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

Written Evidence submitted by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Northern Ireland Executive (ESD 35)

INQUIRY INTO EMBEDDING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT ACROSS GOVERNMENT

Thank you for your letter of 14 October regarding the above, and the opportunity to contribute to the associated deliberations. We would like to begin by registering our disappointment at Defra’s announcement on 22 July of its decision to withdraw funding from the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC).

To date, we have found the work of the SDC to be of significant value to us in our efforts to progress and embed the sustainability agenda in, and beyond, Government. We therefore welcome your inquiry at this time.

Please find attached our response to each of the specific questions presented by the Environmental Audit Committee in the attached Annex.

Annex

QUESTION 1: "Does the Northern Ireland Executive intend to continue funding and working with the Sustainable Development Commission?"

ANSWER:

The Secretary of State’s announcement on 22 July to withdraw funding did, in our opinion present the devolved administrations with a fait a complis in terms of continuation of funding.

The proportionality of sponsorship funding provided the Executive with low cost and effective access to national (and indirectly, international) expertise on sustainable development. There was, in reality a ‘multiplier effect’ in terms of central and devolved benefits, given that the SDC was engaged in many policy and operational activities which could inform and advise some, or all, of the contributing administrations via a strong organisational and intellectual network.

The decision by the largest sponsor i.e.Defra, to withdraw funding effectively destroys any economies of scale, and renders the ‘multiplier effect’ ineffective. It is, therefore, in our opinion, neither sensible nor cost-effective for us to continue funding (at presumably much higher levels than currently provided) for a diminished service.

We do not envisage that it will be possible for the Executive to continue working with the SDC given the Defra decision.

QUESTION 2: "What impact would the UK Government funding cuts have on your work with the Sustainable Development Commission?"

ANSWER:

The funding cuts will have a significantly detrimental effect on our work with the SDC. As stated in answer to Question 1, we do not believe that it is now possible to continue working with the SDC. To do so, it would be necessary to approve far higher levels of spending against this resource, while setting this against a backdrop of diminished service provision and the broader Comprehensive Spending Review constraints we are facing. From an operational perspective, the SDC has been instrumental in assisting the production of our new Sustainable Development Strategy, which was published in May of this year, and the development of the accompanying Implementation Plan which identifies priorities and objectives for delivery. Importantly, there was a commitment on behalf of the SDC to work closely with this department to help deliver many of the strategic targets included within the Implementation Plan.

Clearly, this is now no longer possible. We are in the process of determining the most effective course of action to assure continuing progress against, and achievement of, these strategic targets.

Separately, we have through our Statutory Duty in relation to sustainable development, a duty to ensure public authorities have due regard to sustainable development in the exercising of their duties. The SDC has been useful to us in this regard, and its abolition will make this work more challenging for this department to exercise that Duty effectively.

QUESTION 3: "How does the Northern Ireland Executive expect to relate to the sustainable development architecture that might be reconfigured after next March? Does it intend to work with the other devolved administrations, and if so how?"

ANSWER:

It is likely that the Executive will, like all other devolved administrations, become part of a more detached and disparate sustainable development architecture as a consequence of Defra’s decision. It is, we believe, reasonable to anticipate that the loss of a central and specific repository or information and expertise will lead to increased difficulties in terms of developing and formulating cohesive approaches to sustainable development issues. We recognise, absolutely, the importance of information sharing and co-operation at national level if we are to progress the sustainability agenda and deliver long-term change.

Officials from across all administrations are currently involved in the SDC Transition Project, at which succession planning for a post-SDC environment has been discussed. Although we have yet to finalise our own precise organisational structures, there is a tacit understanding of the need for continued co-operation and information sharing between Governments and departments of Government. The means by which this may most effectively be achieved has yet to be clarified, but we would be happy to facilitate these discussions in order to reach agreement on how to do so.

QUESTION 4: "Does the UK Government’s withdrawal of funding from the Sustainable Development Commission put at risk a consistent approach to sustainable development across the UK? If so, how?"

ANSWER:

Yes. The withdrawal of funding weakens the governmental policy development and communications infrastructure within which the SDC played a central role. While expertise may still exist in areas of Government, the abolition of the SDC will cause, in our opinion, fragmentation of knowledge and an erasing of a ‘corporate memory’ that has been accumulated over many years.

Many of the key issues concerning sustainable development are, by nature, long term; the existence of the SDC offered stability in this respect and provided a continuity of comment and assessment that was valuable in helping to shape and reform sustainability policies and strategies. It will be, we believe, more difficult to maintain this stability if, by necessity, work previously undertaken by the SDC is absorbed into the more generalist environments of some government departments.

Again, the challenge of retaining and utilizing as much as possible of the corporate memory bank is one that we are facing up to as we attempt to create a, credible, alternative mechanism for the delivery of our sustainability priorities and objectives.

SUMMARY:

We are disappointed with Defra’s decision to withdraw funding from the SDC. Progression and achievement of sustainable development does by its very nature, both in principle and in practice, require unilateral understanding and co-operation across and between Governments. The abolition of the SDC, does in our opinion, undermine the capability of the devolved administrations to most effectively reap the benefits of the unilateralism associated with the SDC and its functions.

We believe that the withdrawal of funding by the major sponsor i.e. Defra, has created a situation in which the continued function of the SDC (as an organisation operating only outside England) has been so severely diminished that it has become untenable for this department to continue to support its activities here.

11 November 2010