The UK Coalition government’s approach to sustainable development looks increasingly like a Potemkin village. Its smart websites and fine rhetoric hide the misery of the social fallout from cutbacks in our age of austerity, slow progress on environment, and the impoverishment of democracy.
Most recently, the coalition government’ s Red Tape Challenge makes utterly laughable its aspiration to be ‘the greenest government ever’; its reassurance that sustainable development will be mainstreamed across government; and the forgotten second pillar of the coalition’s government alongside the Big Society: a ‘new horizon’ to eliminate political short-termism.
It’s long, so I’ve also posted the text of this blog post as a pdf file.
I’ve been brewing this post for a little while. It’s a sort of score-card, one year in, on the extent of the coalition government’s commitment to sustainable development delivered through vibrant democratic practice.
Sadly, like a laughable Eurovision entry, the ‘nearly-nul-points’ verdicts keep rolling in.
Among the most damning analyses was a report published earlier this month written for Friends of the Earth by Jonathon Porritt, undisputably among the elders of the UK environment and sustainable development movement.
In a detailed analysis, drawing on a compilation of 77 commitments made by the Coalition partners both within and outside government, there are precious few rays of light. The report slams the Coalition government’s record in delivering against its own objectives; let alone those of any genuinely groundbreaking commitment to sustainable development.
As new Prime Minister, David Cameron promised the ‘greenest government ever’. (Did he ever feel, as he uttered those words, the icy hand of Robin Cook and the New Labour government’s ‘ethical foreign policy’?). Today, those fine words have served to fuel the derision of environmentalists across the UK, for all Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman’s insistence that the rhetoric has real foundations.
Some of the low-lights for me in my work over the past year here at FDSD follow.
Embedding sustainable development
Two months or so after the General election, the Coalition government made clear that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the independent government sustainable development watchdog the Sustainable Development Commission would provide some of the fuel for its bonfire of the Quangos.
With the incineration of these institutional underpinnings for sustainable development and ‘green government’ in the UK, many environment and sustainable development advocates had cause to fret from an early stage.
Other early signs of the extent of the commitment by the ‘greenest government ever’ to sustainable development could be found (for those who have a high tolerance level for dull documents) in DEFRA’s November 2010 ‘Business Plan’. That document, all logframes and matrices, used the two words ‘sustainable development’ next to one another precisely… once… in a reference to DEFRA’s goal of embedding sustainable development in other government departments. (Actually that’s not quite true: it’s also there in the DEFRA organogram; and the word ‘sustainability’ is also mentioned a few times. But still…).
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) – a cross-party select committee mechanism for scrutinising the government’s approach to environment and sustainable development – opened its work in the new Parliamentary session with an inquiry into Embedding Sustainable Development Across Government after the Secretary of State’s announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission.
A series of evidence sessions followed. FDSD submitted written evidence together with WWF-UK’s legal team and Barrister Peter Roderick, and WWF-UK’s Carol Day and I also gave evidence at one of the oral evidence sessions.
During one evidence session, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman and DEFRA Director-General Mike Anderson were so feebly questioned that I found myself wishing, as I watched my laptop screen, that there was a sofa nearby that I could dive behind as I yelled ‘noooooh – look behiiiind you’ pantomime-style at Parliament TV and the MPs on the Committee.
The Environmental Audit Committee’s eventual report was moderate; conservative even; very far from strident. And yet it pointed in effect to what everyone in the UK sustainable development community knows to be true: that DEFRA, the environment ministry, is too weak to provide the right home for an effort to embed sustainable development across government.
The EAC warned that DEFRA “is not the best place from which to drive improved sustainable development performance across Government”. Instead, said the EAC, a Minister for Sustainable Development should be appointed within the Cabinet Office to drive action on sustainable development across government, and with close support from Treasury. In a joint press release, FDSD and WWF-UK endorsed the call; effectively to put sustainable development at the heart of where the real power lies in government. The Environmental Audit Committee also recommended a new Cabinet Committee with terms of reference addressing sustainable development. That too was a very welcome suggestion.
For a little while, progress towards the demise of the watchdog Sustainable Development Commission became a way of marking UK sustainable development policy time.
And then Caroline Spelman went on to a notable (if mealy-mouthed) u-turn on forests sell-off in the face of an effective rainbow-hued campaign. With Hunter wellies, Doc Martens; sensible cushion-soles and old plimsolls among the favoured campaign footwear, government plans to transfer (and in part sell off) the nation’s forest assets to private and community ownership floundered.
Ms Spelman apparently later passed off the forest u-turn as an indication that this is a ‘listening’ government.
And then, a month before the Sustainable Development Commission closed shop, on 28th February 2010, DEFRA provided us with another indicator of its approach to embedding sustainable development across government.
In a seven-page word-processed and colourless ‘Vision’ document (a document which one senior civil servant has since assured me need not be cause for worry because it’s already been forgotten about) DEFRA sets out its plans for ‘mainstreaming’ sustainable development.
Sadly, DEFRA’s vision is unlikely to do much to inspire anyone – though that’s the one thing that a government committed to a Big Society working for sustainable development should be doing.
It’s hard to know where to start.
There’s a feeble statement of fact that sustainable development ‘recognises that the three pillars of the economy, society and the environment are interconnected’; a statement that contains nothing normative. But sustainable development is about integrating regard for economy, society and the environment so that we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. And the Vision tells us that ‘stimulating economic growth and tackling the deficit’ are part of the overall approach to sustainable development.
Scratch the surface of some of the words in the Vision document and it’s hard to tell what lies beneath: ‘real measurable indicators’ are promised for example. The Vision tells us (as more recently has Caroline Spelman – in both cases without supporting evidence) that the government played a leading role at biodiversity talks in Nagoya – but why should we believe it?
Where is the evidence that, as the Vision statement suggests, departmental business plans ‘demonstrate the importance given to long term SD by government as a whole’? The Vision commits DEFRA to review the business plans of other departments as part of its commitment to mainstream sustainable development across government. It’ll apparently thereby ensure ‘that environmental, social and economic impacts are taken into account as far as possible’. But this ex post impact assessment is very far from a commitment to drive sustainable development innovation and integration of environmental social and economic considerations.
Without an overall strategic framework (the sort that could be provided through a sustainable development white paper, for example), the government has no transparent basis for driving policy creativity or commitment – let alone accountability to the public in the muddle of coalition in a first past the post voting system.
The Environmental Audit Committee report had recommended (Recommendation 13 if you’re interested) that “A new Sustainable Development Strategy should be developed to revitalise Government engagement on this essential foundation for all policy-making”.
But the government rejects entirely the idea of putting its approach to sustainable development on a clear and transparent strategic footing. Caroline Spelman has gone so far as to state quite clearly that the government does not intend to develop a new UK Sustainable Development Strategy.
When it comes to scrutiny of government action on sustainable development; the Vision says that ‘The 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 on Embedding Sustainable Development Across Government had 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”.
Far from a commitment to secure a new Minister for Sustainable Development within Cabinet, the Vision keeps responsibility for mainstreaming sustainable development across government firmly with DEFRA.
It’s certainly not bad that, as the Vision says, DEFRA’s Secretary of State will sit on key domestic policy Cabinet committees, including the economic affairs committee. But it’s no substitute for an institutional architecture that puts political commitment to sustainable development at the heart of government.
Around mid March 2011 the government’s response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on ‘embedding sustainable development across government’ was released. (Sadly the announcement was botched so there was little publicity). The government says:
“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”.
Guardian environment head Damian Carrington went along to see and report on Caroline Spelman and Cabinet Office heavyweight Oliver Letwin’s appearance before the Environmental Audit Committee to discuss their response. In calling the government’s sustainability plan ‘hot air’, “I’m actually being kind”, Carrington said in a blog post immediately afterwards.
The Plan for Growth
Next came the March 2011 Budget and the government’s growth strategy. And in what was for me the space of a ten-day holiday away from regular email contact, quite a lot of things seemed suddenly to go, well, completely bonkers.
Earlier, in September 2010, the government had announced a one in one out rule; that “any new regulation brought in must be matched by one out of equivalent value”. (I still have no idea what methodologies will be applied to the ‘valuation’ exercise, but perhaps I just haven’t investigated deeply enough).
But there was much more than this to catch up on on my return from holiday. For a start, the March 2011 announcement that there was to be a three-year moratorium on all new domestic legislation – no matter what sort – applying to businesses employing fewer than ten employees (as if the number of employees was the proper cut-off for the appropriateness of action to address risks to workers’ lives; or human rights; or rights of redress…).
Then there was the government’s agreement that ‘sunset clauses’ would “now be mandatory for new regulation introduced by Whitehall departments, where there is a net burden (or cost) on business or civil society organisations”. So how might this idea work, when it comes to any new ‘important environmental protections’ that DEFRA assures us will not be compromised?
Then there was the most extraordinary statement on the government’s approach to sustainable development. In a statement purporting to set out a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ within the planning system; itself part of a statement on ‘planning and the budget’; the Department of Communities and Local Government actually explained that what it planned to do to implement that presumption would amount to what would be potentially precisely the opposite: implementing a presumption in favour of economic growth and development.
Here’s the statement. Brace yourself. You may need to read it twice; pinch yourself; dive for that sofa.
“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…”
Incidentally – I learned later from an NGO colleague that the government might also consider it too difficult to define sustainable development in the Localism Bill; because sustainable development can mean all things to all people (the government in particular, it would appear).
Your Freedom, Crowdsourcing, and the Red Tape Challenge
At any rate, having missed out on all these things, I was only a day late in catching up with the launch, on April 7th 2011, of the government’s Red Tape Challenge.
The idea of cutting red tape has a long and undistinguished history in the UK; undistinguished in that it is never a job that anyone has said is done.
Under Conservative Prime Minister John Major in the mid-1990s, there was a ‘deregulation unit’. Major memorably described tackling red tape as like trying to wrestle with a greasy pig.
The idea of slashing red tape never went out of fashion. Under Tony Blair, New Labour established a ‘red tape task force’. And Gordon Brown claimed to be the ‘enemy of red tape’.
Now, with dismal statistics on economic growth here in the UK, the Coalition government has pushed to the very top of the pendulum’s arc with its Red Tape Challenge.
The Red Tape Challenge is in some respects a successor to Nick Clegg’s failed ‘Your Freedom’ crowd-sourcing experiment; an experiment which folded after the government received more comments than it could cope with on the Your Freedom website. (The website, incidentally, is now partly archived so that it’s impossible to see what everyone said).
Your Freedom’s opening paragraphs included the following words “We want to restore Britain’s traditions of freedom and fairness, and free our society of unnecessary laws and regulations – both for individuals and businesses…. This site gives you the chance to tell us which laws and regulations you think we should get rid of”.
That something remarkably similar should re-emerge so quickly in the form of the Red Tape Challenge is itself surprising (though there are many possible explanations).
Like Your Freedom, the Red Tape Challenge is a web-based (so-called) ‘crowd-sourcing’ initiative. Economic sector by sector, the Red Tape Challenge invites comments on “which regulations are working and which are not; what should be scrapped, what should be saved and what should be simplified”.
In parallel, the initiative invites comments on six sets of ‘general regulations’.Among these, the ‘environment’ section of the Red Tape Challenge website includes 278 separate pieces of environment law.
In the website’s own words: “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.” Not only may Ministers have to waste their time, post cutbacks, potentially justifying anything anyone on the site says is burdensome; they also have to overcome a threshold presumption that if it’s considered burdensome by someone – anyone – it’s to be scrapped.
It’s now becoming close to impossible to keep track of what proposals are being made where and which policies, institutions, or laws, are up for incineration. For example, the Equality Act has been put forward for ‘crowd-sourced’ proposals for repeal in the Red Tape Challenge. But regulations made under the Equality Act are included in a separate more conventional consultation exercise –not the Red Tape Challenge. The Climate Change Act is included within the Red Tape Challenge. But it’s not listed under ‘carbon emissions’. Instead, it appears in a section on environmental permitting and information.
Now I’m no e-democracy expert, but the Red Tape Challenge certainly appears to risk getting ‘crowd-sourcing’ all wrong. An old piece by Will Hutton shows why. Crowds are most ‘wise’, it seems, either when significant numbers of people make informed choices, or when the ‘wisdom’ emerges as a result of proper deliberation.
Simply listing vast numbers of regulations doesn’t make for the sort of quantitative decision-making where wisdom is likely to emerge, either. Discussion about the pros and cons of regulation cannot in any meaningful sense be equated with the ‘guess the number of marbles in the jar’ stall at a summer fete.
There’s a long way to go in working out how to apply the idea of ‘crowdsourcing’ to government decision-making. And gambling almost the entirety of the nation’s body of environment, health and safety, employment and equalities legislation on an experiment is foolhardy in the extreme.
In contrast to the Red Tape Challenge fundamental assumption that if regulation is a burden – to anyone – it must go; the history of business innovation for sustainable development is replete with examples of innovation that is nurtured – or sometimes forced – by regulation. Perhaps the most celebrated example is the phase-out of ozone depleting substances, spurred on by the internationally agreed Montreal Protocol.
One business’s burdensome regulation is another’s signal to innovate. One enterprise’s burden is the source of a green growth for another.
The Red Tape Challenge consummately fails to recognise this, and that alone places it well behind the curve of those parts of the business community that exist to drive and serve the ‘green economy’ that the government has eagerly expresses its wish for.
If you will forgive the repetition in an already-long post: under Caroline Spelman’s stewardship, the greenest government ever, commited to mainstreaming sustainable development across government, has put 278 pieces of primary and secondary environment legislation up for crowd-sourced comment with a presumption that if they’re considered burdensome – possibly if they’re considered burdensome by anyone – they must in principle go.
It may only be accident that some pieces of legislation (the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Act among them) have escaped listing; that it is not the entirety of the body of UK environment law that has been opened up to trading off against the government’s plan for short-term growth.
Over and over again on the environment regulation pages of the Red Tape Challenge website, respondents charge that the Coalition government is guilty of short-termism; that it has failed to take account of future generations; that it is putting short-term profit (and economic growth) before protection of the environment and sustainable development.
Campaign groups have also woken up to the risks. Despite a muddled explanation of what’s proposed, a petition by online campaign group 38 Degrees has gathered close to 50000 signatures. The RSPB invites its members to send a message to Vince Cable under the slogan ‘some cuts never heal’. The Woodland Trust is also among the groups encouraging their members to post messages in support of the existing body of environmental legislation.
Government departments have issued some responses to the initial wave of indignation about the Red Tape Challenge from environmentalists. First up, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) moved on 20th April to issue the reassuring statement that:
“The Climate Change Act is here to stay and is central to the coalition’s policies to cut emissions and incentivise investment in the green economy….[b]ut given the crucial role business has to play in the low carbon transition it’s only right that the government looks at how this can be done in as business friendly a way as possible and at least cost to consumers and business.”
But refraining from repealing primary legislation in its entirety is no guarantee of continual progress towards the achievement of its goals. The tension in DECC’s carefully-negotiated statement is obvious, three weeks on, from the row that has broken out across government departments (and between Lib Dem Ministers) on the adoption of new carbon budgets. There have been calls for David Cameron to intervene in the face of Vince Cable’s claims that the latest round of proposed carbon budgets recommended by the independent Climate Change Committee, and supported by Chris Huhne at DECC, excessively burden the UK economy.
With DECC’s clarification on the Red Tape Challenge issued, on 24th April DEFRA published this double-speak statement on its website:
The myth: there have been reports in the media that important environmental regulations in legislation such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act, National Park Act, Clean Air Act and the Climate Change Act could be scrapped as part of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge.
The truth: Defra is committed to enhancing the natural environment and there are no plans to remove important environmental protections. The Red Tape Challenge is about examining and understanding the impact of regulation on the people, businesses, and communities it affects, to ensure that it is proportionate while delivering the desired outcomes.
This reader doesn’t find the ‘myth’ busted at all. DEFRA’s statement – one of 23 on an extraordinary ‘myth-busters’ section of its website – serves principally to sound even deeper alarm bells.
A reminder: the Cabinet Office, home of the Red Tape Challenge, says this: “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”.
The devil is in the detail, and here we have it: it’s ‘important environmental protections’ versus ‘burdensome regulations’. Neither DECC nor DEFRA provide any guidance on how trade-offs will be managed when it comes to the inevitable balancing act between competing Ministries. Caroline Spelman will no doubt be working hard behind closed doors (breakfast meetings, Cabinet Committees and so on) to ‘mainstream’ sustainable development. And yet the Cabinet Office’s ‘default presumption’ is so clearly stated that it is as if government faces no balancing acts.
The poverty of short-termism
There’s a deeply engrained short-termism in these assaults on sustainable development; in the Coalition’s persistent economic framing of environment and biodiversity; in the separation of environment and social justice.
Yet the Coalition government boldly announced that it means to adopt a ‘new horizon’ in politics. In a September 2010 speech, Nick Clegg declared that one of the guiding purposes of this government’s policy approach (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.
I analysed Clegg’s speech from a sustainable development perspective in this post (extraordinary that the objective of the ‘New Horizon’ is to be ‘social mobility’). Three months earlier FDSD and many other individuals and organisations had called on the Coalition to adopt a ‘new politics of the future’.
As the short-term growth imperative reaches out to trump all that comes before it, there’s been precious little evidence of Clegg’s New Horizon so far when it comes to sustainable development.
The ‘greenest government ever’? A ‘new horizon’ in UK politics? Sustainable development ‘mainstreamed’ across government?
We now may be seeing the start of sustainable development policy subsidence on a grand scale. We will all be the poorer for it; and so will our democracy.
Political rhetoric can’t provide a basis for lasting transformation unless it has real foundations – in institutions, in skills and understanding, and in peoples’ belief, commitment and engagement.