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

2 Changing the sustainability architecture

9. There are a number of public bodies involved in developing sustainable development in policy-making and in monitoring the sustainability of Government operations:

  • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for developing Government policy on sustainable development across the UK (the devolved administrations also have their own strategies).
  • The Chief Sustainability Officer and the Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement (CESP), both in the Office of Government Commerce in the Cabinet Office, collate data from departments on performance against targets for sustainable operations and sustainable procurement.
  • The Sustainable Development Commission acts as an independent watchdog and advisor, scrutinising the UK Government's progress on implementing the Sustainable Development Strategy. Using the data on sustainable management of the Government estate, collected by CESP, the SDC also advises Government and reports each year on the sustainability of the Government's operations. The SDC describe their work under four headings:
    1. Advocacy—raising awareness of the concept of sustainable development and responding to Government policy initiatives.
    2. Capacity building—establishing good working relationships with and between key parts of Government, and developing skills in departments.
    3. Policy and advice—drawing on expert opinion to provide evidence-based advice to Government.

iv.  Watchdog—monitoring performance against targets and reporting on these.

10. These bodies oversee the following key processes:

  • The 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy required each Government department and its executive agencies to prepare Sustainable Development Action Plans (SDAPs). These Plans were to set out how each department would implement the commitments in the Strategy and how they would contribute to sustainable development more broadly. The SDC assist departments in preparing SDAPs. Departments and executive agencies are required to produce annual reports to demonstrate the progress they have made against their Plans.
  • Operational and procurement targets are provided for departments under the Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate (SOGE) assessment framework, now retitled the Sustainable Development in Government framework.[7] These include indicators on emissions, energy efficiency, recycling and water usage. The targets currently cover the operations of the central Government estate, but their scope is expected to be extended (paragraph 51). The Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement (CESP) collects information on performance against the targets, and the SDC prepares annual reports on departments' progress.
  • Departments evaluate policy proposals through impact assessments and follow the Treasury's guidance on investment appraisal, both of which should address sustainable development issues (paragraph 44).

SDC cuts and risks

11. On 22 July 2010, Rt Hon. Caroline Spelman MP, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, announced that the Government would cease funding the SDC at the end of this financial year. She also gave a commitment to greater Defra and Department of Energy and Climate Change leadership on sustainable development:

I am not willing simply to delegate this responsibility to an external body. I have accordingly decided that I will withdraw Defra funding from the Sustainable Development Commission at the end of the current financial year, and instead take a personal lead, with an enhanced departmental capability and presence.[8]

12. The Prime Minister has committed to make this government 'the greenest ever',[9] to 'govern for the long-term' by creating a 'fairer future'[10] and to promote a 'power shift' by redistributing power away from central government to communities and people.[11] These are admirable pro-sustainability ambitions, but in the absence of the SDC it is unclear how these goals will be implemented and monitored, or how responsibility for the necessary actions will be distributed between departments. The SDC provides a means of joining up policy thinking and promoting best practice across Government through its capacity-building programmes and sustainable development network events. In reviewing departments' SDAPs and annual Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate reports, the SDC also plays a primary role in monitoring and reporting on the greening of Government operations.

13. The rationale for effectively dispensing with the SDC appears to be to reduce and reallocate expenditure, and to change the leadership of sustainable development. The Secretary of State told us that the funding cut for the SDC was based on a decision to remove arms length scrutiny and take more control of the sustainability agenda. The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee that the decision was made to reserve funding for other projects:

In terms of the Sustainable Development Commission, what we have tried to do, in a difficult spending round, is to put money into things that will make a difference—like the green deal, like carbon capture and storage, and like a green investment bank, which will have real money to spend—rather than have quite so much monitoring and evaluation.[12]

Defra note in their responses to the UN's questionnaires for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2012 ('Rio +20') that:

Current financial restraints have impacted on the support central government is able to contribute to the UK SDC. The UK is currently working to see how we can continue to ensure SD remains at the heart of Government.[13]

14. Whatever the overriding impetus to end the SDC's funding, there are risks attached to the decision:

  • The financial consequences: the balance between cost reductions (from no longer funding the SDC) and savings forgone (from departments' improved performance as a result of the SDC's support). The SDC budget for 2010-11 is £4.5million, funded by contributions from Defra, the Devolved Administrations and a range of other departments. The Sustainable Development Commission has calculated that it has helped Government save money by teaching departments how to operate more sustainably and how to deliver more sustainable policy. Andrew Lee, the SDC chief executive, told us that the value of the benefits from better management of carbon, energy, travel, waste and water in 2008-09 can be estimated at between £62.3 million and £66.1 million, although these savings do not take account of the expenditure required to deliver them and it is impossible to assign the savings solely to SDC activities.[14]
  • During a period of real-term contraction in Government expenditure, with budgets in most departments being reduced in the current year onwards, departments might understandably focus on the short term rather than policy solutions optimised for the longer term horizon of sustainable development. The linkages between sustainability and procurement savings were not identified in Sir Philip Green's review of cost savings for Government, despite both areas falling within the Cabinet Office's remit (the Efficiency and Reform Group within the Cabinet Office oversaw the Green Review, and CESP, also within the Cabinet Office, advises on sustainable procurement).[15]
  • A greater focus by the Government on empowering local communities, and putting greater responsibility on local authorities for tasks which impinge particularly on sustainable development. This is evident in the Government's responses to our predecessor Committee's reports on air quality[16] and adapting to climate change.[17] The Decentralisation and Localism Bill will reform the planning system to give local people new powers to shape development in their communities.[18] And the Public Health white paper envisages local authorities' directors of public health taking the lead on driving health improvement locally, using ring-fenced health improvement budgets to improve health and well-being in their communities.[19] At the same time, the abolition of the Audit Commission before 2012-13, whatever its implications for the efficiency and burden of audits for local authorities, may make it harder for central government—and Parliament —to assess the extent of sustainable development across the wider public sector.

In the SDC's absence the Government will need to provide the strategy, leadership and resources required to improve progress on sustainable development in all areas of government. The Government produced a sustainable development 'Action Plan' in November 2010, which set out how it would make its operations and procurement more sustainable. [20] The Government must now set out a clear architecture for sustainable development, which describes how these goals will be implemented and monitored, and how responsibility for the necessary actions will be distributed between departments. We consider the need for a new Sustainable Development Strategy in Part 4. Over the life of this Parliament we will monitor the consequences of the Government's decision to cut funding for the SDC and monitor Government performance in maintaining progress towards sustainable operations and procurement and embedding sustainability into wider decision making.

Impact on the devolved administrations

15. The SDC performs a similar scrutiny and advisory role for the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. The devolved administrations are part-owners of the company which is the SDC. As a result, the Defra cuts in funding for the SDC will impact on the devolved administrations.[21] Without Defra's support, the remaining funding for the SDC provided by the administrations will not be enough to maintain a viable SDC on a smaller scale.[22]

16. No assessment of the impacts on these part-owner administrations was made before Defra's initial decision to remove its funding. The Secretary of State and her officials explained that there were discussions with the administrations before a 'final' decision was taken, and that at that time the devolved administrations did not "raise a major objection" with the decision.[23] We raised this with the devolved administrations. The Scottish Government told us that they would have preferred that Defra had not withdrawn funding from the SDC.[24] The Welsh Assembly Government announced 'disappointment' with the Secretary of State's decision.[25] The Northern Ireland Executive wrote, stating:

We are disappointed with Defra's decision to withdraw funding from the SDC. Progression and achievement of sustainable development does by its very nature, both in principle and in practice, require unilateral understanding and co-operation across and between Governments.[26]

We are unhappy with the way that the Government has consulted with the devolved administrations on the impacts to this shared body. We recognise that sustainable development is a devolved matter and that as a consequence the UK Government is entitled to develop and deliver policy independently. However, decisions which impinge on a shared strategy should not be undertaken lightly or unilaterally.

7   The previous Government committed to revise the Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate framework in March 2010 and renamed it the Sustainable Development in Government (SDiG) framework. Back

8   HC Deb, 22 July 2010, col 32WS Back

9   www.number10.gov.uk/news/speeches-and-transcripts/2010/05/pms-speech-at-decc-50113  Back

10   www.number10.gov.uk/news/latest-news/2010/09/government-committed-to-the-long-term-deputy-pm-54956  Back

11   www.number10.gov.uk/news/speeches-and-transcripts/2010/11/pms-speech-on-business-plans-56725  Back

12   Oral evidence taken before the Liaison Committee on 18 November 2010, HC 608-i, Q 77 Back

13   Not published Back

14   Ev 82 Back

15   Efficiency Review by Sir Philip Green, Key Findings and Recommendations: download.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/efficiency/sirphilipgreenreview.pdf  Back

16   Government response to the Environmental Audit Committee's Third Report of Session 2009-10, Cm 7966, November 2010 Back

17   Government response to the Environmental Audit Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2009-10, Cm 7933, August 2010  Back

18   CLG, Decentralisation and the Localism Bill: an essential guide, December 2010 Back

19   Department of Health, Equality and excellence: Liberating the NHS, Cm 7881, July 2010; Department of Health, Healthy lives, healthy people, November 2010 Back

20   Defra, An Action Plan for driving sustainable operations and procurement across government , November 2010 Back

21   Ev w79 Back

22   Ev w79 Back

23   Oral evidence taken before the Environmental Audit Committee on 10 November 2010, HC 576, Q 7 Back

24   Ev w79 Back

25   Welsh Assembly Government, Written Statement on sustainable development scheme, 22 July 2010  Back

26   Ev w79 Back

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