Sustainable development RIP
First they axe the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), now they are trying to kill off sustainable development (SD) itself.
Mrs Spelman put out a paper on Monday under the compelling title ‘Mainstreaming Sustainable Development: The Government’s vision and what this means in practice’. It is, without a doubt, the most disgraceful government document relating to SD that I have ever seen.
Far from demonstrating how sustainable development will be mainstreamed across government (which was the commitment it made when it axed the SDC), it reveals that its clear intent is to marginalise SD over the next four years, to the point where it will be all but invisible.
Even I did not think the coalition government could sink this low. Historically, the Tories have been pretty sound on articulating what SD means, going right back to the UK’s first Sustainable Development Strategy in the 1990s. No-one will be more distressed at this derisory ‘vision’ than Chris Patten, who was responsible for the strategy. And as for the Lib Dems...
You probably ought to read it for yourself to see for yourself that I’m not exaggerating. Here are one or two highlights:
“Ministers have agreed an approach for mainstreaming SD which in broad terms consists of providing Ministerial leadership and oversight, leading by example, embedding SD into policy, and transparent and independent scrutiny”. However, the government has rejected out of hand the recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee that SD should become the responsibility of the Cabinet Office. It will therefore stay within Defra – the weakest department in Whitehall, with the weakest set of ministers anyone can remember. Does anyone suppose that any other Departments will pay the slightest attention when Defra “reviews other departmental business plans in relation to SD principles”?
Mrs Spelman will apparently exercise her mainstreaming role via her (newly announced) membership of the Economics Affairs Committee. One can only assume that Defra officials were having a laugh here as they crafted the words “to enforce (my italics) the government’s commitment to sustainability across policy-making”. And they must have been in hysterics in penning this little gem: “HM Treasury will support green growth and build a fairer, more balanced economy”.
As I’ve said all along, there will be no comprehensive, independent scrutiny of government performance on SD. Here’s what it says: “Independent monitoring of sustainability in government operations, procurement and policies by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC)”.
Yesterday, at the SDC’s valedictory event, Joan Walley, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, declared categorically that the EAC would not be able to carry out that function – especially as no additional resources had been made available. The EAC is a parliamentary committee. Ministers cannot instruct parliamentary committees as to what they should do.So had officials checked with Joan Walley before issuing the vision? Or was Mrs Spelman seeking to mislead or even deliberately deceive in allowing the document to go out with that wording?
The reality is that there is now no UK-wide SD capability left. So who will represent the UK at the Rio +20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro next year? Will Mrs Spelman (or David Cameron, himself, perhaps?) have the nerve to lay claim to that role? Astonishingly, there is just one tokenistic reference to Scotland and Wales, where SD still has some traction: “We will continue to work closely with our neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, sharing approaches and best practice in SD”.
The rest of it is just guff.
The role of the Lib Dems in this dismantling exercise remains startling. We already know that Nick Clegg literally couldn’t care less about SD, ditto Vince Cable. But what does this ‘vision’ tell us about Chris Huhne and Norman Baker? And about all those benighted and deluded Lib Dem MPs who always thought that SD was one of their greatest strengths – instead, now, of a source of enduring shame.
And how, I wonder, will our environmental NGOs read this? “Just one of those things”? or definitive confirmation that the next four years are going to be bloody – and that they had better get themselves prepared for that reality.
So, that’s that. sustainable development RIP.