructure. Those are substantial sums. If they are not enough, we will, of course, examine it, but I do not believe that they are insufficient.
157. But, Minister, most of those funds will go to a few large councils that have great experience of bidding; that is what the pattern has been since this
(Mr Meacher) Well, I have been very careful to avoid that, by insisting that the criteria for the distribution of the £140 million ring-fenced fund is not just an open challenge; there are criteria for distribution, which we have published, and a large proportion of that will go to the low-performing councils. Because I know that if we are going to double recycling within three years, treble it within five years, I have got to improve the performance not just of the best, they will probably do it anyway, but of the poor performers, and they will say to me, "Well you haven't provided us with the money." So I am earmarking extra funds specifically for them, but they will be held to achieve their targets.
158. Minister, I think that was a fascinating session, and I think we are grateful for your part in it.
(Mr Meacher) Thank you very much indeed, and I agree. And if I could leave this with you; and I will write, as I have said.
Chairman: Thank you.