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

Written evidence submitted by Waterwise


  1. Waterwise recognises the driver of reducing the deficit, but regrets the withdrawal of funding from the SDC, whose annual budget is far outstripped by the savings it identifies for Whitehall through sustainability measures.
  2. It will be essential to retain at least some of the SDC's functions.
  3. Some can be fulfilled within government, but measures will need to be put in place to seek to ensure they are effective.
  4. Some functions can be fulfilled at best value through the third sector.
  5. Measures need to be taken to fulfill the specific potential of water efficiency in the sustainability of the government estate.



1.  Waterwise recognises that "reducing the deficit is the priority for the Government and all departments are playing their part in making efficiency savings", as reiterated by the Secretary of State in the statement she made withdrawing funding from the Sustainable Development Commission on 22 July.

2.  However, Waterwise regrets the withdrawal of funding from the SDC, which fulfills a vital "watchdog" role, identifying and monitoring sustainability actions in government which are essential both if the Coalition Government is to fulfill its commitment to be the "greenest government ever", and to help cut the deficit. The SDC has also in the past performed a role of cross-governmental "banging heads together", where Departments have become entrenched in their views (which can happen in any government), and it is to the previous government's credit that, having set up the SDC to do exactly this, it did respond to at least some of the SDC's entreaties on issues such as transport and energy.

3.  As other commentators have pointed out, the SDC's annual budget of £3m is far outstripped by the savings it identifies for Whitehall through sustainability measures. In its most recent annual report on government progress in meeting its SOGE (Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate) targets (between 2006 and 2009), the SDC calculates that government saved £25.5 million in water bills through water efficiency measures between 2006 and 2009, including £13 million in 2008-2009. It also suggests that a £3 million SALIX (spend-to-save) fund for the public sector would yield 20% cuts in water savings and payback within one year, and that a further 10% reduction in water use would yield a further annual £5 million in savings. Many savings would be enjoyed year-on-year and so the earlier they can be achieved, the earlier savings can start to be made. The document also shows that MOD is by far the biggest water user in government - accounting for 67% of consumption - where financial savings from water efficiency could free up large amounts for frontline spending.

Specific functions

4.  With the SDC abolished, Waterwise agrees with the Coalition Government that it will be essential to retain at least some of its functions. Some could be fulfilled within government, but measures will need to be put in place to seek to ensure these are effective, and even then the removal of the public, arms'-length tier will lessen the impact. Waterwise believes that some of the Sustainable Development Commission's functions will need to be continued to be carried out independently of government, in a watchdog/advisory role, potentially through the third sector, at best value, and funded through a levy on government departments which would be more than balanced by resulting savings.

5.  Below, Waterwise discusses the SDC's four main work areas:

  1. "Promoting awareness of the concept of sustainable development".
  2. "Establishing good working practices within Government".
  3. "Advising key Ministers and others across Government".

6.  These three functions are supported by policy knowledge and technical and expert advice, and could in theory be carried out in government. In practice it is likely that even Defra and DECC will revert to their own departmental policy priorities rather than driving cross-government estate management. Furthermore, it is difficult to envisage departments across Whitehall jumping to deliver on a sustainability agenda pushed by Defra and DECC if this doesn't have public scrutiny, and at a time when staff and programme funding is being substantially cut, and work considered non-essential ceasing to reach a department's top priorities, if it still has staff and finance attached to it at all. The loss of the role of public scrutiny in this process, as well as its move away from its sitting above and beyond both departmental and immediate policy priorities, will be very likely to lessen its impact. Even existing high-level commitment from Permanent Secretaries in the form of personal objectives, combined with the auditing role of the SDC, does not currently lead to best-in-field behaviour in terms of sustainability on the government estate. The loss of both of these in the current financial climate is likely to have the multiple impact of threatening the sustainability of government, its ability to cut its running costs and its ability to set an example and drive markets in procurement and goods.

  1. "Monitoring performance against sustainable development targets and reporting on these".

7.  These functions are the ones which most clearly (more than) pay for themselves over time, through delivery. If this is one of the drivers for the Coalition Government's decision to abandon the SDC, as stated, then it is particularly important to maintain this function. The increased value and impact of arms'-length identification of potential measures and savings and then monitoring of their implementation and impact has been proven time and again across the economy - and this broad model is indeed the basis of the structure of the regulatory framework for privatised utilities. These functions could be delivered at arms' length from government through the third sector, funded at best value through a levy on government departments which would be more than balanced by resulting savings. An NGO body or bodies could identify potential measures and monitor progress on specific areas such as water efficiency, energy efficiency, transport and waste, and how these all help to deliver carbon targets (as well as adaptation goals, in the case of water efficiency). It will be important for high-level commitment to targets and delivery to be maintained, and the delivery NGO(s) could sit on a committee which held Permanent Secretaries to account for their own delivery. The aim should be procurement, ongoing estate management and staff behaviour which is best-in-class, including through mandatory, regularly updated procurement rules. Procurement should be carried out cross-government rather than devolved to departments, and this could be supported by the above committee, with individual departments reporting on ongoing performance in terms of, for example, water and energy savings and bills. At the very least, government departments should continue to report annually, but this should be supported by real-time reporting online of sustainability attainment on the government estate. Sustainability reporting in terms of financial savings, environmental (including quantified savings) and social benefits should be mandated in departmental accounts.


8.  Water efficiency - wasting less water - is an essential part of both adapting to and tackling climate change, ensuring less water goes further and cutting carbon emissions from heating, treating and pumping water and wastewater.

9.  To date, programmes and policies undertaken by both the Coalition Government and the previous administration to tackle climate change, adapt to it, and develop the low-carbon and green economies are energy-heavy and do not reflect or include the important role of water efficiency.

10.  Water efficiency can play an important role in the Coalition Government's deficit reduction this year and beyond - it can actively reduce running and procurement costs for central government and public sector bodies, on both water and energy, freeing up costs for frontline spending for example in the National Health Service and the Ministry of Defence. Simple measures can cut running costs by up to 20%, and water efficient procurement does not increase capital costs.

11.  Water efficiency can also help central government meet its 10% carbon reduction target within 12 months - reducing wasted hot water in showers, taps, dishwashers and washing machines. Most public sector buildings in the UK are metered for water. This means that if they waste less water - through "domestic" processes such as taps, toilets, urinals and showers, and dishwashers and washing machines, as well as in industrial processes such as cleaning and cooling, they will see immediate reductions in their water bills. For example, many workplaces still have urinals which flush constantly, but there are now UK-manufactured products which flush only when a sensor is triggered, or less frequently, or not at all. Wasting less hot water in workplaces would also cut energy bills.

12.  The top 40 water-consuming hospitals in England consume about 20 megalitres a day which is equivalent to the water used by about 50,000 homes. Water savings of 15-25% could be achieved through retrofitting water-efficient equipment and working with staff and patients to change behaviour. These savings could supply enough water for 12,500 families in areas such as the South East and East of England which are under pressure from increasing population and climate change.

13.  Water efficiency strategies and targets based on actual measures and water (and carbon) savings should be included in departmental adaptation plans, which tend currently to focus on flood risk management. Water efficiency should be included in carbon budgets. Public sector procurement should mandate the most water-efficient products currently available on the market, and be regularly updated.

12 October 2010

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