Written Evidence submitted by the Office
of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Northern Ireland
Thank you for your letter of 14 October regarding
the above, and the opportunity to contribute to the associated
deliberations. We would like to begin by registering our disappointment
at Defra's announcement on 22 July of its decision to withdraw
funding from the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC).
To date, we have found the work of the SDC to be
of significant value to us in our efforts to progress and embed
the sustainability agenda in, and beyond, Government. We therefore
welcome your inquiry at this time.
Please find attached our response to each of the
specific questions presented by the Environmental Audit Committee
in the attached Annex.
Question 1: "Does the Northern Ireland
Executive intend to continue funding and working with the Sustainable
The Secretary of State's announcement on 22 July
to withdraw funding did, in our opinion present the devolved administrations
with a fait a complis in terms of continuation of funding.
The proportionality of sponsorship funding provided
the Executive with low cost and effective access to national (and
indirectly, international) expertise on sustainable development.
There was, in reality a "multiplier effect" in terms
of central and devolved benefits, given that the SDC was engaged
in many policy and operational activities which could inform and
advise some, or all, of the contributing administrations via
a strong organisational and intellectual network.
The decision by the largest sponsor i.e. Defra,
to withdraw funding effectively destroys any economies of scale,
and renders the "multiplier effect" ineffective. It
is, therefore, in our opinion, neither sensible nor cost-effective
for us to continue funding (at presumably much higher levels than
currently provided) for a diminished service.
We do not envisage that it will be possible for the
Executive to continue working with the SDC given the Defra decision.
Question 2: "What impact would the UK
Government funding cuts have on your work with the Sustainable
The funding cuts will have a significantly detrimental
effect on our work with the SDC. As stated in answer to Question
1, we do not believe that it is now possible to continue working
with the SDC. To do so, it would be necessary to approve far higher
levels of spending against this resource, while setting this against
a backdrop of diminished service provision and the broader Comprehensive
Spending Review constraints we are facing. From an operational
perspective, the SDC has been instrumental in assisting the production
of our new Sustainable Development Strategy, which was published
in May of this year, and the development of the accompanying Implementation
Plan which identifies priorities and objectives for delivery.
Importantly, there was a commitment on behalf of the SDC to work
closely with this department to help deliver many of the strategic
targets included within the Implementation Plan.
Clearly, this is now no longer possible. We are in
the process of determining the most effective course of action
to assure continuing progress against, and achievement of, these
Separately, we have through our Statutory Duty in
relation to sustainable development, a duty to ensure public authorities
have due regard to sustainable development in the exercising of
their duties. The SDC has been useful to us in this regard, and
its abolition will make this work more challenging for this department
to exercise that Duty effectively.
Question 3: "How does the Northern Ireland
Executive expect to relate to the sustainable development architecture
that might be reconfigured after next March? Does it intend to
work with the other devolved administrations, and if so how?"
It is likely that the Executive will, like all other
devolved administrations, become part of a more detached and disparate
sustainable development architecture as a consequence of Defra's
decision. It is, we believe, reasonable to anticipate that the
loss of a central and specific repository or information and expertise
will lead to increased difficulties in terms of developing and
formulating cohesive approaches to sustainable development issues.
We recognise, absolutely, the importance of information sharing
and co-operation at national level if we are to progress the sustainability
agenda and deliver long-term change.
Officials from across all administrations are currently
involved in the SDC Transition Project, at which succession planning
for a post-SDC environment has been discussed. Although we have
yet to finalise our own precise organisational structures, there
is a tacit understanding of the need for continued co-operation
and information sharing between Governments and departments of
Government. The means by which this may most effectively be achieved
has yet to be clarified, but we would be happy to facilitate these
discussions in order to reach agreement on how to do so.
Question 4: "Does the UK Government's
withdrawal of funding from the Sustainable Development Commission
put at risk a consistent approach to sustainable development across
the UK? If so, how?"
Yes. The withdrawal of funding weakens the governmental
policy development and communications infrastructure within which
the SDC played a central role. While expertise may still exist
in areas of Government, the abolition of the SDC will cause, in
our opinion, fragmentation of knowledge and an erasing of a "corporate
memory" that has been accumulated over many years.
Many of the key issues concerning sustainable development
are, by nature, long term; the existence of the SDC offered stability
in this respect and provided a continuity of comment and assessment
that was valuable in helping to shape and reform sustainability
policies and strategies. It will be, we believe, more difficult
to maintain this stability if, by necessity, work previously undertaken
by the SDC is absorbed into the more generalist environments of
some government departments.
Again, the challenge of retaining and utilizing as
much as possible of the corporate memory bank is one that we are
facing up to as we attempt to create a, credible, alternative
mechanism for the delivery of our sustainability priorities and
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. The abolition of the SDC, does in our
opinion, undermine the capability of the devolved administrations
to most effectively reap the benefits of the unilateralism associated
with the SDC and its functions.
We believe that the withdrawal of funding by the
major sponsor i.e. Defra, has created a situation in which
the continued function of the SDC (as an organisation operating
only outside England) has been so severely diminished that it
has become untenable for this department to continue to support
its activities here.
11 November 2010