Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 153-173)


17 NOVEMBER 2010

Q153  Chair: May I welcome you? I think you all sat in on the previous session that we've just had. We're perhaps running a little bit behind time, so I'm going to ask everybody for briefer replies and perhaps briefer questions as well, if I can. We very much wanted to get as broad a perspective as we could and hear evidence not just from Government agencies or Government Departments. We're aware of the work that you have each done and, if you like, the importance that you attach to innovation and to there being proper engagement on the whole issue of democracy and research. So, could I just invite you each just to introduce yourselves and give a very brief proposal as to why it's important that we listen to what you have to say, then we'll go into the questioning?

Dr Russel: My name is Duncan Russel and I'm based at the University of Exeter. I've been doing research since 2001 on environmental policy integration, which is one way of embedding sustainable development in Government, in the UK and also the European Union, and I've also been involved with John in a project examining the role of this Committee.

  Chair: Scrutinising this Committee, I'm aware of that, yes. Thank you.

Dr Turnpenny: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for inviting me. My name is John Turnpenny. I'm from the University of East Anglia in Norwich. My particular area of research interest is embedding evidence within policymaking and how that works in practice, particularly looking at policy appraisal systems but also looking at other mechanisms, including the Environmental Audit Committee, and also looking at practical lessons for how these research results might be implemented. I'd just like to take the opportunity to thank our colleagues, Tim Rayner and Andrew Jordan at UEA, for their contribution to our evidence today.

  Chair: It's on the record.

Halina Ward: I'm Halina Ward and I'm Director of an NGO which was launched in September 2009. It's called the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development. It kind of does what it says on the tin. We work not just on embedding sustainable development in Government but more broadly on what has to happen to democracy as a political system so it's properly equipped and capable of delivering sustainable development outcomes.

Carol Day: I'm Carol Day. I'm a lawyer at WWF-UK. I was a campaigner before I was a lawyer and I've worked in environmental charities all my life, both at the local level of county wildlife trusts through now to the international level with WWF-UK.

Q154  Mr Spencer: I'm interested in measuring the progress we're going to make. We've already got a number of indicators and targets in place for measuring whether we're the greenest Government ever. Can you tell us are those indicators and targets adequate for us to be able to measure that and, if they're not, what targets and indicators and measurements should we have in place?

Carol Day: I hesitate to go first.

  Chair: Please go first, Carol.

Carol Day: Horrible job. Well, in recent meetings with Government we've been told that the 2005 document doesn't really apply because it's the last Government's position. So, I guess we find ourselves in a bit of a vacuum as far as that's concerned. So, my first point would be that we need obviously a new, renewed commitment to some targets and also some improvements on where we've got to so far. We obviously had the five principles of sustainable development, but in the 2005 document even, I think it was recognised that we needed to place more emphasis on living within environmental limits. We've had initiatives like the Climate Change Act, which I think tends to focus much more on the production emissions end and perhaps not enough on the impact of consumption and our growing consumption in terms of things like carbon footprint, but also other areas as well. In the Living Planet Report, which we issued very recently, we basically showed that if every other country in the world lived as the UK does, we'd need something like two and three-quarter planets to support the number of resources that we actually use. So, I think really, in terms of limits, we certainly need some limits around consumption.

But I think there are other improvements that we can make as well on where we were in 2005. Certainly, in the research that FDSD and WWF are looking at at the moment we're making a much more explicit link between sustainable development and future generations, and I think this is where we'd really like to see much more emphasis in the future. Obviously the international definition we have of sustainable development is very much about not compromising the needs of future generations because of the needs of the present. I think one of the things that we would really like to see is more of a midfield approach, if you like, something which is actually looking forward in that sense in terms of future generations as well as a policy scrutiny and a rear­looking view as well.

  Chair: Halina, did you want to add?

Halina Ward: Just very briefly, there has been a lot of discussion recently about adding well-being and quality of life indicators to the national indicator set, and that's certainly something that in principle we'd welcome. A slight note of caution perhaps, that this is a real opportunity to think creatively about how the indicators are formed and how they're collected. It's one thing to ask somebody, "Do you feel happy today? Yes, I bought a car yesterday" and quite something different to ask somebody, "Do you feel happy? Yes, I know my neighbours. We do favours for one another" and so on. I think that the actual process of gathering the indicators of quality of life or well-being, which is in itself valuable, needs to be something quite creative that encourages people to think as they're giving their responses about broader well-being—the things that really make us happy beyond the satisfaction of immediate material needs.

Dr Russel: The thing that I would like to say about indicators is that it's all well and good having a great set of indicator sets, but ultimately there are two issues. First, if you do not reach your targets within indicator sets, what happens? So it's a matter of process beyond just measuring where we are. The second thing is that to date we haven't really learnt much from indicator sets because at the moment we have an indicator but we don't know what the signals are that are creating that indication. So we don't know whether it's because of a certain policy that's led to us meeting or overshooting that indicator, or we don't know whether it's due to economic effects or changes in behaviour and so on. So, if you take, for example, an indicator on carbon, if we see a reduction in carbon emissions is it because we've seen a reduction in economic activity; is it because of some behavioural change; is it because of some new technology? So, indicator sets actually need to be linked more to analysis on what has actually led to changes within the measured criteria, and then it offers opportunities for learning and for Government to adjust their position based on that.

Dr Turnpenny: I'd just like to agree with that and say how important it is that we have good evidence, and not only good evidence but good mechanisms for collating and bringing together that evidence and applying it in the most focused way. There's a lot of evidence out there and without a clear mechanism and a clear way of deciding on a way forward, we find that it becomes very difficult to decide. Having a good evidence base for indicator development and interpretation is important.

Q155  Mr Spencer: I think the thing that motivates politicians is the fact that someone at some point in time is going to say, "You have succeeded" or, "You have failed". There needs to be a system in place to measure that, so people are given a target. I can't see or understand how we're going to be able to measure some of those things, particularly when you talked about emotional well-being. That's an impossible thing to measure, isn't it? It's almost an opinion rather than a measurable outcome. I don't know how we're going to be able to integrate that into Government policy.

Halina Ward: Well, indicator development has become something of a dark art, as I understand it. I think perhaps with some of these qualitative data sets that we're looking for, it's much more important to view the process of developing the indicators as an integral part of the indicator reporting. That's what I was trying to get at in my point about well-being indicators. So, there is a learning process that goes on in the development and the formation of judgments about what's important, and it's important to have people involved in that process who are not the usual suspects, if you like, as well as simply providing passively a report with lots of numbers and lots of text to people and saying, "That's it, that's what we said we were going to do. That's what we've done. What do you reckon?" It's not an interactive way of developing a discussion about the level, the measure of a Government's commitment to sustainable development. So I'd like to see it being much less technocratic an exercise in a way and much more an interactive process of engagement involving citizens and local groups.

Q156  Zac Goldsmith: I was going to just follow up on that point. I agree this is incredibly difficult to measure. I've looked at a number of different models, indicators, usually not developed in Britain, but indicators to try and capture some of these things. It seems to me that the people who design some of the indicators that are already being discussed have done so without any real regard to what it means to be in Government or what it means to actually make policy decisions. It's almost as if the indicators and the tools have been developed in such a way to make it impossible for policymakers to implement them in a practical way.

  So, for example, I'm fumbling here, but certain areas that have already been picked up on are impossible to quantify, but unless you can find a way to quantify them it's almost impossible to hold the Government to account. So, happiness is something which is very subjective, but there are very clear signs of unhappiness, which are measurable. So, if more and more people are self-harming, if more and more people are committing suicide, more and more people are becoming hooked on drugs, for example, those are things which you can measure. I know they're negatives, not positives, but would it not make more sense to focus on things which can actually be quantified in a more technical way?

Halina Ward: I view the process of indicator development and reporting as part of a system of more deliberative democracy, if you like. That's why I gave the answer that I gave. In a sense, I've reached the limits of what I'm able to say. I'm not a really technical indicator bod. I just understand that they're the map but they're not the territory and you need something different to get at the territory.

  Zac Goldsmith: I suppose the concern is that a Government could look at that stuff and say, "This makes a lot of sense and we'd like to pursue that agenda", but it wouldn't make any difference at all from a practical point of view in terms of how the Government govern. Whereas if you were able to say, "We have seen that over the last five years there has been a rapid increase in the number of people suffering from mental illness", for example, that is something against which you could judge a Government's record. And I just think without those tangibles, those actual measurable things, it's very hard to pin a Government down. That's my concern about some of the indicators that have been developed.

Q157  Martin Caton: How does the UK Government compare with other Governments in embedding sustainable development—

  Chair: I ask everyone to come back within 15 minutes after the vote. We'll start as soon as we've got a quorum. Sorry, we'll just have to go down and vote—that's what we're here to do—and then we'll come back.

  Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

  On resuming.

  Chair: I think there's enough of us here to continue. We want to get through as quickly as we can. Martin, do you want to resume for us, please?

Q158  Martin Caton: What I was saying before we were interrupted was how does the UK Government compare with other Governments in embedding sustainable development in its work?

Dr Russel: I'll start with that one. The comparative work in the project that I've been involved with on OECD countries suggests that, rather surprisingly when you look at some of the reports that this Committee has produced in the past, the UK is among the front-runners in terms of embedding sustainable development, which when you look at some of the evaluations of how the UK is actually doing is rather concerning when you take a global perspective. The UK, along with Sweden and Norway, have been the most innovative in terms of designing mechanisms and approaches for integrating environment and sustainable development concerns across policy sectors. For example, things like the Environmental Cabinet Committee under former Administrations was a very innovative body when it was actually set up in 1990, under the Conservative Environment White Paper. Also, the UK has innovated in things like policy appraisal in terms of actually setting up the mechanism.

However, what we actually see in the research with all of these countries, UK, Sweden and Norway, is that they've developed this body of tools, mechanisms and so on, but this in itself has not been enough to actually embed sustainable development because they haven't been backed up by sufficient incentives for sector policymakers to actually engage with sustainable development—for example, providing funding, providing career progression paths to help policymakers engage. There also hasn't been enough central steering to sanction departments or sectors when they're actually not engaging with sustainable development. So, a lot of it is put down to political will. However, how we understand that and how that does or does not manifest is something that's still quite under­researched and probably something we need to research more. But on the international scene the UK is a leader. I think John just wants to talk a little bit more about the policy appraisal aspects of this.

Dr Turnpenny: Sure, yes.

  Dr Russel: Unless you've got any follow-up to what I said.

  Martin Caton: No, I'd be interested to hear from Dr Turnpenny.

Dr Turnpenny: In the previous session there was a little bit of talk about appraisal systems and how they might work. I've done a fair bit of work over the last few years on how policy appraisal systems have worked in practice. The UK, of course, has its regulatory impact assessment system and many other OECD countries also have appraisal systems of varying colours and purposes. But we found that there are some common reasons why they don't work as expected. For example, they often come late in the policy process; they don't influence the development of policy early on. Often the people who are consulted are what you might call the usual suspects, the people who always get consulted about those particular policy areas. They can be seen as somewhat of an add­on to the policy process, and particularly in the UK they focus very heavily on regulatory burdens. There is very little on the sustainable development and environment side.

The European Commission has a system of appraisal that does focus more in a more concrete way on environment and sustainable development impacts of policies, but even here there's still a very heavy focus on regulatory burden. And I think that it shows that if you have an amount of analysis you can have a large amount of data, you can have a lot of expertise, but that doesn't necessarily translate into more sustainable policymaking. There are a whole lot of barriers as to why the evidence as gathered by assessment systems is not being taken up and not putting through into the statute books or even into the outcomes in terms of a more sustainable society. A lot of those burdens relate to high-level institutional constraints, the fact that policy is often made on the basis of policy that had been made before, so it's incremental rather than radically changing. And doing more analysis is a useful step but it isn't going to give you a more sustainable society.

So, what I'm focusing on at the moment in my research is looking at mechanisms beyond policy appraisal, so looking at mechanisms like parliamentary committees, bodies such as the IPCC, the Climate Change Committee, NICE, looking at how these bodies gather evidence, how they're embedded within the political process, what kind of barriers they face and how can they overcome these barriers. I'd just like to stress that it's not always about lack of data or lack of evidence. It's about the overall purpose of decision making and what is really driving, what are the paradigms, what are the really high-level impetuses behind policy making, because if that doesn't fit with the data, then the data can often be ignored.

Q159  Chair: What about the political will?

Dr Russel: That's what it boils down to—oversight and having the oversight to ensure that the data are used in a way to make the policy process more transparent. It's about managing the process of data flows, and that's pretty crucial.

Q160  Martin Caton: Ms Ward, do you want to make a contribution?

Halina Ward: Thank you very much. There were two areas that I wanted to highlight. They're not so much about embedding sustainable development in Government, but about equipping Parliament to play its role in delivering sustainable development. There are two particular areas to consider. One area is about the integration of future generations and the interests of future generations in the fabric of Parliament, and the other is the role of Parliamentary Commissioners. Because we're short of time, let me just tell you the titles of some of these parliamentary functions. Hungary, which has the most well developed of these functions, has a Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations as one of four Parliamentary Commissioners, effectively ombudsmen. He can scrutinise legislation. He has to respond to complaints from members of the public. He can even play a role in formulating Hungary's position in European Union negotiations. That's one. Canada has—

Q161  Martin Caton: Just on that one, what sanctions has that ombudsman got?

Halina Ward: He can initiate court cases. I understand his principal audience—it's not the limit of his powers—is administrative decisions, but he also has ultimately, I believe, the power to invite or request organisations to cease damaging activities. The translations are difficult from the Hungarian and there are multiple translations. His powers are attached to Hungarian constitutional protection for the right of Hungarian citizens to a healthy environment, but there's no reason why we have to see that institution as being inherently connected to a written constitution or protection for that kind of right. I have some additional written evidence I'd be very happy to submit to the Committee if that would be useful.

  Chair: We would be very pleased to receive that.

Halina Ward: It's rather detailed and I'm anxious about putting it on the record here and missing the detail.

So, the second I wanted to mention was New Zealand's Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Again, that person, who is appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the House of Representatives, partly responds to requests from Parliament to provide independent advice for Parliament and partly has a right on his or her own initiative to scrutinise certain activities of public agencies. Again, I'd be very happy to provide you with a more detailed role on that. Canada has such a role—the Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development. The Israeli Knesset still has relevant legislation and from 2001 to 2006 had a Commission for Future Generations. The Finnish Parliament has a cross­party Parliamentary Committee for the Future. So, these are all mechanisms, creatures of Parliament, which help to equip Parliament, the driver of our democracy at a national level, to play a fuller, better informed and more scrutinising, if you like, role on sustainable development. I think those are important areas to look at more closely and we'll certainly be doing so in the run­up to Rio plus 20 as well.

Carol Day: I just wanted to add in to the point about the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner that one of the things that really appealed to both Halina and I was the forward­looking role that the Commissioner can play. Just an example of that, when we were looking at the Marine and Coastal Access Act that was going through in 2009, lots of NGOs were lobbying very hard for the Marine Management Organisation to have a much stronger role in relation to sustainable development. We were pressing for something like, "Promoting or furthering sustainable development". We weren't successful in that and we ended up with, "Contributing to the achievement of sustainable development", which is on a par with most of the other duties on similar bodies but we were hoping to get something much stronger. Now, as NGOs, I think it can be quite difficult, but as a Parliamentary Commissioner who is mandated to perform that function, I think he or she might possibly have been more successful in getting those strategic forward­looking commitments into draft legislation.

  Chair: Sorry, have you not finished on that?

Q162  Martin Caton: No, I have finished on that bit but there is another aspect of the international stage. The Government have decided to withdraw funding from the SDC and to abolish the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Will that be picked up in the international community and, if so, what message are we sending?

Halina Ward: I think it will be noticed. The institutional framework for sustainable development is one of the key issues for consideration in the run-up to Rio plus 20 and at Rio plus 20, which is a global reaffirmation of nations' commitments to sustainable development. That focus on the institutional framework for sustainable development includes the national and the local dimensions as well as the international, and I think perhaps the role of the UK then becomes in a sense convincing that it's possible to do more with less in the current environment. I think it will be noticed and I think that the UK possibly has to go with some humility into that process and say, "We do want to be the greenest Government ever". That is the policy commitment". (I'd like to see this Government saying, "We want to be the fairest ever" as well" because that's the flipside of sustainable development), — "and here's how we reconfigured our institutions" and with some humility be prepared to learn from other countries who have not necessarily rolled back on existing institutions and are equally thinking about how to get more sustainable development from less public sector financial resources, if you like. It will be picked up on, though, I think.

Carol Day: Can I raise a note of concern in terms of not only where we are now but we are very concerned that it's going to get worse with something like the Public Bodies Reform Bill? Teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, you all know how controversial this is, but you've got something like 177 public bodies potentially affected. Now, quite a large number of those are bodies which would have sustainable development as part of their functions—even if it's not their statutory duty. So, if we take the Forestry Commission, the Environment Agency, Natural England, JNCC, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the Marine Management Organisation, quite a few of them, particularly Natural England, can use their powers in lots of ways to promote or further sustainable development. But as far as I'm aware, Natural England is the only body that actually has that aim as part of its statutory purpose in terms of future generations. I think we'd be really worried if public bodies with such innovative functions were in danger of being either abolished, merged or modified by that Bill.

Dr Russel: If the UK doesn't maintain this leadership and continue to be a front-running state. The danger is that it's not just the UK that is on this earth, it requires action by other states. Now, if the UK is seen to be running backwards rather than going forwards, then that doesn't send a very positive message out to other nations and other states about embedding sustainable development into policymaking processes. So I think it would send a very dangerous signal and would probably weaken the UK's position within the negotiating parties and the discussions.

Q163  Peter Aldous: If we could just move on and look at the future scrutiny of the Government's sustainable development performance, just inviting your views as to how you think that scrutiny should be made more effective and where it should be directed.

Dr Russel: At the moment, there has been scrutiny of the UK sustainable development strategy and its embedding of sustainable development, including by this Committee, the Sustainable Development Commission, academics, the various bodies. However, to date it's been quite piecemeal, so just focusing on, for example, policy appraisal or green housekeeping within Government or focusing just on one specific issue such as climate change. And I think the scrutiny and evaluation mechanisms that exist need to actually take—especially in the lead-up to Rio plus 20—a broader perspective of how the UK has and hasn't been performing, particularly with regard to understanding why as a front­running state in terms of what's on paper, it hasn't actually translated to what was expected on the ground. I think that's where scrutiny has particularly failed. It's tended to focus on the bits and pieces rather than looking at the whole. You need to look at the bits and pieces, but you need to bring that up to the wider perspective.

Q164  Peter Aldous: So, what specifically would you be doing for it to become an overarching approach rather than the piecemeal approach we've had to date?

Dr Russel: I'd like to say I'd like this Committee to do an investigation. This is the start of the process, I would say. But the problem is with the Sustainable Development Commission losing its funding, then I don't know where the capacity for this type of thing lies; maybe the National Audit Office or someone like that who has the resources, has the expertise and can provide that broad overview.

Q165  Peter Aldous: So this Committee backed up with resources from, say, the National Audit Office?

Dr Russel: Yes, but you need those resources.

Dr Turnpenny: I think it is important that there is a cross-cutting independent body. There was talk before about DEFRA. Holding Government to account has to be done by a body which cuts across Government Departments, doesn't get bogged down in particular departmental politics, doesn't get particularly sidetracked by departmental issues, but it's also independent. It has a step away from Government but it also, crucially, is linked to democratic mechanisms. There needs to be this dual role for a link with a democratic institution and a link with expert advice, one step removed at least from Government.

One of the important things about the EAC, one of the important things about the Royal Commission, is that Government have to respond to it. Government have to listen and make some kind of response. The Secretary of State was talking about Government being held to account by the data they it produce. Well, there's a lot of data. There's so much data. How do we have a guiding hand through all the data that are being produced? For example, if somebody decides that they don't like the fact that their house is falling into the sea and they say, "I'm holding Government to account because of this", the Government don't have to respond to them. The Government have to respond to a body which has a specific function which is inbuilt within its constitution. So that's very important.

Dr Russel: Can I just add one more point to that? The responses also have to be meaningful and I don't know how you do that, but looking at the responses to this Committee in the past, some of the Government responses have been pretty glib, I would say, and dismissive without actually providing a robust account of why they made the decision the way they did and why they did things their way. They have often been quite dismissive and I don't think that's very constructive. I don't know how you get around this, but the responses need to be more meaningful, more detailed and more transparent than that.

Q166  Katy Clark: I just wanted to pick up this issue of resources because my understanding is that the Sustainable Development Commission has about 700 staff and access to all sorts of expertise. If you're talking about resources, what kind of resources are needed to fulfil those functions? It's been suggested to us that this Committee could fulfil that role, and obviously the people on this Committee have got a whole range of other responsibilities as well and, frankly, don't have that kind of expertise. How much money and resource is needed to fulfil these functions?

  Chair: I think it might just be helpful, just for the record, what we're talking about is 700 or so resources that the National Audit Office has as well as the resources which the Sustainable Development Commission have.

Halina Ward: Clearly, in the current environment for the immediate future, the role of the Environmental Audit Committee needs to be strengthened because that becomes a principal scrutiny mechanism. That means access to independent research resources. It means access to the kinds of resources that allow you to play a role in framing visions of sustainable development proactively rather than simply—not that you always do that—responding to what's already there on the table in terms of Government outputs. That is a role that the Sustainable Development Commission played with its group of independent experts. You could look to tool up the Environmental Audit Committee itself to have access to those research resources, or you could look to tool up the National Audit Office and make its resources available to the Environmental Audit Committee on request when the Audit Committee felt it needed additional resources or independent research inputs or analysis. There's a certain "ad hocery" to an extent about relying on voluntary written submissions in an evidence process, and I think there is a need to think more about how that could be strengthened. The Finnish Parliamentary Committee for the Future does commission research projects into, for example, the future of democracy. These are very valuable resources and they come out of a cross-party parliamentary committee. I'd like to see you doing more of that.

Q167  Katy Clark: I think the fear is that the resource is going to be considerably less and that this is a cut and that these functions aren't really going to be duplicated elsewhere. That's why I'm asking whether you think the level of resources that have been put in in the recent past are the appropriate level of resources.

Dr Turnpenny: Well, I think it's clear that there aren't going to be huge amounts of resources swimming around, but I think that within those constraints the Environmental Audit Committee can hit very hard with a small fist. My personal belief is that the Environmental Audit Committee's focus on the advocacy role for particular policy ideas and having a safe space for even the most radical of ideas to be proposed and discussed in an environment which is separate from Government is extremely important. Not only that, but it is important to act as a kind of policy entrepreneur to make windows of opportunity in order to grasp chances to bring evidence and ideas and feed it into the policy process when it might be the most receptive to these ideas.

We've heard about several different countries. The German Enquête Commissions is another good example. Every so often, the Bundestag sets up a commission that is made up half of parliamentarians and half of experts who are invited, and their role is to draw evidence together on a particular topic, a big topic, things like atomic energy, and they then report to Government. You've got the expertise; you've got the democratic legitimacy. The vote is not always unanimous, but then why should it be? These are big issues. There's always going to be disagreements; there's always going to be politics; there's always going to be an amount of debate. I think it's important that the debate is at least on the table, that it's open, that it's transparent.

Halina Ward: Just very briefly:, "was the level of resourcing appropriate?" I don't know the detail of the Sustainable Development Commission's budget, but in terms of raw cash numbers I would say yes, the resourcing on this issue, sustainable development, the integrated approach to environment, social development and economic development was entirely appropriate. We have lost something very significant, particularly if we aspire to mainstreaming sustainable development, in losing that independent scrutiny function from an arm's length body. I don't think, quite simply, that with the current level of resourcing we're going to get the same quality of scrutiny on an agenda that is, after all, deeply important to the future of us all and future generations. That's something to really deeply regret. So then we do need to think very creatively about how to get more from less and rejigging current functions or current responsibilities so that if nothing else we can give a much more significant nudge—that famous word—to ordinary citizens and NGOs that this is still something that's really important and this Government welcome outside scrutiny.

Q168  Peter Aldous: All four of you have spoken very passionately about what needs to be done here by Government. What role do you think there is for your three organisations in the future?

Carol Day: Well, we can continue to be a thorn in the Government's side, and we do that across a whole range of functions in terms of our lobbying work here and at international conventions. Yesterday I met with DEFRA and the Ministry of Justice on access to environmental justice, because they're putting up a very poor performance in terms of the implementation of the Aarhus Convention and social justice is one of the principles that we were talking about in terms of sustainable development. So I think NGOs play an absolutely crucial role in keeping the Government on their toes. But the point I was making before is that we can only go so far and really what we would like to see is a body which is not as vulnerable to Executive attack as we've seen. I think the EAC certainly can perform some of those functions but in terms of resources and where else those other functions might be taken forward, clearly that should be somewhere that needs to be independent and impartial. But in terms of NGOs, I think we will always be there to play a vital role in terms of lobbying and making sure that duties are enforced.

Q169  Peter Aldous: Just picking up on something Carol said and just thinking of the other three of you, the Secretary of State, who was with us last week, did say that DEFRA are now holding regular stakeholder events, and you've just alluded to one there. Have you been involved in those events?

Halina Ward: No. I did listen to the Secretary of State's evidence and it struck me that the language that she used was about convening meetings with civil society groups or NGOs to talk to them about decisions that had already been made. I do think that one of the tremendously valuable roles that NGOs and civil society can play is in bringing new ideas into the policy process. That really needs to be welcomed at a time when the capacity of the public sector and the Government to develop those ideas is restricted. So, please, open your doors and let us come and talk to you and float the new ideas and the innovative thinking that's at the cutting edge that might just, with your knowledge from inside Government, be transformed into something that is workable.

Q170  Chair: I think this is something that we want to pick up with you, really, because I noticed in your evidence, Halina, that you'd mentioned, I think, that you weren't aware of this inquiry taking place until the last minute. We have a website and, inside Parliament, we certainly want to be the Select Committee that deals with the environment in a cross-cutting way. So any suggestions as to how we could improve our information in order that people can engage with us would be helpful. Suggestions on that would be helpful.

  But I think the other issue is that what's coming out of all four of your separate contributions in terms of the evidence to our inquiry this afternoon is that given the decisions which the Government have made and the question marks that there are now about how there will be embedding of sustainable development in policy making by Government in the future, what's the role of Parliament and Select Committees in this? I think that in the past a Select Committee has had a very clear role and a very clear function, but we're aware, for example, that the European Scrutiny Committee looks at legislation, looks at directives or has an active role to play. I'm thinking that we need some kind of hybrid whereby we can exercise pre­legislative scrutiny, look at international negotiations and European directives that are coming into this Parliament, and we can look at Government policy in the light of their various pieces of legislation, which is going to get rid of some of the regulations that are there at the moment, for want of a better word. How can we look creatively and innovatively given the resources that we currently have, which are very few compared to what there is within the Sustainable Development Commission? How can we effectively provide that pressure or scrutiny or creativity in terms of where future environmental policy goes? We need to be looking at it in a different light using examples of best practice, so I think that any further thoughts that you've got on that, given what you've already said today, would be very helpful and we would receive it very gratefully.

Dr Turnpenny: There's a piece of research that I've just started doing on different mechanisms for embedding evidence within decision making, as I mentioned before. One of the parts of that is classifying bodies by different functions. So, for example, how far they are away from politics, what kind of policy function they have, how they handle multiple interests and value conflicts, how they interact with the outside world and, of course, different types of scrutiny advisory bodies are appropriate at different times for different situations. So, I think I could certainly contribute. I could send some of the work; I could keep you up to date on the work that I'm doing in that.

  Chair: I think that would be helpful in our recommendations.

Dr Turnpenny: Yes, it might help promote some kind of outside thinking about different models that might be appropriate.

  Chair: I am conscious of time but I know that we did just want to have a series of short questions on localism.

Q171  Dr Whitehead: In addition to what we've heard about the withdrawal of funding from SDC and the end of the RCEP, there also is, of course, the withdrawal of regional spatial strategies and a number of local indicators, but at the same time the Government have indicated that they wish to drive power downwards towards local authorities and for those local authorities to become more autonomous in their dealings. How, bearing those in mind, might we ensure that perhaps that move is a policy that causes local authorities in general to pursue better sustainable development arrangements rather than perhaps, not to put too fine a point on it, a charter for fractured NIMBYs at various local levels without actually pulling that data back to see what's happening?

  Chair: We are short for time, so one of you, please.

  Dr Whitehead: Sorry, that's an all-purpose question.

Halina Ward: It's really important that local authorities continue to value the expertise that they can add to local decision-making processes, even if those processes are very highly devolved to community groups. It's very important that local authorities continue to value the role that they can play in setting local policy frameworks against which actions are judged. And it's very important to ensure that local authorities have mechanisms for ensuring that trade­offs, where one community makes a decision at the expense of another, are properly managed as between local authorities. I see a real risk that localism could bring unsustainable development because one community's woodland amenity is another community's dark, spooky, unsafe place that needs to be razed to the ground and turned into a lovely park. That is happening and unless communities and local authorities stress the value of expertise and local policy frameworks in those highly decentralised localist decisions we're going to have real problems with localism, I think. We also like it from a sustainable development perspective because lots of decisions need properly to be made at the local level.


Q172  Dr Whitehead: But that's the dichotomy, isn't it? There could be much greater autonomy at local level but, as you say, the problem is the Sudan dam phenomenon breaking out where one authority's autonomy is actually undermining another local authority's action, for example.

Halina Ward: It has to continue within a local policy framework rather than being completely devolved so that the loudest community groups get what they want and other people get shut out.

Carol Day: Can I just very quickly add to that? I totally share your concerns. I used to work on planning for 10 years at local county wildlife trust level, and I think the danger is at the moment local authorities are going to be making decisions in an almost total policy vacuum because they don't have the detail they used to have in the planning policy guidance notes before them. I think that will lead to delays and sometimes bad decision making, more legal action and certainly people being very frightened and taking defensive decisions. So I think greater involvement in terms of public engagement in spatial planning but also in other things like identification of marine conservation zones, for example. We need people to be getting involved otherwise those decisions could be very bad.

Halina Ward: What we need is a mass investment in a sense of active citizenship, rather than simply doing good to our neighbours and volunteering at the local school or hospital. That does require an investment, and it requires an investment that local authorities can play a tremendously important role in as well.

Q173  Chair: Do you see evidence that that's happening at the moment?

Halina Ward: I don't yet. I hope it will and I hope that we can help to ensure that it does.

  Dr Russel: Very quickly, I think there's a real danger that sustainable development will belong to nobody, because the Government are not taking responsibility and the local authorities aren't being mandated to take responsibility. So, there's a danger it's going to fall between the gaps of responsibility. I think, crucially, even within the Government localism agenda, it's up to central Government to set the tone to steer what should be going on, while also allowing flexibility for localities to be able to operate within that agenda. So, it is a matter of setting goals and targets and allowing some kind of flexibility in terms of how they're met. Without that, I think ownership will be lost by everybody and we have a mess, basically.

Dr Turnpenny: It should be an intelligent devolution of power rather than a devolution of responsibility.

Halina Ward: And statutory duties on local authorities matter in that at the local level.

Chair: Thank you. With that, I think we've come to the end of the session this afternoon. It's been most helpful and I'm grateful to you all for coming along. Thank you very much indeed.

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