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


In July 2010, the Government announced that it would cease funding the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) at the end of the current financial year, and at the same time enhance Defra's capability and presence to improve the sustainability of Government.

Since 2000, the SDC has provided advice to Government on policy-making and has helped departments develop the skills and resources they need to make more sustainable decisions. Since 2005 the SDC has also had a watchdog role, reporting on the sustainability of government operations and policies. The disappearance of the SDC will leave a gap in the structures for embedding sustainable development across Government.

The Committee is concerned about the Government's decision to stop funding the SDC. However, it acknowledges that, despite the SDC's hard work, sustainable development has not been fully embedded into Government because the political will to do this has not been maintained. An opportunity now exists to reassess and revitalise the architecture for delivering sustainable development. This report accordingly looks forward, assessing how sustainable development can now be further embedded in Government policy decision-making and operations. It recognises the contribution that the SDC has made and calls on Government to maintain some of the work-streams of the SDC. To further embed sustainable development, Government must take a more effective lead.

The SDC's most recent review of departments' operational sustainability performance, for 2008-09, notes that Government is 'on track' to meet most targets. As for embedding sustainable development in policy-making, the SDC has said that Government has had mixed success. There is still more to do.

The SDC has worked within Government departments to improve their sustainability skills and performance, and departments have greatly appreciated this capacity-building support. The SDC has a wealth of experience in this area which is at risk of being lost, so the Government must ensure that this knowledge and expertise is absorbed by departments.

But there is only so much that the SDC, or Defra (which has policy responsibility for sustainable development), can do to ensure departments fully embrace sustainable development. Sustainable development needs to be driven from the centre of Government by a Minister and department with Whitehall-wide influence. They must be capable of holding all departments to account for their sustainable development performance, as well as being able to encourage real commitment. In the SDC's view, a lack of effective and consistent leadership from the highest level has held back progress.

Defra has the expertise to help departments become more sustainable, but it is not the best place from which to drive improved sustainable development performance across Government. After many years with the policy lead in this area, a different approach now needs to be considered, to provide greater political leadership for the sustainable development agenda and to ensure that the necessary actions are implemented. The Cabinet Office would provide a more central base for driving action in departments Whitehall-wide. It should take over the policy lead for delivering more sustainable Government and a Minister for sustainable development should be created, ideally in the Cabinet Office, to oversee that imperative. The Cabinet Office's capacity to undertake this leadership role should make use of existing Defra expertise on sustainable development, transferring the relevant teams if necessary.

The Treasury is in a position to support such central-Whitehall leadership by exerting real influence over other departments, including the possible use of sanctions against poor performers. It is imperative that they are signed up to this agenda. The Treasury could use its position to continue to develop 'sustainability reporting' by departments, strengthen the system of impact assessments and the 'Green Book' investment appraisal methodology for policy-making, and embed the results of the Government Economic Service review of the economics of sustainability and environmental valuation into those impact assessments and appraisals.

Greater political leadership from the top should be brought to bear, and the Government should consider how it could add new impetus to the sustainable development agenda. A new Cabinet Committee with terms of reference addressing sustainable development should be established to oversee departmental performance and encourage more sustainable decision making. This would include ministers from all departments, the new minister for sustainable development and the Prime Minister, encapsulating this high level commitment.

The Government is reviewing the system of indicators and targets for monitoring progress by departments on the sustainability of their operations and procurement practices. This provides an opportunity, which the Government should grasp, to deliver the improvements in the coverage of the indicators framework called for by the SDC, and to make the streamlining improvements sought by individual departments. The Government must introduce a full set of indicators to measure sustainable development that can be used to develop policy. The Prime Minister's initiative to explore how a measure for well-being might be generated is helpful, but this must be done in a way which takes account of sustainable development principles while providing a practically useful tool for policy evaluation and decision making.

While the Government currently plans for Defra to take the lead in helping departments to apply sustainable development principles, it has no plans to take on the SDC's watchdog role. The Government appears to wish to leave this to this Committee. It is not for the Government, however, to determine how Parliament might exercise its role of holding Government to account. We are not currently resourced to carry out the routine scrutiny work of the SDC and continue our separate role in scrutinising the Government's sustainability performance. We will continue to play a role in the scrutiny of the Government's sustainability performance, however, and we have identified areas of scrutiny work that we will undertake, including monitoring the operation of the Government's new post-SDC sustainable development architecture. We will work with outside organisations to make sure emerging concerns about sustainability have a suitable forum.

The Government has a wider oversight agenda, assisting scrutiny through greater transparency of its activities. As with other areas of Government activity, it aims to make data on its sustainable development performance more accessible to the public. In the gap left by the SDC, the Government expects that the public, academics, NGOs and community groups will use this data to hold it to account. That will be no substitute for the SDC, but the Government must make every effort to engage with this audience to assist such groups in scrutinising its work.

Cutting the SDC's funding, and bringing into Government the responsibility for monitoring and encouraging sustainable development, now necessitates that the Government provide a new strategic underpinning for its commitment to sustainable development as an overarching goal of Government policy-making. The 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy requires an urgent update to revitalise Government engagement on sustainable development, making it relevant for example for the Coalition Government's localism agenda.

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Prepared 10 January 2011