Sustainable development's 'limbo existence' in Whitehall

The Government's rhetoric about integrating sustainable development into the work of all Departments is still far from being translated into effective action, according to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.1

The Committee's conclusions are based on a review of the first "sustainable development in government" report, now almost a year old, which succeeded the series of annual "greening government" reports introduced by Labour.

Accompanied by a detailed web-based record of Departments' responses to a questionnaire about their environmental policy and green housekeeping efforts, the report marked a step change in the transparency of the greening government initiative.

It revealed huge variations in Departments' performance against agreed targets in areas such as uptake of environmental management systems and waste, water and energy management, major shortcomings in data collection, and an almost universal failure to honour pledges relating to the environmental appraisal of Departmental policies (ENDS Report 336, pp 15-17 ).

Not for the first time, the Committee is highly critical of Whitehall's record. "Central government Departments," it says, "have a crucial role to play if the UK is to move towards a sustainable future. They are major employers and estate managers, but also exert huge influence through the policies they are responsible for developing and implementing.

"Yet we found that Departments have few staff devoted to this agenda, have little in the way of environmental objectives and targets, and are still unable to report adequately on operational aspects of their performance. In our view, this demonstrates a lack of commitment by senior management and a failure to exploit the potential within many Departments to mainstream sustainable development more radically."

"There is an impressive range of policy documents and guidance relating to sustainable development," the report adds. "But much of the work undertaken on this agenda occupies a limbo existence which has little impact on Departments' real priorities."

The key findings of the Committee's review were:

  • Staff: There are 137 staff working on sustainable development across Whitehall, of whom 93 are in three Departments - International Development, the Foreign Office and Environment. The Treasury and the Inland Revenue have just 3.1 between them, and also lack a dedicated sustainable development unit despite their potentially important role in furthering the agenda.

    The Committee also found that most of the staff working on sustainable development were in relatively junior grades. In two Departments, Health and Work and Pensions, the senior official responsible was not even based at head office - an arrangement not "conducive...to the need to exert leverage on central policy divisions within the Department."

    Overall, the Committee feels that its findings point to "a lack of commitment by senior management and a failure to exploit the potential within many departments to mainstream sustainable development more radically."

  • Objectives and targets: The Committee found that hardly any Departments had set new environmental targets within the past year - finding only five which were not "vacuously general". Just four targets were set outside DEFRA as a result of last year's spending review - a "dismal reflection of the extent to which the environment is being mainstreamed."

  • Policy appraisal: There has been a long-standing commitment across Whitehall that new policies with significant environmental implications should be subject to environmental appraisal, and this was further formalised in 2000 with a requirement that all emerging policies should be screened for environmental impacts and appraised as appropriate, with central records kept of the results.

    As before, the Committee found that most Departments were "clearly flouting" these instructions. Few kept the required records, and "virtually no" appraisals were carried out during the year.

    The Committee feels that "poor progress here partly reflects the lack of effective environmental management systems covering policy aspects. But it is also symptomatic of a lack of commitment and awareness at higher levels within Departments."

  • Framework: The Committee praises the Government for preparing a "sustainable development framework" which will eventually contain detailed policies and targets in areas such as waste, energy, water, travel, biodiversity and procurement. However, the Government has since fallen well behind its original plan to complete all these policies by July 2003. Four have been completed, but five are still missing.

    The report recommends that Departments should make public their delivery strategies within four months of each policy and targets being published.

    The report is also critical of the poor standard of Departmental reporting on sustainable development, and inadequate collection of data to show progress against targets.

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