The report, the Panel's fourth, is the thinnest to date on new policy thinking, and much of its value lies in its criticisms of Government responses to its previous recommendations. It tackles four new issues:
The Panel is also highly critical of the continuing lack of urgency on tackling overfishing. It repeats its recommendation that a consensus on sustainable fisheries within the UK should be developed through an advisory forum of the main interest groups - a proposal rejected by the Government last December.
However, the Panel's recommendations are tame in comparison to the scale of this challenge. It proposes that existing official schemes to promote good design should continue, that the energy efficiency requirements of the building regulations should be tightened - a move currently being considered by the Government (see pp 36-37 ) - and that the regulations should give "guidance" on the use of recycled materials and reduction of construction wastes.
The Panel believes that the programme's achievements have been uneven and lacking a strategic approach. It recommends that all 16 panels should have a sustainability dimension and take account of environmental as well as commercial risks in assessing technology exploitation opportunities. But its main proposal is that the programme should be transferred back from the Department of Trade and Industry to the Cabinet Office to reflect its interdepartmental and strategic character.
The report goes on to review progress in the implementation of the Panel's earlier recommendations. These include:
However, the Panel expresses "serious misgivings" about the Government's rejection of a recommendation that it should set a target date from which the environmental policy and practice of firms will be a key element in assessment of all bids for public contracts. The Government said that its procurement guidance does "not permit dilution of value for money considerations by assessing environmental aspects for potential suppliers irrespective of the relevance of this to the contract." The Panel repeats its recommendation for a target date.
In its response, the Government rejects the idea of a task force, arguing that subsidies "are best dealt with by those who understand the sectors in detail rather than by a central team." However, it has promised to draw up principles for the use of subsidies by April, and to subject all new subsidies to prior environmental appraisal. It also claims that each Department is reviewing its subsidies for compatibility with sustainable development as part of the current comprehensive spending review. The Panel says that it "remains unconvinced" by this "piecemeal" approach to the issue.
The Government has largely ducked the issues. It acknowledges that current fuel prices "may not always" take full account of environmental externalities, but says that "it is difficult to assign monetary values to environmental damage". And it contends that market liberalisation will give energy companies an incentive "to cut waste in the production and transmission of energy. It would be perverse to pursue an environmental policy that did not discourage waste." The impact of lower prices on energy demand is not mentioned.