Environmental Audit Committee

5 April 2004 NEW INQUIRY

5 April 2004 NEW INQUIRY

The Sustainable Development Strategy:  illusion or reality?

After extensive consultation, the Government launched its new, all-embracing, Sustainable Development Strategy in May 1999.   It was underpinned by a suite of 150 indicators, 15 of which were picked as headline indicators; and by institutional reforms such as the creation of the Green Ministers' Committee and the Sustainable Development Unit within the then DETR.    The Strategy included a commitment to publish annual reports on progress (the Achieving a Better Quality of Life series of reports) which have largely focussed on progress against the headline indicators. 

The Government also committed itself to review the strategy at the end of five years.   This review began in December 2002 with a consultation conducted by UNED-UK on behalf of DEFRA on the implications for the review in the wake of the WSSD summit.    Subsequently, the Government set up a task force to develop the review, and will launch a formal consultation later this month.

Since 2002, the Environmental Audit Committee has reported on the Government's own annual reviews and progress against the headline indicators.   It also took some evidence on wider issues relating to the Sustainable Development Strategy in 1999 and 2000, and raised some concerns about its effectiveness - notably in its most recent report on the Greening Government initiative.  However,  it has never reported specifically on the overall impact or effectiveness of the Strategy itself.  

The main thrust of the inquiry which it is launching today is, therefore, to assess the overall impact and effectiveness of the Strategy to date.   It will also consider the role and adequacy of the indicators which the Government has developed (including target setting), and the interaction between indicators and targets on the one hand and departmental objectives and PSAs targets on the other.   In doing so, it will consider possible ways in which the Strategy could be improved, and in particular the role which the concept of sustainable consumption should play in this.

The Committee wishes to help promote a debate on this subject during the period of the Government consultation, and intends to take oral evidence in May and June.   It therefore invites organisations and members of the public to submit memoranda setting out their views on the effectiveness of the Sustainable Development Strategy.   Some specific issues on which the Committee would welcome comments are set out overleaf, though respondents are free to comment on any issues which they consider relevant.

Written evidence should be sent to the Committee by Monday 10th May 2004, preferably by e-mail to eacom@parliament.uk (with a hard copy by post).   A brief guidance note on the preparation and submission of evidence is available on the Committee's web pages.  For further information on the Committee's inquiry, please telephone 020-7219-1378.

Inquiry Issues

A:  The definition of 'Sustainable Development'

· The Government has stated that the Brundtland definition "is excessively narrow and puts undue emphasis on environmental concerns…[It] lies at the environmental end of the spectrum of views on sustainable development.   At the other end, there are equally sound definitions that favour a fundamentally economic definition."  Does the definition of 'sustainable development' matter? 

· The Sustainable Development Strategy (the Strategy) requires all 4 key objectives to be met at the same time.  Is this realistic?   Is political support for this concept based upon its ambiguity?  Does it fail to place enough weight on the need to make trade-offs between different objectives and the relative importance to be attached to them in that event?

B:  Has the Strategy acted as a driver or does it occupy a limbo existence which has little impact on departments' real priorities?

· What specific impacts can be attributed to the Strategy since its introduction in 1999? 

· How effectively has the Strategy linked to, or acted as the driver for, lower level strategies - whether topic specific strategies, such as the Climate Change Strategy and the Air Quality Strategy, or strategies of devolved administrations, regional and local government?

· How much impact has the Strategy had on mainstreaming the environment in terms of objectives and targets set for individual departments in Public Service Agreements and in departmental strategies and business plans?

· Can a UK Strategy ever amount to more than a set of principles or aspirations, particularly in the context of devolved government?  Is it needed, given the fact that - where progress is being made - it seems to be topic-specific and driven from the bottom? If it is needed, should it focus much more specifically on a small number of key themes and targets?

C:  How effectively do  the indicators reflect the UK's 'sustainability gap'?

· Could the Government have made greater use of indicators to drive policy and set targets in departmental business plans and Public Service Agreements?

· To what extent do the existing indicators, in particular the headline indicators, properly reflect the extent to which the UK is unsustainable?    What additional or alternative indicators could address this gap?

D:  How can the concept of sustainable consumption be integrated within the Strategy?

· Should sustainable consumption and production be seen as only one constituent part of sustainable development (ie a lower level strategy which sits alongside others), or as another way of looking at sustainable development itself?

· Sustainable consumption has so far been interpreted mainly in terms of sustainable production.   What is the role of government with regard to encouraging changes in consumption itself - eg by managing demand or facilitating choice? What difficulties does it face in doing so?

E:  Organisational structures and costs

· Do the present organisational structures and policy mechanisms within Government contribute to the effective implementation of the Strategy?  What improvements could be made in this respect? Is there a case for rationalising the number of organisations involved in key sectors?

· Is there a need for a more consistent approach to incorporating sustainable development as an overarching objective in all Government organisations?  Or would the ambiguity of the term prove unhelpful?

· Has a lack of sufficient Government financial support for programmes and policies hindered the implementation of the Strategy in any way? 

  Notes for Editors

1. The Committee's previous reports can be found on its website at: www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/environmental_audit_committee.cfm.

2. The Committee took evidence on the Sustainable Development Strategy in 1999 and 2000.   See Minutes of Evidence - 25 May 1999, HC 479-i, Session 1998-99;   Minutes of Evidence - 6 July 1999, HC 479-ii, 1998-99; and Minutes of Evidence - 16 March 2000, HC 175-i, 1999-2000.   It also expressed some concerns on the Strategy and its impact in its Thirteenth Report of Session 2002-03, Greening Government 2003, HC 961 (see especially pages 4, 17-18, 28-29).