A new mould for environmental standards

Members of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution tend to be strait-laced Establishment figures. But in preparing their latest report on environmental standards (see pp 20-23 ) they unbuttoned their corsets and tempered their inhibitions a little.

All of the RCEP's previous twenty reports have come between sober mid-blue covers. For the twenty-first, though, the Commission chose a detail from a patterned, multi-coloured quilt titled "Swirling Worlds".

The choice was evidently intended to echo the report's post-modernist theme. Public confidence in environmental standards has been diminishing with the general erosion of trust in older centres of authority. The new world in which standards are formulated is a multipolar one, characterised by fluidity and variety in individuals' perceptions and values which are influenced by a multiplicity of sources.

Manifestations of these deep-seated changes are readily to hand. Obvious examples are the Brent Spar affair and the consequences of the BSE disaster for public confidence in food safety policy. Others include the current disquiet about genetically modified crops and foods, and the recurrent results of opinion polls showing greater public trust in the views of environmental groups than in industry or Government scientists. Growing eco-activism against genetically modified crops and roads and other developments since the early 1990s is another symptom.

The world in which decisions could be handed down from on high and trusted - or at least not seriously challenged - is no longer with us. Neither is the world in which decision-makers in government and industry faced with public objections to some policy or project could comfort themselves by branding their opponents as NIMBYs - a label which was rarely, in any event, anything more than a caricature of public sentiment.

Rebuilding confidence in the processes used to set and enforce environmental standards will not come easy, and no one solution will fit all. But key elements of the Royal Commission's prescription could help to do the job. In particular, its recommendations for the use of focus groups, citizens' juries and other interactive ways of promoting debate and eliciting people's values about the environment, and integrating those values into the policy-making process from its earliest "scoping" stage, merit a constructive response from the Government.

The RCEP is not the first to advocate innovation in established methods of public consultation and participation. They have been advanced and, to a limited extent, used - generally as a result of private initiatives - in promoting debate about genetically modified organisms and nuclear power. The limited UK experience to date suggests that the results can be challenging to both official and business perspectives of how to win public confidence in controversial technologies. But the alternative - recurrent crises of confidence in environmental regulation, contributing to a general downward spiral in the public's tolerance of risks which give them little perceived benefit - is scarcely likely to provide robust foundations for doing business in the new millenium.

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