Written evidence submitted by WWF-UK and
- 1. The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable
Development (FDSD) and WWF-UK (WWF) welcome the Environmental
Audit Committee's inquiry into how sustainable development can
be further embedded in Government policy decision-making and operations.
- 2. This is an important inquiry. And it is
also a timely one - particularly in the light of the Government's
decision to withdraw funding for the Sustainable Development Commission
(SDC) as of March 2011. Whilst we are naturally concerned about
the implications of the decision to effectively abolish the SDC,
we also recognise that this provides the government with an excellent
opportunity to ensure that the UK's approach to sustainable development
is addressed systematically, institutionally and democratically.
- 3. We want to see sustainable development
integrated into the heart of the UK's democracy, elevated to becoming
a central organizing principle of both national (central) and
local level government. That has not yet happened. For it to happen,
it will be important to place greater emphasis on the role of
Parliament as a central driver of democratic decision-making for
sustainable development. Independent watch-dogs, such as the SDC,
are valuable but vulnerable to attack by the Executive, rather
- 4. There is a range of governance options
for addressing the imperative to make sustainable development
an organising principle of government, building on the UK's continuing
international obligations in respect of sustainable development
as well as the nation's approach to sustainable development to
date. This could include constitutional, legislative and executive
- 5. The Coalition government has committed
to place two "animating purposes" at the heart of its
term: bringing about a radical redistribution of power from central
government to local communities and people; and governing for
the long-term (see DPM Nick Clegg's "Horizon Shift"
speech of 9 September).
Each could potentially reinforce a national commitment
to sustainable development. But the UK's current overall governance
architecture does not provide the right "enabling environment".
- 6. There is currently little to ensure that
sustainable development outcomes result from the power shift and
long-term thinking that the Coalition government wishes to promote.
We are convinced that institutional innovation is needed to secure
the right "enabling environment".
- 7. Unfortunately, our attention was drawn
to the existence of this inquiry only within the past day. Both
the Foundation and WWF would welcome the opportunity to submit
more detailed commentary or oral evidence to the Committee in
- 8. Our submission is focused on the first
part of the Inquiry's fourth question: "[i]n formulating
a future architecture for sustainable development in Government,
how can it take on board wider developments and initiatives?"
- 9. WWF-UK is one of the world's leading independent
environmental organisations, with established experience in the
management and conservation of natural ecosystems world wide.
WWF-UK's Legal Unit term implements a programme of wide-ranging
and strategic activities aimed at achieving targeted but fundamental
improvements to the consideration of environmental law within
the legal systems of England and Wales, the UK, Europe and the
UNECE. This response is made on behalf of the Legal Unit.
- 10. The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable
Development (FDSD) is a UK charity launched in September 2009.
Uniquely, our work is dedicated to developing ideas and innovative
practices so that democratic decision-making can work better for
sustainable development. We see the pressures and conditions leading
to unsustainable development as symptoms of democratic failure.
- 11. Both groups undertake a wide range of
activities on sustainable development. However, for the purposes
of the present submission we confine our comments to informing
the Committee about research commissioned in October 2010. The
research is designed to inform an emerging debate on whether,
in the light of rapid-evolving institutional change within Government,
there is an opportunity to establish new, innovative mechanisms
to underpin commitments to environmental justice and sustainable
development, thereby ensuring that the interests of future generations
are brought to the heart of the UK's democracy.
- 12. The aims of the research commissioned
by FDSD and WWF are two-fold: (1) to examine whether the absence
of a written Constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment
in the UK is an obstacle to institutional innovation for environmental
justice, sustainable development and future generations; and (2)
if not, to identify - on the basis of comparative research - a
range of institutional options/mechanisms to further integrate
sustainable development, environmental justice and inter-generational
equity into the UK's political and policy processes. The research
is being carried out by Peter Roderick, who is also a signatory
to this submission.
- 13. The stimulus for our research came from
a meeting convened in February 2010 by FDSD, the Government Legal
Service Environment Group and the United Kingdom Environmental
Law Association (UKELA) and hosted by the Ministry of Justice,
at which the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations
was invited to speak about his role. More information about the
Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner can be found at the link
However, we provide the following information for the Committee
by way of summary.
- 14. In 2007, the Hungarian Parliament resolved
to create a new independent watchdog function, informally known
as the "green ombudsman", to safeguard the constitutionally
protected right of Hungarian citizens to a healthy environment.
The idea stemmed from work conducted by a Budapest-based NGO Védegylet
("Protect the Future"). In 2000, Protect the Future
had proposed an institution that could act as a spokesman for
those who are the "most excluded of the excluded" from
democratic representation: that is, future generations. It was
Protect the Future member László Sólyom,
former President of Hungary (until August 2010), who drafted the
law establishing the Green Ombudsman role.
- 15. In May 2008, the Hungarian Parliament
elected environmental lawyer, academic and former public prosecutor
Dr Sándor Fülöp to become Hungary's first Parliamentary
Commissioner for Future Generations for a six-year term. The Commissioner
for Future Generations is one of four Parliamentary Ombudsmen,
with others addressing civil rights, data protection and freedom
of information, and the rights of "national and ethnic minorities",
- 16. Ombudsmen typically work to investigate
organisational and functional "maladministration" of
one kind or another. However, the Hungarian Green Ombudsman's
functions are far broader. Whilst he is mandated to investigate
complaints relating to a broad range of environmental issues (familiar
"Ombudsman" territory), the functions assigned to his
role reach deep into the policy process. The Green Ombudsman is
mandated to act as a policy advocate for "sustainability"
issues across all relevant fields of national and local legislation
and public policy (including acting as a source of specialist
advice to Parliament). Plus, he has a wider mandate to widen the
knowledge base - undertaking or promoting research projects targeting
the long-term sustainability of human societies.
- 17. It is over 20 years since sustainable
development was adopted international as the policy language for
recognizing that human beings must not be allowed to continue
to deplete the earth and its life, without jeopardising the ability
of future generations to provide for their own needs. Over that
period, increasing attention has been given within UK government
and Parliament both to sustainable development and to the interests
of "future generations".
- 18. For example, in the UK, four Children's
Commissioners work to promote the views and best interests of
children and all young people. And whilst there are (at least)
twelve Government ombudsmen in the UK whose offices look into
complaints about discrete organisations or kinds of organisations,
there is no direct equivalent of the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner
for Future Generations.
- 19. Furthermore, a number of directly relevant
Parliamentary Committees have been established (including the
Environmental Audit Committee), and they play an important role
in bringing sustainable development considerations to the parliamentary
process. And Parliament's support services also provide a valuable
role - for example through the imminent Environmental Limits report
of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
- 20. Extensive relevant policy activity includes
the Foresight Programme; the July 2010 Government Economic Service's
Review of the Economics of Sustainable Development; the two-year
National Ecosystem Assessment (due to report in early 2011), followed
by Defra's Natural Environment White Paper in April 2011 and in
July 2011 by its revised guidance on Impact Assessments, the Green
Book and other policy appraisal guidance to take account of sustainability
and the value of nature.
- 21. Finally, there has been a myriad of ad
hoc statutory interventions, almost entirely in the broad
environmental field (e.g. a search of the UK Statute Law Database
provides 173 results for "sustainable development" and
8 results for "future generations").
- 22. There are significant limitations to
these and other initiatives. For example, a 2007 report of the
House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, "governing
begins with a preamble which highlights the importance of "governing
for the future", but is actually a review and set of recommendations
on "strategic thinking" within government.
- 23. Whilst the Environmental Audit Committee
has the power 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, its powers fall considerably short of those enjoyed
by the Hungarian Green Ombudsman.
- 24. Similarly, the SDC - whilst originally
established as an independent advisory body on sustainable development
- did not have such a wide ranging and strategic remit. The decision
to establish and then withdraw funding for it aptly illustrates
the pitfalls of relying solely on executive, rather than legislative,
action, to embed sustainable development within government.
- 25. In contrast to these piecemeal guarantees
of sustainable development, sustainable development has been placed
at the heart of the Welsh Assembly's governance of Wales. The
Assembly's website announces that "Sustainable development
is the process by which we reach the goal of sustainability. It
is the central organising principle of the Welsh Assembly Government
and the public sector in Wales."
- 26. The UK's "hotchpotch" approach
can be contrasted with those countries where there appears to
have been more systematic consideration of how best to embed sustainable
development within government (although we have not yet evaluated
the outcomes). For example, one legal study has identified 17
countries where "future generations" have been recognised
constitutionally, as motivating forces and in substantive provisions,
either directly or linked to environment or sustainable development
(Czech Republic, France, Estonia, Andorra, Ecuador, Argentina,
South Africa, Belgium, Armenia, Bolivia, Burundi, Cuba, Germany,
Bhutan, Poland, Switzerland and Ukraine).
- 27. Countries including Hungary, Canada,
New Zealand and Israel have passed laws to create offices of varying
kinds and powers to champion the environment and sustainable development.
In 1993, the Finnish Government created a cross-party "Committee
for the Future", charged with carrying out an "active
and initiative-generating dialogue with the Government on major
future problems and means of solving them". The Israeli
Knesset passed legislation to enable the creation of a Commission
for Future Generations, a non-political entity which operated
from 2001 until 2006. Headed by a Commissioner for Future Generations,
the Commission's functions included providing parliament with
opinions and recommendations and other issues relevant to future
- 28. Following Dr Fül½p's inspirational
visit in February 2010, FDSD convened an NGO meeting to discuss
what inspiration the UK could take from his role. The meeting
recognised that the establishment of some form of "Parliamentary
Commissioner" for the environment and/or future generations
was only one possibility.
- 29. The NGO meeting considered whether the
absence of a written constitution in the UK may make it difficult
to replicate such a model in the UK. At the same time, some participants
recognised that existing rights and responsibilities arising from
international, EU and domestic legislation may mean that there
is no need for a formal constitutional "right to a clean
and healthy environment" as a precondition for institutional
innovation in the interests of sustainable development and future
generations. It was on this basis that FDSD and WWF commissioned
the research outlined above. And in a related initiative, a group
of UK NGOs and individuals (working both in the UK and internationally)
wrote to the Rt Hon David Cameron MP and Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP
in June 2010, urging the new Coalition government to "future
proof" UK democratic processes, thus tackling short-termism
in the nation's governance (letter attached for information).
- 30. Ensuring the needs of both present and
future generations are met in the interests of sustainable development
requires a systematic Parliamentary and institutional approach.
- 31. The Government's decision to withdraw
funding for the SDC (alongside decisions to abolish a number of
other public bodies) makes this inquiry particularly timely. The
Coalition Government has committed itself to being the "greenest
ever" - to deliver a green and more responsible economy,
fairness and the Big Society - whilst cutting the deficit, increasing
efficiency and delivering structural reform to create better value
for the tax payer.
The Government will look beyond near-term pressures
to support reforms that better position the UK for meeting long-term
demographic, economic, environmental and social challenges, any
of which could imperil long-term fiscal stability if left unattended.
- (HM Treasury (2010) The Spending Review framework).
- 32. We see a significant risk, with the withdrawal
of funding for the SDC and failure to provide institutional underpinning
for the Coalition government's commitment to long-term thinking,
that the UK has withdrawn from the idea of sustainable development
as an overarching societal goal; let alone one that is embedded
at the heart of our country's democracy. Political commitments
to make this government "the greenest ever", to "govern
for the long-term" and to promote a "power shift"
have potential to support, but do not add up to, sustainable development.
This is particularly worrying at a time when the world community
is beginning preparations for a World Summit on Sustainable Development
(dubbed "Rio + 20") to be held in 2012.
- 33. There is a range of possible mechanisms
to ensure this government embeds sustainable development across
the broad spectrum of policy decision-making and operations. Some
of these are raised in this submission. However, as our research
progresses, we undertake to send the Committee and the government
further information about the particular mechanisms that we consider
offer long-term, cross-cutting and cost-effective benefits for
environmental protection, access to justice and sustainable development.
We do not see "future generations" or even "long-term
thinking" as a substitute for the core idea of sustainable
development - that human activity and decision-making needs to
take account of environmental, social and environmental issues
in an integrated way. But both are currently systematically under-dimensioned
in both the UK's institutional architecture and its commitment
to sustainable development. Adding institutional weight to the
interests of future generations offers significant potential to
systematically embed sustainable development in the UK.
- 34. At this stage, we simply draw the Committee's
attention to the following broad range of possibilities:
- 35. Constitutional protection
could include express recognition of the rights and interests
of future generations or the right to a clean and healthy environment
within constitutional instruments, and in the law-making process
(such as a part of the reform of the House of Lords)
- 36. Statutory protection duties
- appropriate duties could ensure that public authorities are
obliged to consider how their decisions could impact on future
generations, to demonstrate if they were favouring present over
future generations (and vice versa), and not to take decisions
that could have significant effects on the ability of future generations
to provide for their own needs. An analogous example of how the
first element of these duties might be formulated can be seen
in section 1(1) of the Equality Act 2010 ("An authority
to which this section applies must, when making decisions of a
strategic nature about how to exercise its functions, have due
regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is
designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from
- 37. Institutional protection
- the creation of a new body could help ensure that a "missing
dimension" of sustainable development was embedded within
government, by ensuring that the rights, interests and voices
of future generations are recognized, championed and heard within
our democratic process and governance system at national level.
Such a body might broadly drawn on the parallels of the UK's Children's
Commissioners, who work to champion children, and the Equality
and Human Rights Commission in respect of equality and human rights.
A new body would need to participate in the development of policy
and law, and to have the right to receive petitions from members
of the public and to make recommendations to public bodies. The
office or body should be under legislative, not executive control.
- 38. Voluntary protection -
this could not of itself ensure that sustainable development was
placed at the heart of government, but might include, for example,
further development of community-led initiatives such as those
exemplified by the Transition Town movement, local future councils
and forums, and the Scotland Futures Forum.
- 39. In addition, local authority protection
could serve to place sustainable development at the heart of spatial
planning (as for example envisaged by Section 39 of the Planning
and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004) and to ensure that the government's
planned "power shift" results in mass pursuit of sustainable
development at local level, not licence for a myriad of local
groups to pursue "nimby" (not in my back yard) interests
at the expense of integrated approaches to sustainable development.
- 40. We hope that our submission reinforces
the need for the government to address the integration of sustainable
development in the business of governance in a strategic and long-term
manner and prompts the Committee to consider a range of new and
innovative mechanisms to further sustainable development. Please
do not hesitate to contact us should you require further information
about any of the points raised in this submission.
13 October 2010
1 See http://www.libdems.org.uk/news_detail.aspx?title=Nick_Clegg_speech%3A_Horizon_shift&pPK=f8f7b543-d586-40e2-b4c9-e7be68970bf3
See http://jno.hu/en/?&menu=home Back