Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) (RG 37)


  1.  The RSPB is actively involved in the English Regions, working with Regional Assemblies, Regional Development Agencies, regional environment and biodiversity forums and other regional fora. Through our activities we also deliver projects that benefit local communities, support local economies, and help to provide a healthy environment rich in birds and wildlife.

  2.  We believe that regions have a crucial part to play in promoting and encouraging sustainable development. Working together, regional bodies can stimulate action at regional, sub-regional and local levels which are key to delivering many of the policies in the UK sustainable development strategy. The essential functions for this to happen include: leadership, coordinated delivery, financial resources and feedback on performance to help shape future policies.

  3.  Some progress has been made on the delivery of sustainable development, but there is still much room for improvement. The RSPB strongly urges the Government to support the all recommendations of the Sustainable Development Commission, as set out in their recent report "The next steps". In parallel with their findings, our experience in the regions is that there is:

    (i)  a need for stronger leadership and accountability at a regional level for sustainable development;

    (ii)  no clear mechanism for delivery of sustainable development targets;

    (iii)  not enough data on regional progress towards meeting sustainable development targets.


  4.  All regional bodies—Regional Assemblies (RAs), Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), Government Offices (GOs)—and other public, private and voluntary organisations have a key role in the implementation of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy. This means placing sustainable development at the heart of their activities and working together in partnership.

  5.  The RSPB believes that currently, there is a lack of consistent leadership on sustainable development across the English regions. RAs, RDAs and GOs need more clearly defined responsibilities for sustainable development; for example, RAs and GOs should have sustainable development as their primary purpose. A key task is to ensure policy alignment between national and regional levels—and fewer regional strategies. All regional government institutions should develop a proper accountability framework setting out:

    (i)  the business case for sustainable development;

    (ii)  targets and out puts for all levels of the organisation; and

    (iii)  clear indicators of successful delivery (ensuring regular monitoring and reporting).

  Responsibility for sustainable development must be embedded at the highest level, ensuring a network of champions from board level and down through each organisation.

  6.  Regional Assemblies need mechanisms to give stakeholder members a genuine voice. Our experience has been that more value has been placed on input from economic and social partners at the expense of environmental interests (see case study from the North West).

  Case study: environmental voice in the North West
7.  A key challenge that the environment sector is facing in the North West is getting meaningful representation in the Regional Assembly. The environment sector is represented by North West Environmental Link which has two seats on the Economic and Social Partnership (ESP) group (RSPB holds one of these seats). However, over the last 12 months the environment sector has been marginalised within ESP. The balance of seats, both on the Executive Group of ESP and within ESP, lies strongly in favour of the business sector leaving both the environmental and social sectors poorly represented.
8.  The recent letter from Rt Hon David Miliband MP, Minister of Communities and Local Government, regarding the make-up of RAs (that they should be at least 60% Local Authorities and at least 30% ESP) has been useful for improving the balance between Local Authorities and ESPs. However, further refinement is needed to create a better economic, environment and social mix within the ESP. Some regions call this group "Economic, Environment and Social Partners" to ensure that the environment is given a higher profile. Consistency in naming of this group would be helpful.
9.  There is also a need for more business "buy-in" into the philosophy and delivery of sustainable development.


  10.  Sustainable Development Round Tables (SDRTs) exist in some form in each of the English Regions—except in the North West, where Sustainability NorthWest (financed by the RDA and the business community) is seen to fulfil this function. There is no clear support for what SDRTs say or do; at the moment they are listened to sporadically and where there is action it is not consistent across the regions.

  11.  As identified by the Sustainable Development Commission, SDRTs must be independent, to act as "critical friends" to RAs, RDAs and GOs, scrutinising their policies, their performance on sustainable development and providing advice on best practice. They need:

    (i)  secure funding, sufficient to enable Round Tables to work properly;

    (ii)  stakeholder driven membership, including influential representatives from RAs, RDAs, GOs, public, private and voluntary sectors;

    (iii)  continuity of service (ie. members sign up to a term of office);

    (iv)  to be well networked amongst leaders of key organisations and agencies within their region;

    (v)  to act as facilitators for the transfer of knowledge and best practice between regions and externally.


  12.  Regional Sustainable Development Frameworks (RSDFs) are intended to provide a shared vision for sustainable development and inform other regional strategies. In some regions this is the case, but in general they lack influence and are rapidly being bypassed by new Integrated Regional Strategies. The RSPB believes that it is essential that Integrated Regional Strategies are audited for sustainable development purposes and are nested within the RSDF.

  13.  In some regions RSDFs are being updated and renamed Integrated Regional Frameworks (easily confused with Integrated Regional Strategies). They are widely used as a basis for the Sustainability Appraisal of strategies and projects. Indeed sub-regions in the North East welcomed their Sustainable Development Round Table's RSDF and the road-show which explained the use of an integrated matrix which could be used to start the process of Sustainability Appraisal.

  14.  The RSPB supports the use of RSDFs for sustainability appraisal as long as they are kept up-to-date and where this takes into account guidance from the Sustainable Development Commission on the development of sustainability appraisal tools.


  15.  Sustainable development must be delivered at the appropriate regional/local level. Action plans produced by Local Strategic Partnerships must be checked against the RSDF (or Integrated Regional Framework) with as much rigour as the county or regional plans in order to avoid inappropriate trade-offs at a local level. The regional governance structure must ensure that all decisions are made in a measured or integrated "big picture" fashion.

  16.  In some cases it is necessary to look across sub-regional boundaries (eg.considering them as sub-economic units divided by a political boundary) in order to tackle economic, social and environmental disparities in a joined-up fashion. For example in the East of England, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are neighbouring towns that share many of the same development problems, but they lie on either side of the county boundary. Sustainable development policies have had to be integrated into two local action plans, one in Suffolk and one in Norfolk, often with very different results.


  17.  Currently this information on regional progress towards meeting sustainable development targets is either insufficient or non-existent—when compared, for example, to RDA reporting on regional economic performance against Regional Economic Strategies. There is a pressing need for regional sustainable development indicators and national strategy indicators (ensuring link-up between the two). Regions must have properly funded monitoring systems, must agree the purpose of indicators, how they will be measured and assessed. Regional government institutions must also have an agreed commitment to take remedial action against negative trends.

  18.  Regional Observatories and the National Audit Office should produce an annual "State of the Region" report—based on sustainable development outcomes—to provide an overview of regional progress.

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