Andrea Westall is an FDSD trustee, Strategy and Policy Consultant and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University.
In September 2016, FDSD submitted our thoughts to the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee in response to their Inquiry into the domestic implementation of The Sustainable Development Goals in the UK.
We argued that the SDGs provide a timely opportunity and useful framework to “create sustainable social, economic and environmental futures for the UK, devolved nations and localities”, as well as to “create the appropriate infrastructure – the participatory processes, institutions and data” to realise sustainable development, as well as to contribute to democratic renewal.
These opportunities are reinforced by their ability to link, and contribute solutions to, current UK challenges such as those raised by the EU Referendum, particularly around participation, and inequality.
Theresa May, in her inaugural speech as Prime Minister said: “we will strive to make Britain a country that works for everyone – regardless of who they are and regardless of where they’re from”. Part of achieving that goal is a proposed industrial strategy aimed at creating a more equitable distribution of economic activity. This policy would benefit from applying the principles underpinning the SDGs, as well as future-proofing industry to be better able to respond to environmental challenges, rather than aiming for short-term strategies. Alongside this, the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) work to determine how best to collect and provide data to report on our progress on the SDGs provides yet another opportunity for wider and related impact. For example, more fine grained data on places and people’s circumstances, or on flows of materials and resources around the economy can help address inequalities and the circular economy respectively.
But the UK Government, despite these potential positive impacts, has not yet produced any statement about how the Sustainable Development Goals are relevant to, and will be implemented, within the UK.
However, it hasn’t stopped similar countries from using the opportunity to rethink their direction and goals. We set out some examples in our consultation of countries such as Germany, France and Finland who have explored and begun to institutionalise the domestic relevance of the SDGs. Germany, for example, has used the principle underpinning the SDGs, that of ‘no-one left behind’ to explore what this means for Germany across a whole range of issues. Scotland and Wales have both in different ways looked at how the SDGs are relevant to their own nations, and how they can contribute both domestically and internationally.
As we have said in many other posts and articles, the SDGs also present a profound opportunity to thicken our ideas about participation in decision-making and action, and find ways to engage people around considering their future.
We recommended in our consultation response that questions about the relevance, priority, and performance of SDGs should be included in public and multistakeholder conversations and consultations across the UK. These could take the form of a UK-wide FutureWeWant national conversation, or at least one for England and Northern Ireland where so far there have been no conversations either about what people want to see (WalesWeWant) or stakeholders’ vision of the relevance of SDGs (Scotland).
With the very different approaches to implementation of the SDGs in Wales and Scotland, as well as likely strategies by cities and localities, devolution also provides an opportunity to explore the wider challenge of how to balance locally relevant and ‘owned’ responses, whilst ensuring collective UK- wide impact. Getting governance right so that we can co-ordinate what happens at different levels (for example, devolved, local and national) whilst preserving local relevance and appropriate levels of control over decisions, is another broader challenge we have barely begun to address.
Our currently disjointed and confused approach was sadly demonstrated to the people of Lancashire, where, on 23rd June, people voted in a majority to leave the EU, partly as a response to being in an area struggling to create a viable economy, and being remote from government. This distance, and likely feelings of irrelevance, were no doubt confirmed when Lancashire Council’s decision, just over three months later in early October, against fracking on the Fylde Coast, after careful deliberation and engagement, was subsequently overturned by central government. Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, said, after accepting the appeal: “We will take the big decisions that matter to the future of our country as we build an economy that works for everyone”. We need to find better ways to manage multi-level governance.
Our other recommendations focused on what is necessary to firmly embed the SDGs in the UK so that they realise positive gains for our country. To get things moving we suggested:
- an urgent and transparent review of central and local government department goals and targets, matched to the SDGs;
And there are a range of institutional changes necessary to better ensure policy coherence, oversight and scrutiny, with lead departments and a specific minister to show commitment and create the necessary coordination. We recommended that:
- responsibility for SDG goal coordination and oversight should lie with the Cabinet Office to ensure policy coherence alongside cross-government and cross-UK engagement (including devolved nations, city and local authorities);
- there is consideration of a Minister and/or Cabinet Committee with specific responsibility for sustainable development and the domestic application of SDGs to underpin their importance
And to enable delivery, we recommended:
- a review of the architecture within Government, and local government, necessary to ensure policy coherence and coordination across departments and agencies;
- an independent oversight and scrutiny body for the SDGs. This could be along the lines of the Welsh Office and Future Generations Commissioner, and with opportunities for public and multistakeholder participation, as well as good practice sharing.