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

1 Introduction

1. The last Government's strategy on sustainable development, Securing the Future, was published in 2005. It recognised that the current model of development is unsustainable and that our way of life is placing an increasing burden on the planet. It described the consequences of this, including unavoidable climate change, increasing stress on natural resources, increasing loss of biodiversity and a world 'disfigured by poverty and inequality'.[1] Securing the Future set out a strategic framework for sustainable development, agreed by the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations covering the whole of the UK. It set out four priorities: achieving sustainable levels of consumption and production, delivering sustainable energy and tackling climate change, protecting natural resources and enhancing the environment, and creating sustainable communities.

2. As a model for governing, sustainable development aims to provide a long-term approach to improving quality of life by tackling economic, environmental and social issues, whilst avoiding over-consumption of natural resources and preventing decisions that will disadvantage future generations. Embedding sustainable development across Government means providing decision-makers with the skills and resources to consider fully the consequences of programmes and policies on the environment, the economy and wider society, now and in the future.

3. Over many years, compared with many other countries, the UK has been innovative in designing mechanisms for integrating sustainable development. An Environment Cabinet Committee was set up in 1990, following the 1990 Environment White Paper,[2] and the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) was established in 2000. 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 been the watchdog reporting on the sustainability of government operations and policies.[3]

4. The Environmental Audit Committee has played its part in this sustainable development architecture. The Committee was established in 1997 to consider the extent to which the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development, and to audit their performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets. Since then, successive Committees have examined sustainable development, including regular examinations of the performance of government departments against 'Greening Government' targets. The Committee's work, reflecting its remit, has covered the activities and programmes of several departments, reflecting the cross-cutting nature of sustainable development. Its work has been supported by the SDC, which also has a Government-wide role, and by the National Audit Office.

5. In July 2010, the Government announced that it will cease funding the SDC at the end of this financial year (and although the devolved administrations also part-fund the SDC, it is unlikely to exist beyond 2010-11). As an important advocate and capacity-builder for sustainable development in Government, and as a key part in the system for monitoring Government performance, the disappearance of the SDC will leave a gap in the structures for embedding sustainable development across Government.

6. The decision to cease SDC funding has disappointed many with a close interest in seeing continued progress on sustainable development. Friends of the Earth, the Town and Country Planning Association, the Public and Commercial Services union, and many others have all expressed concern and note the valuable contribution of the SDC.[4] We too have concerns about that decision. It provides an opportunity, however, to reassess the architecture for delivering sustainable development. This is a chance to revitalise the sustainable development concept and to provide the leadership and tools needed to embed sustainable development deeper in all areas of government, and in particular deliver more sustainable policy making. Our inquiry has sought, therefore, to focus not on the wisdom or otherwise of the decision about the SDC's future, but to look forward to assess how sustainable development can now be further embedded in Government policy decision-making and operations.

7. We had a private briefing from the SDC, after which we decided to launch our inquiry. We also had a private briefing from the National Audit Office on sustainable development, and they produced a briefing paper on the subject for us.[5] We took oral evidence from the SDC, Department of Health, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement, the New Economics Foundation, GLOBE, WWF-UK, the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, Dr Duncan Russel from Exeter University and Dr John Turnpenny from the University of East Anglia. We also explored the issues with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in an introductory session with her.[6] We are grateful to them, and to all those who submitted written evidence.

8. This report sets out our findings in three parts:

  • Changing the sustainability architecture: Part 2 describes the implications of the Government's decision to cut SDC funding.
  • Making government sustainable: Part 3 examines how the work of the SDC can be built on and how the gaps left by the SDC can best be filled. It considers potential new governance arrangements and examines processes, tools and mechanisms that might be adapted to give a higher profile to sustainable development issues.
  • A new sustainable development strategy: Part 4 considers the need for a new overarching strategy for establishing sustainable decision-making and what this might look like.

1   Defra, Securing the future, Cm 6467, 2005  Back

2   Department of Environment, This Common Inheritance, Cm 1200, 1990 Back

3   Defra, Securing the future, Cm 6467, 2005  Back

4   Ev w12, Ev w14, Ev w25 [Note: references to 'Ev wXX' are references to written evidence published in the volume of additional written evidence published on the Committee's website] Back

5   NAO, Sustainable Development, July 2010: www.nao.org.uk/publications/1011/sustainable_development.aspx  Back

6   Oral evidence taken before the Environmental Audit Committee on 10 November 2010, HC 576 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 10 January 2011