Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 877 -i

House of commons

oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE THE

Environmental Audit Committee

Embedding Sustainable Development: The Government’s response

Thursday 31 March 2011

Rt Hon Mrs Caroline Spelman MP, Rt Hon Mr Oliver Letwin MP and Mr Mike Anderson

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 41

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

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1. This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

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2. The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Environmental Audit Committee

on Thursday 31 March 2011

Members present:

Joan Walley (Chair)

Peter Aldous

Neil Carmichael

Zac Goldsmith

Simon Kirby

Ian Murray

Caroline Nokes

Simon Wright

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon Mrs Caroline Spelman MP, Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rt Hon Mr Oliver Letwin MP, Minister for Government Policy, Cabinet Office, and Mr Mike Anderson, Director General, Green Economy and Corporate Services Group, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Q1 Chair: Could I on behalf of the Committee give both you, Secretary of State, and Minister, and Michael Anderson, a very warm welcome to what we think is a really important subject; to a subject that we hope we will continue to raise the profile of, because we believe in this cross-cutting Committee that nothing is more important than putting sustainable development at the heart of Government. I think, to be fair to the Committee, it is important that I represent our views at the outset of this, that there is considerable dismay about the situation we now find ourselves in, in terms of resourcing of the sustainable development agenda. I have been asked on behalf of the Committee to convey that we do have concerns about where those resources, to provide the expertise and all the other functions, are going to be.

I wanted to start off by drawing attention to the fate of the genuine workers with integrity, who have worked for the Sustainable Development Commission, and the undertakings that were given at the time when they were transferred over to the SDC. I would start off by asking whether or not there is any further consideration that could be given to whether or not their redundancy in respect of 1 April could be changed, in order that people with expertise-when Defra absolutely needs expertise-whether or not those people could be accommodated and their redundancy date extended in order that there could be some role for them?

Mrs Spelman: Chairman, first of all, thank you very much for inviting us to come. I am very pleased to be here today and I think if you would allow me just to say, since this is the last day of the Sustainable Development Commission, I would like the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of Will Day and the SDC Commissioners, and the contribution of the Commission’s staff. I know we are going to be discussing how we have gone about the mainstreaming, and I am confident we can give you reassurance on the point of the resources.

I think it is absolutely right to record that we do accept the Commission has played a key role over the past 10 years in getting us to the position that we are in today, wherein we are able to mainstream this very important subject. Shortly I will be outlining-in the course of the questions I presume that you will ask me-how we intend to go about the mainstreaming process through the four principal elements of ministerial leadership and oversight: embedding sustainable development in Government, leading by example and transparency and independent scrutiny. No doubt that will come out in the questions.

In response to your specific question about the Sustainable Development Commission staff, as one of my regular meetings with the trades unions who come to Defra to speak to the Secretary of State about terms and conditions of everyone who is in our employ, I was able there to give some reassurance to those trade unions that we had offered some of the SDC staff the opportunity to come and work in core Defra. Two will be joining us, one after a period of maternity leave. We have reoffered places that were not taken up originally when we made that offer to SDC staff, so we have done what we can to encourage people who are eligible to transfer across, but I would ask Mike Anderson perhaps to explain a bit more of the detail about that if the Committee are particularly interested.

Q2 Chair: If you could, briefly, and also perhaps give us some idea of the cost of dismantling the SDC.

Mr Anderson: Yes, of course. Thank you, Chair. As the Secretary of State says, there was quite a long process that obviously was gone through when you have to close down a body, once the decision had been made to withdraw the funding. There was a lot of consultation with the unions and with the staff. The SDC started with about 70 staff, of which probably about half were permanent members, of which about 10 are in Corporate Affairs. So we then started talking to them about the functions we would be wanting to take over; capability building and stakeholder engagement were the two that were seen as the most apposite. That led to a discussion that probably about four jobs would be possibly subsumed within Defra. We advertised those to those staff remaining with the skills, and two people decided to take up that particular offer.

Then we have gone through that process. We now have just issued compulsory redundancy notices to 24 people; two people-

Chair: If I could just interrupt there.

Mr Anderson: Yes.

Q3 Chair: My point was that, as I understand it, there were people who were originally working with Defra, who were transferred over to the SDC. They were effectively seconded. I know it is a technical point and I know we have a lot of ground to cover, but I am putting it to you that if there were goodwill on behalf of the Government, in order to get some of the expertise that would otherwise be lost, is there any way in which the concern about putting green issues at the heart of Government, that could be recognised and that could be considered within the negotiations that are taking place?

Mr Anderson: We have already done that, Chair, and in fact that is exactly what we are offering those staff who would like to apply under the Defra system of applying to join us, they can now do so if they wanted to in this period. They can now apply for jobs.

Chair: Perhaps we can keep a close watch on that.

Mr Anderson: So we can take that. The cost you asked as well. It is about £800,000 out of a total cost that-normally per year the SDC costs £4.15 million so the savings are very immediate.

Mrs Spelman: If I could add that Defra at the core does employ 29 people in the Sustainable Development Unit, and although we have significant strategic changes to make in order to accommodate the reduction in our resources, as required by all Departments-every Department, protected or non-protected-we will of course be paying attention to maintaining our capacity on sustainable development.

Q4 Chair: Moving on slightly, could I put it to you as well in what is going to replace and how is sustainable development going to be embedded, one of the issues has been that this Committee and its cross-cutting role, which has always been there from the outset, can take on this enhanced responsibility. There is this issue about where are the resources for that to come from. Would you have anything further to add to that?

Mrs Spelman: I would be very happy to respond to that in particular. When I spoke to the Chairman in July last year about our decision to abolish the Sustainable Development Commission, I proposed a four-pronged approach to mainstreaming of sustainable development, and I invited the Chairman of this Committee to consider the-I think-ideal role for an audit committee to hold Government Departments, including our own, to account for the progress they were making on sustainable development. There is a distinction between an organisation that is part of the Parliament and organisations that are part of Government.

The Department of course is part of the Government and we dispose of resources in order to run the Government. It is not for Government to tell Parliament how to organise itself, or indeed to dictate where its resources should come from, but I did-as I agreed with the Chairman-write to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee to ask whether some of the 700 people employed by the National Audit Office, who are within the gift of the Public Accounts Committee Chairman, might be enabled to provide more support to this particular Select Committee. I have had a letter back from the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who says that this will be possible on a case-by-case basis. So if the Select Committee were minded to interview the Secretary of State for Transport, who has quite a lot of elements within the Business Plan, where sustainable development is specifically-

Chair: Sorry, could I just cut you short there, Secretary of State?

Mrs Spelman: Yes.

Chair: That has always been the case for this Committee. This Committee has always played that role; has always been able to bring Secretaries of State from other Departments, and to have those resources from the National Audit Office on a case-by-case basis. Our concern is that there is an enhanced role. We are where we are, we all recognise that. We don’t want to be negative about this but there remains an issue, despite the discussions that we have had with the National Audit Office as well, and even though they will give us resources, as they always have on a case-by-case basis, I think the point that we wish to make, resoundingly, is that that is no substitute for that expertise, but I think we need to move on in this current session.

Moving on then, I think you have set out your response to our Committee report, and I think the real issue is how Defra and how the Cabinet link up.

Mrs Spelman: Yes.

Q5 Chair: We want to know what your commitment and persuasiveness is going to when getting the Cabinet to agree policies, which are putting green issues at the heart of Government.

Mrs Spelman: This is a question that Oliver and I will both provide information on, from my perspective of Defra and the Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, obviously, from the perspective of cross-Government.

So when we conceived of our four-pronged approach to mainstreaming of sustainable development, we saw two very clear roles for Defra as part of this: obviously we want to champion sustainable development across Government and provide that vision across Whitehall. There is significant expertise within Defra, as I expressed earlier. I outlined we have a unit dedicated to sustainable development, and it is in fact that unit that provides the analysis on business plans because it is trained to do so. We would provide this analysis to the Cabinet Office when they are undertaking the regular reviews of business plans with the successive Secretaries of State.

Q6 Chair: So that is going to be from resources within Defra to provide that analysis from Defra to the Cabinet Office?

Mrs Spelman: Absolutely. It is something we would do in our role of oversight of all Departments’ business plans, and that is very important to us. We provided some very early analysis of the draft plans back in the autumn, and we obviously regularly review when the junctures in the business plans are coming up and sustainable development has been specifically mentioned.

In terms of how the Cabinet Office handles the business plans, I think it is probably better that a spokesman for the Cabinet Office talks about what it is like. I know from my individual perspective, we just had one of our reviews of our business plan with the Cabinet Office. These do take place regularly and they are tough.

Q7 Chair: I wonder if the Minister could address the issue that is, for example, how much of the detail is reflected in that? So it is not just about the business cases for each Department or the business plans, for example, I am thinking of the decision within DCLG and Treasury to downgrade the requirements and standards within the new home standards, in terms of environmental designs. How would something as detailed as that, for example, be reflected in the work, when you look at how you embed this in the Cabinet?

Mr Letwin: First of all, I should explain for the record, because these proceedings end up having a certain significance-

Chair: Of course.

Mr Letwin: -in my role as Minister for Government Policy, one of my tasks, alongside the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, is to review the Departmental business plans. This is not on behalf of the Cabinet Office, which has its own business plan, which indeed I also review. It is a slightly odd position that I am, so to speak, camping in the Cabinet Office. I am not a representative of the Cabinet Office for this purpose.

The second thing I should say is that I don’t think that any amount of sheer bureaucratic mechanics will solve the problems we are mutually trying to address. What we are trying to do is something that requires coherent strategy and political will. I am going to describe to you some mechanics, but I don’t want you to go away with the idea that I think that because we have some mechanics set up that that solves the problem; walk away and then we pro forma conduct a set of mechanical exercises. That will not do the job at all.

So first, if I may, in reply to your question, I will explain what the process is but then deal with your specific question as an example of the bigger issue of how we exert political will and how decisions get made. When the business plans were first put together, they were put together on the basis of the Coalition’s Programme for Government that Danny Alexander and I had negotiated, and which the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and eventually the Cabinet had adopted. Of course, the most important thing is what is substantively in there as a set of commitments. We tried to put it together in a way that would make-if it is all implemented-a very significant difference to the sustainability of Britain and to low carbon economy and to many ecological concerns.

The next question is: is what is in there being implemented, and the purpose of the quarterly reviews is primarily to make sure that that happens.

Q8 Chair: If I may just interrupt you. Before we move on to what is in there, how is it absolutely implemented, could I ask how you liaise with the Secretary of State and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, for example, and also with the Deputy Prime Minister at that level, before we get into the detail, if I may?

Mr Letwin: So far as the drawing up of the business plans was concerned, each individual Department proposed its own business plan in the light of the Coalition’s Programme for Government. So, to take your case, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change put forward his proposed business plan. We then negotiated that with him and we ended up with an agreed business plan that was subsequently blessed by the Cabinet. Exactly the same thing was true of the part of the Cabinet Office business plan, which the Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for. So Secretary of State by Secretary of State they were negotiated out, starting from the Secretary of State and then with an iteration with us; Danny and myself, that is.

So then you have a business plan and you may want to raise questions about this, but my assertion is that, if you look across the business plans as a whole, they constitute, among other things, an enormously important programme for change to make Britain a more sustainable place. Then you come to the question: is it being implemented? Because there is no point in just having a business plan, what you want is the action on the ground and the purpose of the quarterly reviews is to go Secretary of State, again, by Secretary of State, through the actions that are listed there and the dates by which they are meant to have happened, and to prod where there are doubts about whether these things have happened. There is an apparatus in the Cabinet Office and No. 10 that enables Danny and myself to get some prior information about that, and to ask questions, much in the way that a Select Committee might do. There is also an apparatus-which I will happily describe if you want me to-of what happens if things aren’t going forward, and so on. So there is a process that is designed to keep Secretaries of State up to the business plan and indeed, as we are in the course of doing now, to refresh those business plans as time moves on, because obviously the agenda of Government changes over time, as more problems arise and more challenges are met and further challenges are taken.

Moving to the question of the big decisions that lie within those business plans, and the detail that surrounds them of course as we come to them one-by-one. The way the decision gets made, if it is a big one, is in the relevant Cabinet Committee or through, finally, the agreement of Cabinet as a whole.

Q9 Chair: Who defines if it is a big decision? For example, take that example of lowering the standards for new home owners.

Mr Letwin: I was just coming on to that decision, yes.

Q10 Chair: How was that addressed in your process?

Mr Letwin: The way that the decision has been made on that is that it was decided by Cabinet as a whole to have a Growth Review leading up to the recent Budget, because we collectively took the view in Cabinet that we faced an immediate national crisis in the form of less growth and jobs than we needed, and we were determined, collectively, to try to increase that growth and those jobs.

That set in train a process that was chaired by the Chancellor, Vince Cable and myself, and which almost all of our senior colleagues attended in a series of meetings, going through ideas about how we could do things that would continue to meet our medium and long term goals, including, very importantly, our carbon goals and sustainability goals, but which would induce faster growth in the earlier years than we otherwise might have. That is a decision of that the Government-

Q11 Chair: Isn’t that the heart of it? How would this Committee be in a position to support what the Secretary of State for Defra may wish to do to make sure that the environmental considerations don’t get crowded out by the Treasury considerations?

Mrs Spelman: Yes. Could I point to the fact that as part of this Cabinet-wide discussion about what would be in the Growth Review, and the resources that the Chancellor would allocate at the time of the Budget, there was agreement for their very important presumption in favour of sustainable development at the heart of the planning system. This is absolutely pivotal for those of us that are determined to see the whole of Government make progress towards sustainable-

Q12 Chair: Isn’t this a presumption in favour of growth?

Mrs Spelman: It is a presumption in favour of sustainable development. The Chancellor said it himself. It is there for the record in Hansard, and of course it is very important because, as you and I know, sustainable development covers economic, social and environmental, and it will be a very powerful tool at the very heart of the planning system. So in any negotiation between Cabinet Members in the run up to any Budget, as I am sure Members whose parties have been in Government would recognise, choices are being made by the Departments but we collectively make a decision, and there was collective support for the decisions that we made. I think the presumption in favour of sustainable development is very important, also in terms of the future of house building, planning and construction, because if you want to get a planning permission you have to be able to demonstrate it has taken account of the standard-

Q13 Chair: Do you have any regrets about lowering the standard for new build?

Mrs Spelman: It is not a question of having regrets. I believe that we will get an improvement in the standards of construction of house building in this country for a variety of reasons, not least because the planning system now has sustainable development at its heart. So why would you build buildings that were not sustainable?

Chair: Okay. We will move on to that.

Q14 Neil Carmichael: Can I pick up the point Joan was referring to earlier about this Committee’s capacity to probe and test sustainable development? I think it would be a good idea for this Committee effectively to be able to commission independent reports into performance government in sustainable development, and that would have a resource implication. It is something that I think Committee Members would be interested in, because it would facilitate us to effectively take a much more forensic approach to testing sustainable development. I was wondering what your views were on that?

Mrs Spelman: Once again, I come back to my distinction that your Committee is part of Parliament; we are part of the Government, and what we can’t do is cross the line and say to you how you should decide it would all work. That would be inappropriate for a Government Department to do. It is for you to decide whether you would want to commission independent reports or not. I should imagine people would be quite happy to give them to you. I think you have tremendous power as an audit committee, I mean it is there right in the name. It is in its terms of reference to audit what the Government makes available transparently to you.

When I originally envisaged the four-pronged approach to mainstreaming sustainable development, I saw this as a very important part of it. I think it is something that will-as Oliver says-help all of us that want to see the whole of Government embrace sustainable development. This will be a very important part of it. Defra will play its part championing the cause with the expertise we have within the Department to analyse the work of other Departments as expressed through their business plans, and proactively to promote sustainable development. I was hoping to have a moment to be able to explain that, but I did in Defra oral questions outline to the House of Commons that on a regular basis we bring the other Departments into Defra for a cross-Government discussion of these issues. It has already yielded good results, in terms of making progress on sustainable development as we break down barriers between Departments and get genuine joined up working as a result. Finally, the final bit of the Defra involvement is I am now on the Home Affairs Committee and the Economic Affairs Committee and every time we discuss new policy within Government, come before these Cabinet Committees, I am there to ask the questions about sustainable development, and I assure I don’t hold back.

Q15 Neil Carmichael: You have already anticipated one of my questions, so that is absolutely excellent. You are both on Cabinet Committees, so could you both explain how you are endeavouring to effectively pass on the message that sustainable development is important and also to check that it is happening and, effectively, to get the culture right because that is the key thing here, isn’t it?

Mr Letwin: Perhaps it would help if I started the ball rolling as Caroline has just answered that. Let me give you one example, which takes us back into the question that the Chair was raising, about the Growth Review. The business of Government is, in part, one of trying to balance conflicting concerns. There is no point in our trying to pretend that Government has just one concern at any given time, it has a whole series. Inevitably, there are lots of people sitting round the table who properly represent particular interests that their Departments are concerned with, and of course there are also differences of emphasis about the relative importance of different goals at different times.

As I think back through the Growth Review, in which there was a lively discussion about how to balance out the urgent need to get jobs for our people and the incredible importance of making sure that, in the medium and long term, this country remained on a track to sustainability, I think those of us who were arguing the case for the long term to be particularly vivid in our minds, did extraordinarily well. The Chancellor ended up with the world’s first Carbon Price Support mechanism, which is now leading to great complaints from many who think we have been far too green about it. He ended up by granting not £1 billion but £3 billion for the foundation of the Green Investment Bank at a time of extreme fiscal austerity. We preserved a whole series of things that some people in some places were writing articles from the outside saying we should get rid of as part of the Growth Review, and I believe the long term effect of the measures that we took was a balance; a proper balance, in which we bore properly in mind the need to make Britain a place that is sustainable.

That came about partly because Caroline and I and others were there, not just thinking about the economic considerations but also thinking about other considerations. That is a template for what goes on- again, I happen to sit on all Cabinet Committees because of my particular role, and I can tell you that right across the board these considerations keep on being debated. I am not trying to gull you into supposing, it would not be true-and you would know it would not be true-that always environmental considerations outweigh some other consideration. When we are engaged in warfare in Libya, I am not trying to tell you that we are purely thinking about the CO2 consumed by our helicopters; we aren’t. There is a constant balancing going on here and the voice of the environment is present over and over and over again. I think that is the point that matters.

Q16 Caroline Nokes: A Ministerial Steering Group is going to oversee the delivery of the new commitments for greening all Government operations and procurement. What role is that steering group going to play, and how is it going to interact with other stakeholders such as the Cabinet Office.

Mrs Spelman: Oliver is in the chair for that. So-

Mr Letwin: I should probably answer that as I am going to be chairing it. The role of this group is to make sure that what we have set out happens, and what we have set out is an ambition to move beyond the 10% reduction in CO2 from our operations towards a 25% reduction, which is an ambitious enlargement of the goal.

In some cases, that achievement is easy because-as we know from the Green Deal in another setting-there are win/win cases where we can save money, save energy and save carbon all at once, and it is just a question of trying to make sure that people are doing things, which they have very incentive to do in any event.

The reason for having the Committee rather than leaving it to people to get on with it is that not every case is as easy as that. First of all, there are quite considerable Government accounting issues that arise and which can get in the way-I think several Members of this Committee are aware of these-of rational decision-making, because you can’t spend the money early even if you would save it later. Trying to get over that sort of problem is something that can happen only if all the relevant people around the room and you can talk it through and deal with the Treasury about it, and part of the role of this Committee is to do just that.

There are also some-not many, but some-corners of this domain where there are quite tricky policy issues: Department A would like to do X, which would reduce our consumption of energy, for example, but Department B doesn’t want Department A to do that because it has a different agenda that X would conflict with. There is no way of dealing with that other than having both of them around, trying to adjudicate and trying to find a route through that achieves the goal, but at the same time deals with the problem that the Department that is resisting the move was raising. So those are the things that the Committee will do to make Departments report on how they are doing and make sure we are achieving our goal, to identify areas where there is either an accounting or Treasury issue or where there is an inter-departmental issue and then to resolve those.

Mrs Spelman: I wanted just to say that obviously I am new to Government and I don’t know how the last Government did organise this, but I have been incredibly impressed by having the opportunity on these Cabinet Committees. I am on three. I am on the last one we just discussed, Home Affairs and Economic Affairs. Long before policy is going into the public domain, while it is still being thrashed through, it is just how possible it is to shape that and raise the issues. I think that it is done with a rigor that gives me confidence that we have the opportunity on every occasion to raise the issues of sustainability, and also to look at the unintended consequences where sustainability might otherwise be compromised. Oliver is on all of them, I am on some of them, but between us we cover all of them.

Q17 Caroline Nokes: Thank you for clarifying so early who is going to be chairing it. When do you anticipate it starting to meet?

Mr Letwin: Very soon indeed. The Diary Secretaries are currently engaged in the most difficult negotiation of all in Whitehall, which is to find the time.

Caroline Nokes: Thank you.

Q18 Neil Carmichael: Can I ask one or two questions about the Cabinet Committees: are there any plans to revise the terms of reference of those Committees to make sure that they do always consider sustainable development?

Mrs Spelman: The terms of reference of the Cabinet Committees are commendably short, and I think there is virtue in keeping them as they are. We haven’t had any difficulty raising sustainable development at these different Cabinet Committees. It is expected that Oliver and I will do that. I don’t think there is any need to alter the terms of reference, and in fact there may be very good reasons not to do that. If we start altering it for this then we will start altering it for a whole range of things, and it would lose the benefit of its simplicity.

Mr Letwin : I think that is right, but in addition I don’t want you to think that Caroline and I are somehow lone rangers faced by a hostile firepower. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is an extremely powerful advocate of anything he chooses to advocate, and he strongly advocates-as you might imagine-these things on all occasions. The Deputy Prime Minister is a rather powerful feature in this administration, as indeed the Chairman of the Home Affairs Cabinet Committee, and he has extremely strong views about this.

The Business Secretary, although he is the Business Secretary, has very strong views about these matters and makes them known on many occasions. I could go around the room, except of course if I did I might identify too few.

Chair: I don’t think we have time to go around the whole table.

Q19 Neil Carmichael: We have the picture and it is a very encouraging one because obviously it is a good thing that all Ministers are concerned about the environment, just as they are about the deficit. That is the sort of point that this Committee is very interested in, and I think you have made that very well, so thank you.

However, what I would like to ask next is: unlike this Committee where we have an excellent audience, Cabinet Committees do not have audiences. They conduct their affairs in private. Quite right, too, because of the complexities of Government, and the balance between various decisions, and all the rest, which Oliver has quite rightly reminded us of. That does raise the question, doesn’t it, as to how we might find out exactly what is going on and how committed you are and how you are ensuring sustainable development is being applied. So do you have any thoughts on that?

Mrs Spelman: Obviously, the business plans are the key to the programme of work, over the whole period we hope for a full length Parliament. So you could work out from the business plans because times of starting and finishing particular activities is stated, so you will know when the Department is moving to start-its commencement for a piece of work, and all of that is completely transparent. Most of the work is sequential; some of the things are for the first session, some for the second session. So it is easy to see when Departments will be moving from working on one White Paper to working on another White Paper. Key to all of this is complete transparency.

Mr Letwin: Can I come in, and I hope this isn’t impertinent since obviously you will totally decide on your own what you do and don’t want to decide, and it is no business of ours to tell you. If I can put it this way without impertinence: we-Caroline and I-would very much welcome it if you were to invite individual Secretaries of State to interrogate their business plans, not just in the sense of, "It says this, are you doing it?" That is in a sense the Public Administration Committee, and others. To take an example, there is a measure, which I passionately believe in, which is the high speed rail project; it is a very important part of sustainability for all sorts of reasons to do with air travel, and so on. Leave that aside for a moment, regardless of the Committee’s views on it, clearly, given that the Government is committed to carrying it forward, it is of great importance that it should be done in a way that is maximally sustainable from an ecological point of view, carbon point of view, and so on.

It would help those of us who are most concerned to see this agenda embedded in everything we do for this Committee to interrogate the Department, about whether the way it is doing that meets those criteria, and that just stands for one of a dozen such things where we are committed to doing something and we are trying to press on making sure that it is done sustainably and the more the Committee does of that the easier for us it is internally.

Chair: I think the Committee is looking at ways in which there can be closer dialogue, for example other Parliaments have Secretaries of State before they go up to Brussels to negotiate, and there are opportunities like that, but it is about having the transparency to know the issues that are coming up. I think we need to move on.

Q20 Zac Goldsmith: The Sustainable Development Minister’s subcommittee, which I think ran from 2005 to 2008, has been generally speaking regarded as a failure, including in the evidence given to us by the Sustainable Development Commission in one of our inquiries. So my question to you is: why do you think it was judged a failure-if indeed you do think it was judged a failure-and what will be different about the Ministerial Steering Group? Why is that likely to be more effective than the previous attempt by the previous Government?

Mrs Spelman: You are asking us about the previous Government, and I wasn’t in it so I didn’t see the Sustainable Development Minister’s Committee in action. Maybe one of our civil servants did, but surely the point that we have just made is that I think the most important thing is to get everybody engaged in sustainable development, and one of the dangers would be sub-setting in some way so that you could corral it to the group of people, and only the group of people who are interested in the issue. Whereas what you want to get, you want to get it across Government, and the four-pronged approach that we are taking ensures that it will be across Government. I am sure that-

Mr Letwin: That is essentially the point, but I think what is very important is to distinguish between two things: there is this inter-Ministerial group, which we are setting up and I am going to chair, which has a very narrow remit but one I believe it will fulfil, which is to make sure that we achieve this 25% reduction in our own carbon emissions and our own use of water and all the other things that we are quite directly, as managers of central Government, responsible for. This we have an obligation to do and this we will do through that Committee. That is an incredibly important but administrative task. It is completely separate from the question-and I share Caroline’s lack of knowledge of the precise details of the earlier committee, obviously, because we weren’t in the Government-how do you get policy as a whole to be implemented in a way which makes Britain as a whole a greener place, and in my view that can’t-at least I take a lot of persuading that it could be-done in a committee that is devoted to doing that.

Precisely going back to the questions that we were dealing with earlier, when you are dealing with the great questions of State: how do you get growth? How do you get fiscal arithmetic to tot up? How do you get public services reform and so on, you have to have that discussion with the big beast of Government; the Prime Minister is involved, the Chancellor is involved. Unless they are involved at that same time in a discussion about the consequences that the things we are doing will have for our ecology, the ecological considerations will be relegated to a committee of very much lesser importance. So the important question is: are-what Caroline describes as-mainstreaming this, which is, I know it is a jargon but it really means something here. It means: in the main stream. The serious crunchy decisions that Government is making month-by-month, are we having the voice of the environment there represented, arguing, not always winning but balancing, and that is what we are trying to achieve and I think we are achieving at the moment.

Q21 Zac Goldsmith: Would it be appropriate to ask Mike?

Mr Anderson: I could talk to that on balance, as I was one of the people, I suppose, in the last Government in some way, and it is precisely for the reasons that both the Minister of State and the Secretary of State have said, in that you end up with a body that agrees with itself not talking about anything that makes any difference in the end, and it ends up being populated by relatively junior people-as the Minister has said-again just agreeing. That is what happens when you set up a body to one side of the mainstream of what is going on in Government.

You could argue that that was one of the reasons why I think all of us would probably describe it as not a success, or that is another word for a failure. It was a failure because it didn’t get to the heart of Government thinking; didn’t have the Ministers that you need in there to make the decisions, and then it ends up with a disparate agenda that isn’t quite the agenda where Government heads, and that is arguably why it wasn’t I am afraid.

Q22 Zac Goldsmith: Can I add one further point. There was a general recognition from pretty much all the expert witnesses, the body of expertise and knowledge, in Defra on sustainable development but there was also a feeling, which I think was echoed in almost every session, that Defra as a Department lacks the clout to influence Treasury and other Departments. So the question is: in terms of the mechanics and the structure, how is that expertise going to be driven through the other Departments, without having a central figure in the Cabinet Office, unless-the news we have just heard that you are going to be the Chair of the Committee, perhaps that is the answer. What is the relationship between the two areas of Government?

Mrs Spelman: As regards Defra, we have to be realistic that Defra is a relatively small Department in Government and one of the ways in which it attempts to punch above its weight is obviously to have influence. That is achieved by working very closely alongside all the other Government Departments and essentially offering a service, and I think it is very important that we have customer friendly attitude in our Departments. I said that on day one. We do offer a service to other Departments when they are thinking through how they apply sustainable development in the policy that they are intending to pursue, that we work with them. So working with the DCLG, for example, on its planning reform is something that we would regard as providing a service to them. So we have influence by working across Government.

Q23 Zac Goldsmith: That is the structure. I don’t doubt that service is there and that the expertise is there, but-

Mrs Spelman: It is not going to be enough. It is not going to be enough.

Zac Goldsmith:-what pressure will there be on the Department for Communities and Local Government to accept the expertise or to absorb that expertise? What is the dynamic that will ensure that when they make their decisions they take into account the expertise that you provide?

Mr Letwin: Let me describe at least one part of that dynamic. Three months from now there will be another round of quarterly reviews of the business plans. I shall be sitting down with Danny on one side of the table, and then all of the Secretaries of State, one after another, on the other side of the table. Before I have each of those meetings, I shall sit down with Caroline or her officials and go through their analysis of those business plans, to see what it is they can tell me about things where they are worried that something may be being done in a way that could be optimised, and hasn’t been optimised from an environmental point of view.

I shall take a note of this, have someone next to me who is taking a note of this, and then come into, with Danny, this meeting with the Secretary of State. Of course I shall previously have had conversations with Danny. We work together on these things as blood brothers. We will then interrogate. Caroline has been through this process.

Mrs Spelman: I have.

Mr Letwin: She knows what I am talking about. I don’t mean that it is in any way impolite or difficult, but it is tough minded. We will interrogate the relevant Secretary of State and say, "Okay, the information we are getting is that you are doing a wonderful thing. It’s here on your business plan, but we are also getting the information that, as a matter of fact, you are not doing it in a way that would optimise the environmental consequences. What is your explanation of this?" That leads to a conversation and of course the official machine inside the relevant Department will know that that conversation is on its way, so in my experience what happens is the relevant Department provides briefing for the Secretary of State to give an explanation, and that gives the Secretary of State the opportunity-this is the bit that really matters-to interrogate their officials and say, "Hold on, I don’t think this briefing will stand up at the meeting, could we please go back and look at it". Then maybe the policy will change and that is where we get-

Chair: I think Zac Goldsmith may wish to come back to you on that perhaps in the detail in a second, but I just need to bring in Simon Kirby on a slightly different issue, at this stage.

Q24 Simon Kirby: It is a similar issue, quarterly business plan reviews. Is there a difficulty in assessing actions and dates? Is there a degree of subjectivity? Is it a very objective exercise? Secondly, you spoke about transparency, how would you publish the overall findings of different Departments as an indication of how the Government is doing in achieving its very laudable objective?

Mr Letwin: First of all, the business plans are a pretty detailed list of actions. It is a "to do" list. It is public and when we find the Departments have not performed the to do list on time that is public, when we make changes to the timings that is public and we are very transparent about it. That doesn’t guarantee total success. The very last thing I want to suggest is that we are not human beings and we have no failings. The truth is that the whole point of doing this is that we all recognise that things do slip, but by being transparent in public choice theory terms we create an incentive to live up to it. That is the point of the exercise. Although many people have objections to various things the Government is doing, I think if you make any objective assessment you would have to agree-like it or don’t like it-that we have done quite a lot in the last year. Part of the reason we have done quite a lot is because there is this constant, unremitting, transparent pressure to do it.

If the programme as a whole is-as I maintain it is-very conscientiously structured so that it achieves certain environmental goals, among other things, then pursuing it in that way makes a considerable difference.

However, you have raised a very good point, which I think we haven’t adequately discussed, and it makes me think we should have further discussions about it, which is: in the light of this new set of arrangements, where we are going to be interrogating line-by-line whether the way in which something is being fulfilled that is in the business plans has been optimised from an environment point of view - it is an important further evolution - how are we going to make transparent what we have found to be the case in relation to that, so that we also create incentives for that to happen? I think that is a very good question to have raised, one I don’t have an answer to here and we will go away and think about it.

Mrs Spelman: One of the advantages of the business plans coming together is that it enables pre-emptively us, as Defra, having oversight of sustainable development across other Departments, to head off unintended consequences of policies that would clash together and be unsustainable. A classic example of this, and a good example of this, is that a very well green intentioned Department like DECC, which is very keen to see microhydropower, as they were preparing to launch in that direction and we saw they were going to do that, we in Defra have responsibility for populating our rivers and keeping them in populations of fish, saw that we would have to do something about avoiding harm to the fish stocks. We have worked together with DECC to find a way in order to divert the fish before they get minced in the microhydropower stations.

So that kind of collision might not have occurred without the cross-cutting role that Defra has as a champion of sustainable development right across Government. I know it is quite a small example, but it is quite a visual example of the kind of benefits that come from joining ourselves up. That was unearthed in one of these breakfast meetings of Ministers across Government, and I am confident that as we meet on a regular basis more of those will result in pre-emptive action before we find ourselves with something that might otherwise be unsustainable.

Q25 Neil Carmichael: That is a brilliant example of joined up Government at work, isn’t it, mashing fish, or not mashing them, in micro?

I think it is absolutely excellent you review the plans and go back to the Ministers, and so forth, and test things out. That is a good encouraging aspect, but how much advice and support do Departments get as they are preparing their business plans?

Mrs Spelman: Right at the outset? The blueprint for a lot of these business plans were prepared while certainly-I can speak for my party who was in opposition. At the time I was shadowing a different brief and many months were spent thinking very carefully about if we formed a government what we would do, in what order, what were realistic timescales for starting and finishing these things. Because we formed a coalition we had to rework those business plans in the light of the Coalition Agreement, but precisely the desire to place sustainable development at the heart of the planning system was conceived in opposition and carried through into Government. Now my colleague at DCLG, through the Localism Bill and then subsequently through the publication of the National Policy Planning Framework, will be putting that very important thing right at the heart of the planning process. So a lot of this has been prepared for and long awaited by those of us that want to see sustainable development mainstreamed.

Mr Letwin: Yes, I think exactly as Caroline describes, that is the process to here. There will come a time, about 18 months to two years from now, when the great bulk-assuming it doesn’t slip-of the actions in the business plans, and hence of the commitments made in the Coalition’s Programme for Government, will have been completed. That isn’t to say that all of the things that flow from them will have occurred, but the legislation will have occurred, the administrative changes will have been made and it will remain for things to happen on the ground as a result.

Therefore, we will no doubt need, at that time, substantially to refresh the business plans and create new to do lists. By that time of course we will also have the beginnings anyway of the report of the second part of the business plans, which is in a sense even more important, which is the measures of what has been so far achieved. In many cases of course these are long running measures and you won’t know for many years whether they are succeeding, but in some cases you will know pretty quickly what is happening: we will begin to get measures, for example, of how far the Green Deal is getting done, rather than just being legislated for.

We will therefore be developing quite major new elements for business plans and I envisage that in that process as we do that we will use the very techniques we are describing here; we will be sitting down with Defra and asking the question: if it is proposed by Department X that it adds to its business plans the following six things, what are the environmental consequences of those? If they are not positive environmental processes in themselves, do they have environmental consequences? Do we need to watch out for them? How do we need to modulate it to make sure we watch out properly? So this expertise will be built into the formulation of the next round of the business plans.

Q26 Neil Carmichael: Excellent. I was struck earlier when you, Oliver, were talking about what the Chancellor had said about various things; the announcements he had made about the Green Investment Bank, which is obviously good news, and various other issues. That certainly demonstrates the power of the Treasury. So you would certainly say that the Treasury is very interested in sustainable development as well. We will take that as read. Are there any Departments that you feel might want to strengthen their interests in sustainable development?

Mrs Spelman: There is one thing I would love to say about that. I can’t resist because I am so looking forward to it. I mentioned these monthly breakfasts that we have every four weeks with all the Ministers; the Treasury-

Chair: Ian Murray is going to come on to the Treasury in a minute.

Mrs Spelman: Okay, but they are going to come and present to the cross-cutting group of Ministers, at this breakfast, how in fact the Green Book can be used as a very important vehicle for embedding sustainable development. Justine Greening is the person who personally is going to come and present this. I think it is very important. She really understands very well that there is an economic, social and environmental dimension to sustainable development. That horizon shift view, which the Government has taken very much to its heart, she completely gets and expresses I think in a way that is very helpful for members of the public to understand how much the Government wants to mainstream, because a lot of the decision-making is about our kids’ future. If we squander unsustainably the resources that we have today, they aren’t there for our children and their children.

Neil Carmichael: Thank you very much, a very good answer.

Chair: I think we want to move on to the detail of the Treasury and the Green Book.

Q27 Ian Murray: Looking at appraising individual policies, obviously when Departments are putting together business plans and looking at individual policies, they are required to produce impact assessments derived from the Green Book, from the Treasury. So, looking at that particular instance, the Government Economic Service, back in 2009 reported that sustainable development was patchy across Government Departments, as Mr Carmichael has just prodded on. So how will you ensure that Green Book guidance on sustainable development and environmental impact is followed by all the Departments, in particular with individual policies?

Mr Anderson: Can I come in on that, Chair?

Chair: That is fine.

Mr Anderson: It is a technical area in principle but it matters on the politics as well. There has been a massive amount of work since that report between our economists, fed by our Chief Economist into the Treasury, and that has produced a whole set of supplementary guidance that is now within the Green Book on the environmental side. That is only the environmental side. We are also working on the Social Impact Task Force, also co-led by the Chief Economist at Defra, and that will add a framework for how, in the Green Book analysis as well, we are looking at the overall social impacts and social capital. This will end up, done correctly-and that is what you have to check and see where we are in that space-that the whole Green Book guidance, which all Departments do have to follow, and it is something that officials take very seriously when we are preparing impact assessments; all Chief Economists have to sign off impact assessments across Government, and they are all bought into. You have to have a strong economic analysis, a strong environmental analysis now, and strong social impact analysis. In fact, in this case, all Permanent Secretaries are held to account for the quality of the policy advice and evidence that goes to Ministers. So, from an official perspective, this is a deeply strengthened system now following on from the 2009 report. Obviously, the Ministers will want to comment on how they support that, but from an official perspective we are quite excited about that because we have developed a much more sophisticated intelligence system I think for policy analysis.

Q28 Ian Murray: Can I probe a little more on that then, because if there is a strong environmental purpose to the Treasury Green Book then why would the Cabinet Committees address individual business plans and send Ministers or Secretary of State back to the Department to have a look at individual policies, with regards to perhaps the fishing example you gave us earlier? If the environmental issues in the Green Book are so strong, then we wouldn’t need that check and balance process, would we?

Mr Anderson: You will because the economic impact assessment will also be that strong, won’t it, and the social, so there will be a balancing at official level on the policy being made that will lead to, "Okay, that is the decision we are going to make on how we want to take forward this policy". Then, when it goes up through the business plans and then goes into Cabinet Committees, and looked at by you, there is a lot of cross-checking going on of whether those factors have been looked at with the right degree of weight. As the Minister of State said earlier, one is going to sometimes win out against the other, and that is the reality. The point of mainstreaming is to do it from beginning to end, that all these factors are being looked at, both by the policy evidence people and by the politicians throughout it by the Government, so they are ending up with a better overall result in sustainable development. That is the point of what we are trying to get to here. So you are right to be right on that question.

Mr Letwin: That is right. It may help if I put it the way I have sometimes thought of it to myself. There is a question of culture and there is a question of judgement, and the culture shift is something that has to be built into the entire machine. If you like, that is the point of the changes in the Green Book. An awful lot of whatever gets to Ministers gets there because the machine is thinking in a certain way. So if the machine does calculations and thinks about policies, without considering environmental concerns, for example, then you very often never get to the Minister with something that presents a choice that the Minister can make a judgement about that is of the right kind. So you have to have the culture correctly aligned.

Having the culture correctly aligned so that the machine is always asking the question not just: is this economically feasible but what impact will this have on the environment? Will it destroy the long term sustainability of society, and so on? It does not spare you from the need to make the judgement, and ultimately you cannot delegate that to officials. That is what elected politicians are elected to make. That judgement very often-sometimes it is literally solvable through a technical device, the fish part, in that example. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the truth is you can have more of this or more of that and you can’t have them both, and that is where the politicians have to make the judgement.

Chair: I am very conscious of time and I know that we need to move on to some other areas. I know the Secretary of State has to leave at 4.00pm, I understand.

Mrs Spelman: I am afraid so, yes.

Chair: I know that Zac Goldsmith wants to come back on one of those things, so I think we are going to have to try and get really compressed answers if we can.

Mr Letwin: That is really difficult.

Chair: Have you finished with that?

Ian Murray: I am happy to move on if we are struggling for time.

Q29 Zac Goldsmith: A very quick question: the Treasury and Defra working together at how to incorporate the natural capital into the books effectively. Is that something that is going to be an extension to the Green Book or is there another mechanism that will be developed to enable that to influence decisions in each of the Departments?

Mrs Spelman: I am not sure who wants to answer this.

Zac Goldsmith: Maybe it is too big a question-

Mrs Spelman: No, we can answer this concisely.

Mr Letwin: I am very happy to have a first stab.

Mrs Spelman: Go on then, yes.

Mr Letwin: This is something I am completely passionate about.

Mrs Spelman: Me, too.

Mr Letwin: Yes, Caroline and I have had a lot of discussion about this. The first point, there is something fantastic that has happened, which I fear, Chair, is due to the previous Government, but we can take the credit. We can take the credit for it. That is that the National Ecosystem Assessment has been carried out. It is the most astonishing document. Well, "document" is the wrong word; treasure-trove, a vast data accumulation, the first of its kind in the world. It enables us to look at natural capital, not as a sort of pleasant theory that gets discussed in academic common rooms, but actually to ask: okay, so what is-something which a particular Member concerned will very much remember-happening to slow water, is it slowing down or is it speeding up? Where is it slowing down? Where is it speeding up? Where are water resources under stress? What are we going to expect to see if current patterns persist?

So there is now, for the first time, what the Quality of Life Policy Group would have dearly loved to have had in its possession five years ago, which is, a real assessment of what each of the ecosystems in Britain is like; where it is under strain; the extent to which it is under strain, and so on, a fantastic resource.

That gives us a possibility of translating natural capital into something meaningful, and what it means is trying to improve those ecosystems. It means building up the ecosystems and it gives us the possibility of actually valuing those ecosystems, in terms of what they deliver. The economists have done quite remarkable work, which I was initially quite sceptical about, which actually I think is serious; looking at various methods of valuing ecosystems, so that the Treasury mind, which always wishes to have quantitative analysis before it, will now be able to have presented to it something that says, "Okay, if you do this it looks like it is okay before you think of the ecosystem effects. When you look at the ecosystem effects you have a cost here, you have to take that cost off what you thought the benefit was and then you have a real capital account, financial capital.

I think this is a fantastically exciting development. It will take some while to play out fully through Government. I think we are nationally in the lead in the world on it and I think we can make it change-to go back to the previous question-the culture further so that every time somebody is thinking of a policy in Britain over the next 50 years they will quite naturally ask themselves the question: what is the effect of this on natural capital? Just as they quite naturally and quite unthinkingly now ask themselves the question: will this affect GDP in a certain way? If we can get that equivalence so that we are not just debating GDP, we are debating GDP and natural capital-while we are at it, wellbeing too, because the index there is coming forward-then we have a much more balanced approach to government.

Mrs Spelman: We are incredibly excited about this and it will be published after purdah. We are already in Scottish Purdah, and they are signatories to it, so we have to wait until after the elections in May, but we will publish it and our Natural Environment White Paper also-

Chair: We have two very quick series of questions from Caroline Nokes and from Simon Wright, and I am conscious of time.

Q30 Caroline Nokes: I know, and I will keep this very brief. I wanted to ask you about sustainable development indicators and particularly when you are expecting new indicators to come forward. Very interestingly, the 2005 document Securing the future - delivering the UK sustainable development strategy is now archived on the Defra website. What sort of message do you feel that is sending out, and how do you expect the sustainable development indicators to affect your work on policy assessment?

Mrs Spelman: A couple of things: again, this is cross-cutting so the Government’s Chief Sustainability and Operating Officer, William Jordan, and his team in the Cabinet Office will challenge and support the Departments in their successful delivery. This will provide one single point of accountability for Pan-Government delivery to Ministers on this agenda. The Ministerial Steering Group also will succeed in the question of the old SOGE targets, a series of new indicators, but I think probably Oliver is best placed to talk about that transition process. It is within your remit.

Mr Letwin: Yes, let me step back because the Government is doing something that is enormously important-I mentioned in relation to the last answer briefly-which is to begin to ask the ONS to develop, because no one will believe politicians if they develop it, a serious internationally recognisable Index of Wellbeing, which we hope will become as much a matter of public discourse in Britain, as I was mentioning GDP is today. I hope it will chime with work that is now being done in other countries, so that it becomes part of an international apparatus. As part of the point about the GDP measures, everybody takes it seriously because everybody else has one and that is what we want to do with Wellbeing too.

The ONS is pretty far advanced in that work. We are of course extremely careful not to intervene in it, so we cannot be accused of being politically motivated but, by the same token, we are extremely interested in its progress and I have had various conversations with the ONS about it.

Now they are looking at different possible ways of that index working, and at one end of the spectrum there would be a composite index that tries to take account of a whole series of sustainable development indicators, as well as a whole series of subjective indicators. You would then have the index as the top of the pyramid and a series of indicators under it. Another possibility is a narrower index that focuses specifically on Wellbeing on the subjective side, and is then accompanied by a series of sustainability indices. That discussion has to continue among the statisticians to the point where it is resolved before we know quite where we are, and I think it is important that we get to the end of that conversation and use indicators that fit that mould, because there is a better than fighting chance that, instead of what I think outside this room is still regarded as a sort of joke thing-I don’t know whether there is a reporter here from The Daily Mail-I will venture my arm, so far as to say, that I doubt that The Daily Mail currently regards Wellbeing indices as top of the pops, but I think there will come a time when The Daily Mail will be reporting on the Wellbeing Index, as much as it is currently reporting on GDP; quite a claim. I think we can get there, and I think that is such a prize to get to that it makes perfectly good sense to let the ONS complete this and make sure it is absolutely academically rigorous so that it gets the buy-in of all the statisticians who are looking at it, and then gets taken really seriously by the people who are commenting on it and then it can spread more widely. I can’t tell you how important I think that would be in the evolution of our politics.

Q31 Simon Wright: The Government’s vision on mainstreaming sustainable development states that annual reports on sustainability will be replaced by up-to-date publishing of information and statistics online, to allow for the continual scrutiny of progress on performance, so what information and statistics specifically are you intending to publish, and who is going to check that that information is correct and reliable?

Mrs Spelman: Obviously, transparency is incredibly important to the Government and part of trying to restore faith in politics is to be completely transparent about performance. So, as far as we have discussed, the business plans are made public. They are on the website. Any changes to them are made public. Indicators will be published. Operations and procurement are made transparent. So right across the piece you will be able to see, and members of the public will be able to see, what progress we are making. The transparency of course for Government has a good effect of driving some of the Departments, which are not performing as well on these indices, to up their game. That is a good thing. It generates a virtuous circle of people in Departments consciously focusing on how to improve their performances because they are made public. I don’t know if you would like to add to the-

Mr Anderson: That is right, but it connects also to the Minister of State’s previous answer as well because we need an overall one, I think, is what you are saying as well, in some way, of how we are measuring the progress on sustainable development. So it is a combination of constantly updating the business plans; anyone can look at them; anyone can question us on them, but also trying to find a set of indicators that make sense for a more general sustainable development approach, and that is more difficult and that will take more time. I think we will move away-

Chair: I am very conscious of time.

Mr Anderson: Of course.

Q32 Peter Aldous: A few questions on sustainable development and the planning system. How is the Government going to ensure that decisions taken at a local level take account of sustainable development?

Mrs Spelman: It is not really for Defra in the lead here, but I hope I made clear in an earlier answer that by placing sustainable development-a presumption in favour of sustainable development-at the very heart of the planning system, it is absolutely pivotal in all the decisions that are made. So if you put in a planning application for a development that would not be sustainable environmentally, socially or economically, then that is the criterion on which the application could be turned down. Colleagues at DCLG are very clear about that. That is something that they have taken on with huge enthusiasm and that combined with the new localism in the planning system, where power is returning to the local level, I think will allow people who are very close to where any planning decision is being made, to appraise that decision against that criterion, and I think it will be a very powerful tool in the planning system.

Often, if you think about it, in the past planning decisions were made based on other criteria without looking at their sustainability. How many times have we seen housing developments added to settlements, when the infrastructure could not cope with those developments and people-I include the settled community and the new community-both suffered as a consequence, through the lack of sustainability? So I think this is an incredibly important step forward in the planning system.

Peter Aldous: Thank you for that. Just-

Chair: Have you finished on that point?

Peter Aldous: There is one leading on from that particular point.

Chair: Yes, that is fine.

Q33 Peter Aldous: Obviously, that is taking into account individual planning applications, but sometimes there is a cumulative effect with the various local policies and planning permissions when they move on. Who will oversee that situation to ensure that the concept of sustainable development is taken into account?

Mr Letwin: I can explain that I think. The new neighbourhood planning system, which is being introduced by the Localism Bill, gives to neighbourhoods, parishes, towns, neighbourhood forums where there aren’t parishes or towns, and the local population through a referendum, the ability to do genuine planning, which isn’t the case at the moment. At the moment we have a system of development control. Now there will be the option of actually planning, in the sense of the community getting together and saying, "Okay, this is how we would like the place we are living in to look like and feel like".

Part of our reason for wanting to do that is our intense desire to localise power and part of it is to create more community, because as people talk about that they talk about all sorts of other things and that fosters a big society, but part of the reason is that we think that people when they come to do that will turn out to care a lot about what the place looks and feels like because they are living in it. We have a sort of touching faith that people do care about where they are living in.

Therefore, we think that will tend to create, just by itself, a planning system that is much more ecologically sensitive. However, we are not risking this in any way because, in order to get approved, a neighbourhood plan will not only have to pass the referendum of the local people, it will also have to conform with the National Planning Framework, and the National Planning Framework-the best way to envisage it is as a massively boiled down but much clearer and much more ecologically driven set of principles and, wherever possible, incidentally, set of maps about what can and can’t be done. So, for example, wild-life corridors, physical regeneration of habitats, sites of special scientific interest, and so on, will be contained in the National Planning Framework.

If you are the local neighbourhood, you will have the incentive as the neighbours to make your place as nice as possible, but in order to get what your vision is accepted it will also have to conform to national standards of what is ecologically appropriate. That combination of local power but within a national framework we think will transform the relationship between the planning system and our ecology. We think we might end up with a Britain that starts getting more ecologically friendly, and a nicer place to live in, rather than less and less so.

Mrs Spelman: The National Ecosystem Assessment is the powerful scientific tool that is new, which really gives you the information about the true cost of the natural capital in the place to which the planning decision applies, and lots of things would not have been built if we had had that in the past.

Q34 Chair: Must to interrupt Peter for the moment, isn’t the concern as reflected in our localism special report that we did and reflected by many NGOs? If this is the case, what is the objection to putting sustainable development on the face of the Localism Bill, and what kind of discussions have there been with the Department for Communities and Local Government? There is a concern that there is going to be a disconnect-even though you say anything in the Localism Bill would have to be compliant to that overall framework, but what is the objection to having sustainable development on the face of the Bill so that it is in no doubt whatsoever?

Mr Letwin: I don’t think it is a question of an objection. It is a question of where it becomes effective, and what the Localism Bill does is to set up the structure I was describing. Therefore, if the presumption of sustainable development is written into the National Planning Framework, the National Planning Framework being what governs the neighbourhood plans, it is inevitably written into every neighbourhood plan. That is the most effective way of making this be brought to bear.

Q35 Peter Aldous: One final point: the Growth Review, which was published alongside the Budget, set out that in planning consent regimes the Secretary of State, yourself, will place significant weight on the need to support economic recovery. What does this mean in practice and is there a conflict with the concept of sustainable development at all?

Mr Letwin: No, there is no conflict at all. The position we face is that because of the new system, which I was describing, being brought in through the Localism Bill, which we believe will have these very good effects and which, incidentally, we believe will also lead to more development but of a more sustainable kind. We think when people feel empowered to run things, decide things, determine things for themselves, they will more welcome that which is sensitive, in both ecological and social terms, than they do now where they are more inclined to set up machine gun nests to stop things happening because they are imposed on them from outside.

So we think it is a pro-development thing that is coming as well as a pro-ecological thing that is coming, but it is coming some years off in the sense that the Bill has to be passed; the National Planning Framework has to be developed; people have to start putting their neighbourhood plans together. There is quite a long process. In the meanwhile we pay a price as a nation for getting to a better system, which is that there is a transitional period during which there has been a certain gumming up of the works. It is unfortunate that this has coincided with a period when demand for housing is relatively low, because the economy is in a fragile state following the recession we went through, and where we very much want to see job growth in order to get the economy moving again.

Under those circumstances it is important that we try to get over the fact that local authorities have had a tendency during this interim period not to do very much and to wait until the new thing comes along. That is why this presumption about how the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would act in the interim has been placed there as part of the Growth Review. It is a way of trying to make sure that the fact that we are transitioning to a new system doesn’t impede unnecessarily the growth now.

That is why we have the presumption of sustainable development installed now too to make sure that it isn’t just any old growth that will do, but rather only that which is sustainable.

Peter Aldous: Thank you very much.

Q36 Chair: I am really struggling. How can you have a presumption in favour of sustainable development when the sort of default position to any development is yes?

Mrs Spelman: I think you are putting some punctuation between the things that the-

Chair: I am trying to join it up.

Mr Letwin: The default position is that if something is a sustainable development the answer should be, yes, in the way those two things go together.

Q37 Chair: Does the Chancellor agree with that?

Mr Letwin: Yes.

Mrs Spelman: He said that.

Mr Letwin: Yes, that is why he said it was a presumption in favour of sustainable development. I know there has been a quite persistent effort to portray the Chancellor as if he and his Department were somehow deeply opposed to the entire ecological agenda. This is not the Chancellor I know and love. This is a man who recognises that there is a balance here.

Mrs Spelman: I would like to add that the Treasury’s plan-

Chair: Please do.

Mrs Spelman: -commits it to setting out a cross-Government framework for supporting strong, sustainable and balanced growth. You don’t have to speak to the Chancellor for very long to say, "You wouldn’t want unsustainable growth, would you?" He is having to clear up the mess of a period of unsustainable growth.

Chair: We are not going to turn this into an exchange on that basis. We are trying to be constructive.

Mr Letwin: Indeed, yes.

Q38 Chair: One quick question on that: what consultation have you had in terms of the European law and the strategic and environmental assessment? You have presumably been having discussions so that all of this is compliant?

Mrs Spelman: Absolutely, and as you know the Coalition Agreement makes very clear that the coalition wants to be a positive participant in Europe. We never leave an empty chair and we are seen I think-certainly by other environment Ministers in Europe-as providing some leadership in this area. We have a very good working relationship with a number of the commissioners. I interface with five alone. We certainly work very closely with them to make sure that we are compliant obviously with all directives, but also providing suggestions to the commission about how we might improve and enhance on those.

Q39 Chair: Staying with Europe at the moment. Do you think had you been before this Committee and we had perhaps discussed something like cloning, that the UK’s position in Europe might have been different?

Mrs Spelman: Obviously, I read The Daily Mail article this morning and, with respect to one of the Committee Members, I think it is really important to understand the science. So Defra takes a science-led, evidence-based approach to all its decision, and the fact with cloning is that there is a complete ban on the sale of any food from a cloned animal. Once a cloned animal is cross-bred conventionally, it has the effect of setting the genetic clock to zero. So, while it is the case that there is no possibility throughout the EU of any food product of a cloned animal being sold or consumed, I think it is important to understand that the descendents of the cross-breeding with other animals do not produce novel foods, but the European Parliament is considering this issue and obviously it is a European-wide decision that has to be made. The UK’s position is clear on this matter and it is the Food Standards Agency that actually oversees the question of being compliant with the European regime.

Q40 Chair: Unfortunately, we are almost up to full-time, so we are not going to go further down that route, but can I finally ask you in terms of the international agenda. It has been said to us by every single commentator, NGO, virtually everybody that we meet with, that RIO plus 20, and the route map to get there is going to be the most fundamental significant event that is taking place. I think the question is: what are you doing in the run up? We are already in the run up to it, and how is that going to affect everything else that gets done in a cross-cutting way?

Mrs Spelman: I am so glad you asked me that question because on Tuesday I will be with Mr Anderson going to Brazil, in order to work with the Brazilian Environment Minister and other Ministers within the Brazilian Government, on Rio plus 20. I think it is in all our interest, all of us who care passionately about sustainable development, to make sure absolutely that this is at the heart of what needs to be a success at Rio plus 20. I share very closely with Senora Teixeira a view that we need to join up what we do internationally on climate change, on biodiversity and on poverty alleviation. I know that the Brazilians are absolutely committed to having sustainability and to have the world’s Ministers focused on the issue of sustainability when we come to Rio for the formal meetings . B ut in the interim we have given technical assistance to Brazil , w e have had some of the officials from the Brazilian Government working within D efra to help them with these preparations and we are very much two countries that will work in alliance to get a good outcome at Rio plus 20.

Q41 Chair: I can safely say that, in terms of the whole of Rio plus 20, international leadership on this was something that was established by the previous Government, and this Committee thinks that it is very important indeed. Certainly, as a Committee and as a Committee alongside other Parliamentarians as well in other countries, we look forward to there being an open, transparent process by which we can influence well in advance in a preventative role.

Mrs Spelman: Absolutely, and I would pay tribute to the work that went before on this, and to give assurances to the Committee that the baton has been passed seamlessly, and in Nagoya the UK was recognised in the leadership role that it has by being asked to be a facilitator of the negotiations between other countries, which led to a multilateral agreement. I think it is a very good suggestion of the Select Committee that we might work together towards trying to achieve the best possible outcome when the summit takes place.

Chair: We have had three minutes of extra time. So, can I, on behalf of the Committee, thank all three of you very much indeed for your time this afternoon.