Whitehall spending review lacks sustainable development dimension

Only one Government Department has included sustainable development in its terms of reference for the comprehensive spending review now nearing completion across Whitehall. The revelation emerged during evidence given by Environment Minister Michael Meacher to the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee on 12 May. The session also disclosed little evident progress over the past year in improving environmental appraisals of policies and reporting of environmental performance by Departments.

The Committee is conducting an inquiry into the "greening Government" initiative. It has already taken evidence from Agriculture, Defence and Industry Ministers which suggested that progress is distinctly patchy (ENDS Report 279, pp 29-30 ).

One of the key issues raised by the Committee on 12 May was the comprehensive spending review. Initiated soon after the general election, this will determine the shape of public spending into the next century (ENDS Report 270, p 28 ). It will also prov

ide an important test of the strength of the Government's commitment to integrating sustainable development into all policy areas - and the portents are not encouraging.

Mr Meacher was asked whether papers from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) urging Departments to consider sustainable development in their spending reviews had been sent out before or after the terms of reference had been agreed.

Mr Meacher referred the question to John Adams, head of the DETR's Sustainable Development Unit, who said that letters had been sent both before and after the terms had been agreed. But he went on to reveal that, despite these efforts, the DETR is the only Department which specifically included sustainable development in its review's terms of reference. "Apart from the DETR they still do not [refer to sustainable development], but this is not to say they are not being considered," he insisted.

Mr Meacher also admitted that the Government's new sustainable development strategy, to be published late this year, will not be adequately addressed in the spending review. He acknowledged that feedback from the consultation paper issued in February (ENDS Report 38, pp 38-39) may prompt changes in current expenditure plans which cannot be anticipated by the review.

  • Policy appraisal: Guidance encouraging Departments to conduct environmental appraisals of policies with significant environmental implications has been in place for some six years, but an official review published last year concluded that most appraisals were carried out poorly where they were carried out at all (ENDS Report 271, pp 3-4 ).

    A key task of the new administration's Green Ministers is to improve performance in this area. A leaflet reminding officials of the need for environmental appraisals was circulated across Whitehall in April, and technical guidance is also in preparation.

    The Committee's Chairman, John Horam, suggested that what is needed is a system which is tough on poor performers, possibly including a "name and shame" approach. Mr Meacher responded by revealing that the DETR is angling for a system within each Department for recording environmental appraisals which would form the basis of regular reporting to Green Ministers' meetings.

    It remains to be seen whether other Departments will agree to this arrangement. The Green Ministers' network has also yet to build up a head of steam. Ministers have met only twice in the past twelve months, and Mr Meacher conceded that up to four meetings per year would be desirable. The next meeting is on 8 June.

    The DETR was also asked to submit written evidence on whether appraisal techniques specifically addressing sustainable development issues were being considered. The response was that the Government "is keeping under review the possibility" of such wider "sustainability appraisals" - Whitehall-speak for the issue being on the back-burner.

  • Reporting: Government Departments have generally performed extremely poorly in explaining their environmental performance in their annual reports, despite a

    pledge in the early 1990s that they would do so. The DETR's first annual report under the current Government failed to give a lead, lacking any references at all to its "green housekeeping" record.

    Glenda Jackson, the DETR's Green Minister, was contrite over the failure, calling it an

    "oversight" and attributing it to a breakdown in communications. She assured the Committee that next year's report will do better, and suggested that the DETR may even publish a separate environmental report.

    The Government has also failed to follow its predecessor's policy since 1990 of publishing an annual White Paper setting out detailed environmental policy targets and timetables and progress against them. The documents have been important in procedural terms by getting Departments to make firm commitments to action, and in enabling their achievements to be monitored.

    Ms Jackson told the Committee that the new sustainable development strategy "will act as our report for 1998" - though it scarcely appears likely that the strategy could perform the function of the White Papers at anything like the same level of detail. However, the DETR's written evidence says that the targets and indicators in the strategy will "provide the starting point for new reporting arrangements across Government as a whole. The precise nature of these will be decided as part of the preparation of the strategy."

  • Environmental management systems: Ms Jackson passed questions in this area to Ian Harris, head of DETR's Working Environment Division, who said that the existing EMS certified to ISO14001 is being expanded to cover all three of the Department's main buildings.

    But he admitted that other areas had no similar plans and blamed the Department's devolved management structure for preventing an EMS from being imposed from above.

    Four staff work on greening the DETR's activities. Mr Harris was unable to say how much maintaining the EMS costs, but added: "it cost nowhere near half a million to set up and run" - a reference to a recent questionable claim by the Ministry of Agriculture that a formal EMS would be too expensive (ENDS Report 279, p 3 ).

    The DETR's written evidence casts some doubt on how effective its EMS is. The Department has published a model environmental policy for use by other parts of Whitehall, but while it has some targets in areas such as energy, waste and water management, it has yet to develop its own policy. And, in response to a question about its achievements in greening its operations, the DETR's only meaningful quantified answer was that energy savings of 15-16% had been made by its two constituent Departments in the five years to 1996. Another shortcoming is that little training has been carried out to raise staff environmental awareness.

    Here, at least, there are positive signs. A new Working Environment Forum is being set up to bring together policy-makers and operational managers to monitor progress and set new targets, supported by a "green team" of line representatives to promote green operations. Also being developed are an annual reporting system, a guide for annual building audits for property managers, and proposals for staff training.

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