Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by FDSD (ST 16)

A. Introduction and Summary

A.1 The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development is a UK-based think-tank which works to find ways to equip democracy to deliver sustainable development. Alongside our general work to strengthen understanding on the relationship between democracy and sustainable development, we are currently focusing on two areas: (a) the possible impact of climate change on democracy (and vice versa); and (b) ways to bring long-termism and regard for the needs of future generations into the heart of policy processes and democracy in the UK and beyond.

A.2 Our submission draws (in part only) on a November 2010 submission (jointly with WWF-UK and Barrister Peter Roderick) to the Environmental Audit Committee’s Inquiry into Embedding Sustainable Development Across Government, and a later submission to its August 2011 Inquiry into preparations for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

A.3 We focus in this submission on two issues: strategic capacity relating to sustainable development; and the strategic and associated institutional arrangements for delivering long-termism (in effect questions 1, 2 and 6 in the Committee’s Issues and Questions paper). We address the latter because political systems in the UK need actively to be equipped to overcome the short-termism of electoral cycles and to have regard to the needs of future generations if they are to be properly equipped to deliver sustainable development. Development of strong strategic capacity within Whitehall is a key element of such an effort. We focus on analysing public announcements and external evidence of the way in which the Government is approaching the strategic challenge of sustainable development.

A.4 There are signs that:

(a)Sustainable development is taken insufficiently seriously as a political or strategic imperative.

(b)Overarching strategic capacity on sustainable development across Whitehall is sub-optimal.

(c)A political commitment on the part of the Coalition government to end political short-termism does not appear matched by a strategic architecture capable consistently of delivering long-termism aligned with sustainable development.

B. What is sustainable development?

B.1 Sustainable development is most commonly defined in terms set out in the report of the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, 1987, Oxford University Press, Oxford). At global level, the concept has evolved in particular through the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. Preparations are now well under way for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (dubbed “Rio + 20”).

B.2 Sustainable development is both a social and a political concept. Its core idea is that human activity and decision-making needs to take account of environmental, social and environmental issues in an integrated way. The idea of sustainable development spans some of the most pressing “wicked problems” facing societies around the world; including poverty reduction, demographic change, mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, sustainable management of natural resources, and intergenerational fairness. It is quintessentially among the areas that demand of the UK an ability to “act as an effective international actor in an uncertain world”, as the Committee’s Issues and Questions paper puts it.

B.3 Sustainable development is both a process and a goal. However, the term “sustainability” is often used in preference to “sustainable development” in order to distinguish between the process and the end goal of “sustainable development”.

B.4 Sustainable development is not predominantly an environmental concept. On the contrary, it is inherently about integrating environmental, social and economic issues. Challenges such as climate change, for example, frequently characterised as the preserve of “environmentalists” are inherently social challenges in the broadest sense.

C. The current strategic arrangements for sustainable development

C.1 Sustainable development across Whitehall is driven from within DEFRA, the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs. In January 2011, the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) report on “Embedding Sustainable Development Across Government” warned that DEFRA “is not the best place from which to drive improved sustainable development performance across Government”. We agree. The EAC proposed that a Minister for Sustainable Development be appointed within the Cabinet Office to drive action on sustainable development across government, and with close support from Treasury. That proposal was not adopted by the government.

C.2 Sustainable development is inherently a cross-Whitehall policy commitment. In the UK, DEFRA is additionally responsible for “mainstreaming” sustainable development in other government departments. On 28 February 2011, DEFRA published a seven-page “Vision” document, in which the Department sets out its plans for “mainstreaming” sustainable development (see
http://sd.defra.gov.uk/documents/mainstreaming-sustainable-development.pdf). The document asserts that departmental business plans “demonstrate the importance given to long term SD by government as a whole”. However, any ex ante mechanism for ensuring that business plans demonstrate awareness, let alone strategic integration of sustainable development, is weakened by the lack of a sustainable development strategy.

C.3 It appears that there is currently no coherent sustainable development strategy for the UK. The last sustainable development strategy, Securing the future: delivering UK sustainable development strategy, was published in 2005. (See http://www.defra.gov.uk/publications/files/pb10589-securing-the-future-050307.pdf). To the best of our knowledge, it has never been formally shelved. However, neither is it a reference point for the Coalition government. Voters and interested parties have to rely on speeches, press coverage, and a clutch of diverse policy papers, some of them applicable only to England, as a substitute for a dedicated UK sustainable development strategy.

C.4 The Environmental Audit Committee’s report on “Embedding Sustainable Development Across Government” (See First Report of Session 2010–11, HC 504.
See http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmental-audit-committee/publications/) recommended that “A new Sustainable Development Strategy should be developed to revitalise Government engagement on this essential foundation for all policy-making” (Recommendation 13). In March 2011 the government’s response to the report was released. In it, the government said:

“We do not agree that development of a new SD strategy is the right method for revitalising Government engagement on SD. The Government’s new SD vision and approach to fully embed SD throughout Government sets out our high level principles and strategy for the future. Our new approach has an emphasis on action, leadership from the top down and departments taking responsibility for their own performance in relation to SD. All of this is underpinned by our commitment to be open and transparent so that both public and parliament can scrutinise our progress”.

(See http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmenvaud/writev/esd/response.htm)

C.5 DEFRA’s Departmental Business Plan (most recently updated in May 2011: operational rather than strategic in nature) commits the Department to work with Cabinet Office to: “promote mainstreaming of sustainable development in Departmental Business Plans, including by: informing quarterly reviews of Business Plans; establishing a process to inform the annual refresh of Business Plans” (See http://www.number10.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/DEFRA-Business-Plan1.pdf). It is unclear whether this process is sufficiently prospective to allow DEFRA to provide meaningful leadership, or what sustainable development-related strategic architecture it is based on.

C.6 The Environmental Audit Committee’s report on embedding sustainable development across government recommended a new Cabinet Committee with terms of reference addressing sustainable development. DEFRA Secretary of State Caroline Spelman sits on the Home Affairs, Economic Affairs and Reducing Regulation Cabinet committees to ensure that agreed policies are consistent with the Government’s vision for sustainable development.
(See http://sd.defra.gov.uk/2011/09/mainstreaming-sustainable-development-our-progress-so-far/) That is positive; but there is no dedicated sustainable development Cabinet Committee.

C.7 Between 2000 and March 2011, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) acted as an independent watchdog and adviser on sustainable development to the government. In form, the SDC was an (independent) executive non-departmental public body (NDPB) and a company limited by guarantee. DEFRA announced withdrawal of funding from the SDC in July 2010, and the UK Sustainable Development Commission ceased to operate at the end of March 2011. An important part of the overall UK enabling environment for strategic decision-making on sustainable development: access to the external scrutiny, advice, and expertise provided by the SDC, was thereby removed. There has been no effective replacement.

C.8 In relation to scrutiny of government action on sustainable development, DEFRA’s Vision document says that “[t]he Environmental Audit Committee will play a role in holding Government to account with a renewed commitment to scrutinise the appraisal of Government’s policies and our new overall approach”. Yet the Environmental Audit Committee’s report said clearly that it “is not for Government.. to determine how Parliament might exercise its role of holding Government to account. We are not currently resourced to carry out the routine scrutiny work of the SDC and continue our separate role in scrutinising the Government’s sustainability performance”. The lack of a written sustainable development strategy, linked to capacity gaps in routine scrutiny, is a matter for grave concern.

C.9 Even if it were technically possible to “mainstream” sustainable development without a full written sustainable development strategy, it would reduce public transparency of the strategy process and associated choices; thereby replacing systematic scrutiny with ad hoc judgments.

C.10 The lack of a clear sustainable development strategy has furthermore provided space for approaches to sustainable development that have tended to prioritise economic growth rather than a balanced and integrated approach across economy, environment and society. For example, in the draft National Planning Policy Framework
(http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/planningandbuilding/pdf/1951811.pdf)
published earlier this year, a “presumption in favour of sustainable development” is defined as a presumption in favour of development and growth:

“A new presumption in favour of sustainable development
This is a powerful new principle underpinning the planning system that will help to ensure that the default answer to development and growth is “yes” rather than “no”, except where this would clearly compromise the key sustainable development principles in national planning policy, including protecting the Green Belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The presumption will give developers, communities and investors greater certainty about the types of applications that are likely to be approved, and will help to speed up the planning process and encourage growth…”

C.11 In another example of imbalance that does not conform with widespread understanding of the principle of integration inherent within sustainable development, the government’s Red Tape Challenge, launched in April 2011, invites comments on “which regulations are working and which are not; what should be scrapped, what should be saved and what should be simplified”. 278 environmental laws and regulations are included in the exercise. The Red Tape Challenge website says: “here’s the most important bit—the default presumption will be that burdensome regulations will go. If Ministers want to keep them, they have to make a very good case for them to stay”. (See http://www.redtapechallenge.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/about/). This basic presumption (without any further explanation of what constitutes a “burden” or by whom a regulation must be considered “burdensome” in order to invoke the presumption) has remained in place throughout, despite assurances that the government remains committed to being the “greenest ever”.

C.12 It is for Government to choose its policy approach; but in an area as important to the future of the nation (indeed the world) as sustainable development, it should do so on the basis of a strategy, clearly and publicly stated so as to permit accountability to the electorate.

C.13 More recently, in his November 2011 Autumn statement, George Osborne argued that “if we burden [British business] with endless social and environmental goals—however worthy in their own right—then not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer”.
(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/budget/8923191/Autumn-Statement-2011-George-Osbornes-speech.html).
The underlying sentiment might be contrasted with the statement in DEFRA’s business plan that “the Coalition is committed to being the Greenest government ever” (http://www.number10.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/DEFRA-Business-Plan1.pdf). More than simply indications that policy-making in Coalition is difficult, these differences provide proxy indicators of poor strategic architecture on sustainable development.

D. The challenge of long-termism

D.1 At the political level, sustainable development invites governments to develop a strategic capacity to deliver human needs, not only now but also for the long term. Political short-termism (one of the potential side-effects of a failure of strategic capacity) threatens progress on sustainable development.

D.2 Taking the environmental and social challenge of climate change as an example; a challenge which demands responses that are aligned with the notion of sustainable development:

climate impacts are displaced considerably in space and time;

climate impacts extend far beyond current electoral timetables;

climate action can be portrayed as a threat to economic growth, and national economic indicators and public opinion of “success” in government are often tied to economic growth;

many (if not most) people affected by climate change have no direct voice in any individual nation where greenhouse gas-intensive human activities that give rise to climate change take place;

the sunk costs in carbon-intensive industries and infrastructures are considerable, which presents major challenges for the transition a low-carbon economy;

effective political action on climate change demands that cross-party policy alignment be sustained over many successive government terms.

D.3 Sustainable development demands that governments develop a strategic capacity to take account of “the long view”: to act on challenges such as natural resource scarcity or management of demographic change that call for coordination across successive government terms.

D.4 For example, high fuel and food prices are closely linked to factors including population growth, natural resource scarcity, and access to dwindling fossil fuels. These are in themselves major long-term strategic challenges for government. However at the same time, high fuel and food prices generate major short-term political pressures because they result in immediate hardship for the most vulnerable people and voters. Responding to such pressures demands well-developed strategic capacity, and a sophisticated ability to balance long-term needs against short-term pressures.

D.5 In a September 2010 speech, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that one of the two animating purposes of the Coalition government (along with decentralisation and the Big Society) would be a “horizon shift”: governance for the long-term; and therefore an end to political short-termism.
(See http://www.libdems.org.uk/news_detail.aspx?title=Nick_Clegg_speech%3A_Horizon_shift&pPK=f8f7b543-d586–40e2-b4c9-e7be68970bf3)

D.6 The commitment to a “horizon shift” is welcome from a sustainable development perspective. However, given the multiple short-term pressures to which governments are subject—exacerbated by electoral cycles—it is highly unlikely that rhetoric alone could provide a basis for the kind of lasting transformation in political culture that would be indicated by a real “horizon shift”. The foundations of any meaningful “horizon shift” would lie in part in skills and understanding and in peoples’ belief, commitment and engagement. But they also demand an institutional commitment and a high level strategic capacity linked to transparent processes, public participation and accountability.

D.7 It is striking that the Coalition government has not put in place institutional arrangements to guarantee implementation of a “horizon shift”. We draw Committee members’ attention to the Coalition government’s frequent appeal to the needs of future generations or “the long term” when justifying controversial policy decisions. These have, in recent months, included cuts in police budget; increases in tuition fees; and the proposed “presumption in favour of sustainable development” within the National Planning Policy Framework that is defined as a presumption in favour of development. Without a strategic capacity and institutional spaces in which to evaluate and debate publicly the competing needs of the long term or future generations; let alone a time horizon for determining which future generation(s) or which needs, the risk is a result that amounts simply to political advocacy of unpopular policy choices. Strategic capacity needs to be linked to transparent policy processes and engagement of the wider population.

D.8 It appears that the overall approach through which a commitment to “horizon shift” has been implemented is heavily weighted in favour of prioritising the long-term need for debt reduction. Other long-term needs have been subsumed to economic growth. This is necessarily an impressionistic conclusion, however, since there is no publicly available “horizon shift” strategy beyond the evidence provided by political rhetoric.

D.9 We draw the Committee’s attention to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, carried out in November 2011. More than two thirds (67%) of those polled believed that the UK Government considers future generations too little in decisions it makes today, and nearly half of those interviewed (45%) think passing on a healthy planet to future generations is more important than any one of five given other options including passing on a thriving economy (9%), safety and security (16%) or an unspoilt countryside (4%). (See further http://www.fdsd.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/british-public-opinion-on-future-generations.pdf).

D.10 The UK Foresight Programme exists to “help government think systematically about the future” (See http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight). However impressive its work and its research reports, much more is needed to deliver the overall strategic architecture for “horizon shift”. We draw the Committee’s attention, for example, to some of the mechanisms that exist in other countries. In Finland, parliament’s Committee for the Future is charged with carrying on an “active and initiative-generating dialogue with the Government on major future problems and means of solving them”. Around the world, well over a dozen constitutions refer to “future generations” (See http://www.fdsd.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Taking-the-longer-view-December-2010.pdf). Hungary’s Parliament has appointed a “Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations”, to safeguard the constitutional right of Hungarian citizens to a healthy environment (See further http://www.jno.hu/en/).

D.11 We hope that this submission supports our case that there is a significant outstanding need to address the integration of sustainable development into Whitehall in a strategic and long-term manner. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you require further information about any of the points raised in this submission.

December 2011

Prepared 20th April 2012