The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts. If the Sustainable Development Commission is to be cut, it is a blow on a nunber of fronts -logic, the environment, sustainable government, indeed the concept of sustainability – are all losers!
Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband: “They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”
Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.
Jonathon Porritt: As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission.
The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts.
An announcement that the Sustainable Development Commission is to be abolished is expected tomorrow, just as the environmental and sustainability watchdog publishes its latest report outlining the savings departments could make from being greener.
The report will detail how the Government could make hundreds of millions of pounds of savings over the next Parliament by reducing transport, water use, energy waste and rubbish – savings worth many times the £3 million expenditure on the SDC.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was unable to confirm today if the arms-length body, which is jointly operated by the UK Government and devolved administrations, is to be disbanded, saying no final decision has been made.
But reports of its imminent demise have raised concerns in the Welsh Assembly, where it was last week described as playing an important role in Wales’s efforts to become greener.
The SDC has helped central government departments save the equivalent of £16 million in carbon emissions reductions and £13 million in reducing water waste.
The commission has also worked with the NHS and schools to reduce their emissions and energy use and recommended the “whole-house” green makeovers to make them more energy efficient, a policy that was adopted by all three parties before the General Election.
Its advice on whether a Severn barrage could be built sustainably also paved the way for consideration of tidal schemes in the Severn Estuary.
Greenpeace campaigner Louise Edge condemned the decision to axe the SDC as “incredibly short-sighted”.
“The commission has always given great value for money, cutting wasteful energy use across Whitehall and providing vital advice on how departments can slash their carbon emissions.
“You have to wonder about the thinking behind scrapping a £3 million body with a record of success while pushing ahead with the multibillion-pound Trident replacement, which the military doesn’t even want. This is muddled thinking,” she said.
Margaret Ounsley, head of public affairs at WWF-UK, said: “Everybody knows that we are facing a heavy deficit, and we should not be too prescriptive about how the Government deals with it.
“However, it would be the worst sort of mindless hacking from Government if we were to lose the capacity to measure and report on its moves towards meeting its own commitments to become leaner and greener.
“Shooting the watchdog does not make always make for savings.”
And Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.
“The coalition must be held to account on its promise to be the greenest Government ever – and explain how it will continue to green Britain, saving money and creating jobs at the same time – without the Sustainable Development Commission’s expert guidance and overview.”
Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband said: “The coalition has made some terrible decisions on the environment – scrapping the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, shelving Labour’s plan for the Green Investment Bank.
“They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”
As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission. So I’ve been working really hard to put myself in Ministers’ shoes in terms of the ‘rationale’ they’ve advanced for this reprehensible decision. They’ve put forward four justifications:1. It will save moneyThe SDC costs the taxpayer around £4 million a year, around 50% of which come from Defra. The rest comes from the Devolved Administrations and other Whitehall Departments – all of which wanted to carry on working with the SDC. As George Monbiot has pointed out, the SDC’s advice on reducing costs through increased efficiency has already saved the Government many, many times that negligible amount, and would have gone on doing so year after year.2. Sustainable development is now mainstreamed across government.Defra Ministers are now claiming that sustainable development has been embedded in every department. In other words, no specialist capability at the centre is any longer required, simply because the Government ‘gets it’.Like hell it does. To hear Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State in Defra make such a totally fatuous claim after a few weeks in power is irritating beyond belief. She clearly knows nothing of the constant slog required (of the SDC and many other organisations) to achieve the limited traction that is all that can be laid claim to today.There’s a rich irony here. The SDC is a UK-wide body. Neither Wales nor Scotland was in favour of getting rid of the Commission, no doubt because both Countries have done an infinitely better job than Whitehall on ‘mainstreaming’ sustainable development.3. It will avoid duplicationThis is a bit trickier, simply because the SDC does a number of different things. It advises Ministers – and there are indeed lots of other people who do that. But rarely if ever from an integrated sustainable development perspective. It helps countless public sector bodies (from the Audit Commission to the Department of Education, from Local Authorities to Primary Care Trusts in the NHS) to make sense of sustainable development, and no other government body does any of that. And it scrutinises government performance on a completely independent basis across the whole sustainable development agenda – not just on climate change. And no other body does that.4. Sustainable development is too important to delegate to an external bodyIt’s worth recording Caroline Spelman’s actual words here: “Together with Chris Huhne, I am determined to take the lead role in driving the sustainable agenda across the whole of government, and I’m not willing to delegate this responsibility to an external body.”Even after nine years working with dozens of Government Ministers, I’m astonished at such utterly brazen cynicism. The only thing Mrs Spelman has done so far as Secretary of State at Defra is publish a new strategy for the Department. This has not one serious reference to sustainable development in it. Such is the depth of her concern.If Defra’s next step is to get rid of what’s left of it’s own internal Sustainable Development Unit, then it will have literally no capacity to ‘drive the sustainable agenda’ even within Defra, let alone ‘across the whole of government’. And how can you drive anything if you haven’t the first clue what it actually means? And it just got rid of the only part of the system capable of providing you with a basic primer for beginners?So let’s not beat around the bush: their justification for getting rid of the SDC is transparently vacuous, if not downright dishonest. This is an ideological decision – in other words, a decision driven by dogma not by evidence-based, rational analysis.And the only conceivable reason for allowing dogma to dominate in this way is that the Government doesn’t want anyone independently auditing its performance on sustainable development – let alone properly-resourced, indisputably expert body operating as ‘a critical friend’ on an inside track within government.I don’t suppose the Prime Minister was even consulted about such a footling little matter. But it’s clear that his advisors hadn’t the first idea about the kind of signal this dogma-driven decision sends out, ensuring that his claim that this will be the ‘greenest government ever’ is in deepest jeopardy. It’s too early to make any definitive judgement about how the Green agenda will fare under the Coalition. But it’s not encouraging. ‘Greenest ever’ has to mean something substantive. Simply smearing a sickly ideological slime over everything just won’t cut it.