Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State’s announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission

Written evidence submitted by WWF-UK and FSD (ESD 11)

Bullet point summary

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 than Parliament.

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 protections.

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 9th September [1] ). 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 due course.

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.

The Hungarian model as an example of recent international developments

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 below [2] . 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", respectively.

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.

UK parallels

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 the future’, [3] 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." [4]

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 generations.

An evolving UK debate

28. Following Dr Fülöp’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.

Concluding remarks

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 socio-economic disadvantage").

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

[2] See http://jno.hu/en/?&menu=home

[3] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmpubadm/123/123i.pdf

[4] http://wales.gov.uk/topics/sustainabledevelopment/?lang=en