Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Second Report


Sustainable Development

74. Sustainable development in the UK and beyond is a Government-wide priority, "led and championed by Defra".[118] A widely-used and accepted international definition of sustainable development is: "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".[119] It is the Department's overarching objective and all of Defra's policies are intended to contribute to it.[120] The Department also owns a Public Service Agreement target specifically related to sustainable development for the period 2005-08 (more detail about the PSA target is given in paragraph 85).

75. The Departmental Report contains information about a number of sustainable development "delivery mechanisms" adopted across Government.[121] The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), for example, is the "advocate, adviser and 'watchdog'" for sustainable development.[122] The Sustainable Development Programme Board is composed of senior officials from key policy departments and "oversees delivery of the [UK Sustainable Development Strategy] and its commitments".[123] Government departments have also produced their own Sustainable Development Action Plans to "highlight each organisation's contribution to sustainable development and strengthen departmental accountability for delivering it".[124]

76. We asked the Permanent Secretary how the different mechanisms and policies related to sustainable development were co-ordinated and overseen. The Permanent Secretary told us that the concept of sustainable development was "quite complex" but, ultimately, it was Defra's role to "join that loop together".[125] She believed the most effective way to achieve this was to "increasingly show examples [of sustainable development] in action".[126] Such examples included the building of sustainable houses in East Anglia and organising a sustainable London Olympic Games; the Department could use these to "get our message across to other [Government] departments".[127]

77. The Government, and the Department, often reiterate their commitment to 'sustainable development'. Sustainable development, however, is a complex concept and is embedded within a vast range of policies across Government. Although bodies have been created specifically to monitor and promote sustainable development across Government, Defra is ultimately responsible for overseeing this work. From the information available—in the Departmental Report and elsewhere—it is unclear how successful the Department has been in carrying out this responsibility. The Department has also failed to communicate clearly how it takes the lead in ensuring sustainability is embedded in other Government departments' work. We recommend that future Departmental Reports include a more coherent and free-standing 'mini cross-Government sustainability report', including objective performance measures for both Defra and other Government departments. The mini-report should comment on the Sustainable Development Commission's conclusions about Government departments' Sustainable Development Action Plans.


78. An important area of Defra's work is its commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity. The Government's Biodiversity Strategy, launched in 2002, represents the "bringing together of England's key contributions to achieving the EU Gothenburg target to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010".[128] The Departmental Report states that over half the indicators used to measure progress of the Strategy were assessed as making positive progress towards achieving the objective. The other indicators all showed either no change or an uncertain trend due to a lack of long-term data or short-term fluctuations in data.[129]

79. We asked the Permanent Secretary how confident she was that the Department was making progress to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010 when the indicators for the Biodiversity Strategy showed such a mixed picture. She told us that the data from the indicators did not necessarily give the "full picture".[130] She believed that encouraging information recently obtained from the Countryside Agency, on issues such as hedgerow replacements, as well as the halt in the long-term decline in farmland bird populations—"a proxy for a great many other things in the eco system"—showed that the Government was making progress with its biodiversity commitments.[131]

80. However, the Permanent Secretary told us that Defra faced two, more general, challenges in terms of its work on biodiversity. Firstly, the Department still lacked a broad "end-to-end view of eco systems and the related biodiversity issues".[132] She explained that there was no "Domesday Book" to chart the current biodiversity situation across the whole of the country, and that such a document would be too expensive to produce.[133] It was therefore important for the Department to develop an "eco systems approach" to biodiversity, and she said work in this area had been commissioned by the Secretary of State.[134] One aspect of this involved the Department considering how better to measure outcomes related to biodiversity.[135]

81. Secondly, the Permanent Secretary believed that the Department needed to be "clearer about why we are concerned about biodiversity in itself".[136] At present, she said, the Department did not have "a clear idea" in its engagements with other Government departments "about why it is we value things".[137] She explained:

    … we need to know the value of biodiversity, partly so we can argue more strongly for biodiversity and partly so we know what are the elements of the natural world that we really need to protect beyond all others, [for example] the Grand Bank and cod.[138]

The Permanent Secretary stressed that it was important the Department began thinking about biodiversity in "a slightly different way".[139]

82. We welcome the Permanent Secretary's candour that the Department needs to improve the rigour of its approach to biodiversity and related issues. A broader understanding of biodiversity and its value, as well as eco systems, can only improve the formulation and enactment of Government policy in this important area. We look forward to seeing evidence of such a new approach soon.

118   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, p 19 Back

119 Back

120   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, p 19; Back

121   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, pp. 22-24 Back

122   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, p 22 Back

123   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, p 23 Back

124   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, p 23 Back

125   Q 27 Back

126   Q 27 Back

127   Q 27 Back

128   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, p 82. Further information on the Biodiversity Strategy can be found at: Back

129   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, p 82 Back

130   Q 21 Back

131   Q 21 Back

132   Q 21 Back

133   Q 21 Back

134   Q 21 Back

135   Q 21 Back

136   Q 21 Back

137   Q 21 Back

138   Q 21 Back

139   Q 21 Back

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Prepared 23 February 2007