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 Sustainability East

Sustainability East is an independent sustainable development champion body established 12 years ago, serving primarily the East of England (the geographic counties of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk). It has provided central government, regional bodies and local authorities and businesses with informed studies on issues such as climate change, water resources, renewable energy potential and strategic coastal initiatives. Its members are independent, but come from a range of public, private and voluntary sector backgrounds and variously possess economic, environmental and social expertise.


(i).  If the government is to achieve its declared ambition to be "the greenest government ever", it will need expert advice, based on authoritative research, and a transparent and accountable method of measuring outcomes.

(ii).  Sustainable development - a better quality of life for everybody, now and in the future - is too important to be left to be achieved (or not) at local level. It requires strong national leadership at the highest level of government, informed by expert advice. Many measures needed - legislation and taxation - can be delivered only by central government and Parliament. There is also an important international dimension.

(iii).  Policy needs to be supported by good evidence, address inconsistencies and conflicts between objectives, and be coherent across all sectors and issues. Policy-making cannot be left to "the Big Society" - it requires political leadership, coupled with an understanding of the nation's environmental, social and economic capacity and constraints.

(iv).  Withdrawal of funding from the SDC is premature, and a false economy: alongside the planned closure of Defra's Sustainable Development Unit, it sends a message that the government is not serious about sustainable development.

(v)   Without a robust, non-partisan mechanism for scrutinising and reporting on the government's and public bodies' performance against sustainability targets, future quality of life for the citizens of this country - and globally - risks being compromised.


1.  We welcome the decision of the Environmental Audit Committee to hold an inquiry "into how sustainable development can be further embedded in Government policy decision-making and operations, in the light of the Government's decision to withdraw funding for the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC)" in respect of its work in England. We are grateful for the opportunity to give evidence.

2.  The essential background to our concerns is that major changes are needed in the way we live, and in current social, economic and environmental policies, if we are to achieve sustainable development - a better quality of like for people now, without compromising the quality of life of future generations - in the UK and globally. Environmental problems - man-made climate change, loss of bio-diversity and depletion of natural resources - may be the clearest examples of the unsustainability of our present economy and way of life; but there are also major challenges in terms of, for example, access to services, social cohesion, inter-generational equity and health inequalities. Local action is important, but some of these issues can be addressed only at national and inter-governmental (EU and global) levels. So far as we are aware, the new Government remains committed to the broad outline of policy set out in "Securing the Future", the UK-wide strategy for sustainable development published in 2005.

3  We understand and do not oppose the Government's desire to save public expenditure and reduce the proliferation of non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs, or "quangos") by abolishing unnecessary bodies and functions and returning other responsibilities to Ministerial departments. We also recognise that arguably accountability is enhanced when Ministers have to answer directly to Parliament for their decisions. However, there is also a cost if - at a time of increasing public distrust of politics - advice is not seen to be impartial and independent of party and electoral pressures.

4  The Government will not be able to demonstrate "greenest government" credentials without an independent scrutiny mechanism - for transparency, accountability and credibility purposes. The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) was able to fulfil this remit, in that it had the freedom to identify gaps in knowledge and weaknesses in policy, and could speak out publicly if it thought fit. It gave praise where due, but was unafraid to challenge government when appropriate. Ceasing to fund its work in England suggests that the Government is nervous of challenge and accountability.

5.  The Government's focus on economic growth and the need to cut the public sector deficit is not inconsistent with good sustainable development practice, in terms of the need to use resources efficiently. There is great potential to grow the economy, pursuing a low carbon agenda, in ways that will enhance wellbeing, achieve social and environmental objectives, and enhance the UK's international competitiveness. But to do this, sustainable development has to be understood and embedded in all government policies and across departments. Short-term spending cuts could have a profound adverse effect if they do not consider the wider implications. For example, departments under pressure to cut their budgets may opt to procure products with higher embedded energy, or from countries with lower environmental and labour standards. We fear that Ministers do not yet fully understand this, without expert advice from a body such as the SDC.

6.  The SDC in its July 2010 report "Becoming the Greenest Government Ever?" acknowledged that significant resource efficiency improvements have been made, but also that these are the tip of the iceberg. Thus it is clear that many parts of government know how to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but measures so far have mainly focused on their own operations - utilities, travel etc - savings which should be relatively easy to achieve and demonstrate.

7.  Much harder will be to demonstrate the impact of policies to be delivered by others - but surely the Government does not intend to limit its green credentials to its internal operations? Policy decisions - for example on the location of new development, energy pricing and investment in retro-fitting energy-saving measures in existing buildings - have far more effect on the national aggregate greenhouse gas emissions. If the government is to create a reputation and legacy as the greenest government ever - and to convince the public it deserves such an accolade - there should be a recognised independent body to help it set ambitions and targets, and monitor and report on achievements. It would be a false economy to abolish the SDC altogether, without an independent scrutiny body in its place.

8.  Targets, backed by statistical evidence, are needed as a focus for action and aspiration. These should be drawn up with the help of independent advice to ensure that they are not chosen simply by reference to their achievability. Performance against targets needs to be independently monitored, to ensure accountability, and to assess what policies are working, or why targets are not being achieved, or are unachievable, or have undesirable side-effects.

9.  Besides reporting on performance against SD targets, the SDC has an important role in advising Ministers and others across government, and promoting good working practice. It could be seen as arrogant of the Government to assume that it knows all the answers to potential policy conflicts, and what works to achieve good sustainability practice, without impartial external advice.

10.  The inquiry remit cites the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as saying "we will …. put processes in place to join up activity across Government more effectively". This will not be easily achieved, and past experience of "joining up government" is discouraging. At regional level, the Government has in our view already taken a backward step by abolishing Regional Spatial Strategies, which took an evidence-based view of the economic, social and environmental needs of different areas of the country, and provided clear guidance and targets, underpinned by robust sustainability appraisals, and subject to independent public scrutiny.

11.  We agree that policies across government must be made more coherent. There are still significant policy conflicts which work against achieving sustainability and reducing inequalities. The East of England Integrated Sustainability Framework "Sustainable Futures" (2009) identified some crucial regional issues which are also pertinent at a national level:

  1. (a)  There needs to be a step-change in housing supply to give people the chance of a decent home and address constraints on economic growth. There are challenges in ensuring that new and expanded communities really are sustainable; appropriate jobs, cultural assets, social infrastructure and green spaces must also be created;
  2. (b)  There is a disjunction in policy between the need for major infrastructure improvements to cater for growing demand for travel as incomes rise, and the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport. At root, the challenge is to decouple economic growth from increasing demands to travel. This is particularly difficult in a region that has such a widely spread population.
  3. (c)  It is vital for the economy that we build on our substantial knowledge-based assets. Some of these could be lost if there is no continued funding for regional observatories or archives. Expensively acquired research must be publicly accessible, to support local and national decision-making.
  4. (d)  Our skills base and labour supply is relatively weak and there are shortages particularly in some low paid sectors, leading to concerns about sustainability, as people on middle and lower incomes find it harder to live in many parts of the country.
  5. (e)  Poverty, social exclusion and lack of access to services remain major issues. This is apparent in areas with relatively weak economies, but also in some more buoyant and affluent areas. This suggests major and continuing challenges in terms of improving everyone's quality of life.
  6. (f)  There are significant disparities in health and wellbeing, strongly correlated with measures of relative poverty. Life expectancy varies widely depending on area of residence and access to social, economic and environmental assets. People's environment has a profound effect on health and wellbeing, which in turn has implications for the economy. We need to change the culture of focusing on the treatment of illness rather than on preventative measures (see Fair Society, Healthy Lives (February 2010), the independent review into health inequalities in England chaired by Professor Sir Michael Marmot.
  7. (g)  The way we use resources is unsustainable. Energy, water, land, soil quality, biodiversity, and the fragmentation of habitats are of particular concern. The recent report "Making Space for Nature - a review of England's wildlife sites and ecological network", chaired by Professor Sir John Lawton, makes this point compellingly. There is also a need to respond creatively to the pressures and opportunities associated with climate change.

12.  These are all crucial issues which require strong policy measures if conflicts are to be resolved; they cannot satisfactorily be left to be dealt with at a local level, whether by local authorities or by "civil society". However, government does not currently employ an integrated approach to policy-making. An independent body, with a synoptic understanding of the issues, could advise on the strategic economic, social and environmental implications of new policies. This would help government resolve conflicts, and avoid unforeseen consequences including new disparities and inequalities. It would also lead to greater efficiency savings in the future, and to measures to help mitigate climate change - another stated (indeed statutory) ambition of government.

13.  The Government has indicated that it expects local authorities to become more autonomous and less subject to scrutiny except by their own citizens. With the abolition of indicators, how will local citizens know whether their LA is achieving resource efficiency and enhancing wellbeing? The withdrawal of Regional Spatial Strategies and local indicators may allow progressive authorities to develop innovative policies to respond to their areas' needs; but authorities who are resistant to change, or unresponsive to the needs of their citizens, could further stagnate, leading to greater disparity between areas. The Audit Commission is also to be abolished. Given the low level of participation in local elections, and the extent to which these are dominated by national political trends, what recourse will local people have if their authority is failing their needs? A scrutiny body with a sustainable development remit could take on an independent challenge role.

14.  The Government says it expects sustainability to be achieved by "bottom-up" actions from a newly empowered general public. But the empowerment, and the evidence that it can work, need to come first, before dismantling centralised mechanisms. Otherwise this could be seen as abdicating responsibility for putting - perhaps unpopular - policies in place. The Government still needs to demonstrate leadership, and to intervene, where necessary, via fiscal or regulatory measures.

15.  Local delivery requires effective participatory decision-making at local level. If, however, citizens are to be empowered to make sensible decisions and instigate positive local actions, education for sustainable development, in which the SDC currently has an important role, needs to continue and grow. There is a need for expert advice on how to instigate behavioural change in order to learn how to live within our social, economic and environmental limits and ultimately achieve a better quality of life for all.

16.  There is ample evidence that species are declining; habitats are degenerating; there is competition for land for housing, industry, food and energy. Policies need to acknowledge this, and adopt an approach that takes account of "eco-system services"[29] - that is, the way that human life and our standard of living are sustained by natural resources and the natural environment. Do we know what our environmental limits are? Have they been defined? What happens when they are breached? Expert advice is needed to know what approaches to make things better, and what not to do in order not to make things worse.

17.  Sir Nicholas Stern's comprehensive review "The Economics of Climate Change", published in 2006, concluded that we should continue to ignore climate change impacts at our economic peril. Among his recommendations were many that can only be achieved by government intervention, not left to local decision making:

  1. Reduce consumer demand for polluting goods and services.
  2. Make global energy supply more efficient.
  3. Act on non-energy emissions - for example by preventing further deforestation.
  4. Promote cleaner energy and transport technology, with non-fossil fuels accounting for 60% of energy output by 2050.

The then Government's response to the Stern Review included the intention not only to enshrine carbon reduction targets in statute - which has happened - but also to create a new independent body to monitor progress. If the SDC or a similar independent body was retained, it could take on a formal role to monitor carbon reduction targets.

18.  There might have been scope to make savings by merging the SDC with another body with an advisory and scrutiny function. However, the Audit Commission, with its related role of monitoring local authorities' effectiveness in using resources, is also scheduled for abolition; and no other national body has a remit that covers economic, environmental and social policy areas.

19  If the Government's intention was simply to reduce costs, it would have been possible to slim down the SDC, possibly reconstituting it as an expert advisory committee, without withdrawing funding altogether. No doubt Defra or another department (see below) could take on its operational work, e.g. in education for sustainable development; but the wholesale abolition of its role in England suggests a desire to reduce scrutiny and the risk of criticism.

20  If, therefore, as seems likely, the decision to withdraw funding from the SDC is irreversible, new accountability mechanisms are needed. Your Committee could perform this role at national level, with appropriate advice; but it will also be necessary to retain a framework of targets against which to monitor the Government's performance. At local level what is most important is to maintain a consistent reporting framework for local authorities, so their electors can compare their performance with that of neighbouring authorities.

21.  Within government, the Cabinet Office should have lead responsibility for sustainable development, to facilitate its embedding into policy across all departments. Placing the function in a single issue department (as now in Defra) reinforces the misconception that SD is solely an environmental issue, rather than, crucially, also an economic and social one.

22.  As Sustainability East, we look forward to continuing to work with local authorities, businesses, NDPBs, NGOs and other stakeholders across the East of England to promote sustainable development - which remains Government policy - and advise on the best ways of achieving it. We hope that similar champion bodies will survive in other parts of the country. There is no doubt, however, that the task will be much harder, not only in a climate of severe public spending restraint, and following the abolition of the regional organs of government (GOs and RDAs), but also without access to the expert advice provided by the SDC at national level.

26 October 2010

29   Sustainability East and partners in the East of England are undertaking groundbreaking research to test and refine the Ecosystem Services Approach as a sustainable development decision making tool at the local level. Back

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