The inquiry is expected to continue until well into the autumn. The Committee is chaired by Sir Francis Tombs, a businessman with experience in the asbestos industry (with Turner & Newall), oil (Shell), engineering (Rolls Royce), and the nuclear and electricity industries.
The inquiry has three general themes. It will consider what specific long-term environmental objectives and targets are needed to achieve sustainable development. The Government's strategy was particularly criticised for lacking such objectives (ENDS Report 228, pp 18-21 ).
The Committee will also inquire how environmental factors can be integrated into other mainstream policies, and how changes in lifestyles and attitudes needed to contribute to sustainable development can best be achieved.
In order to test the strength of the Government's strategy, the Committee will look at four specific issues: control of carbon dioxide and other emissions, the management of rural land and water resources, waste disposal and recycling, and transport, especially in urban areas.
The Committee has also announced that it will be taking an interest in the Government's plan to shift the emphasis of policy away from legislation and towards economic instruments and market pressures, and in the European Commission's proposals to shift the burden of taxation from labour to resource consumption.
The inquiry opened on 19 April with evidence from Derek Osborn, Director of the Department of the Environment's Environmental Protection Group. The session of gentle questioning yielded few insights, except for the Government's plans on the three new institutions announced in the strategy.
One of these, a UK Round Table of interest groups who will meet periodically with Ministers, appears unlikely to be set up until the end of the year. At a conference to be held in June, interest groups will be asked "about what their interests are and in what way they could effectively participate", said Mr Osborn. One of the DoE's concerns is that the round table's membership should not be so small as to be unrepresentative, but not so large that it becomes an unwieldy and ineffectual talking shop. "Genuine dialogue" is what the DoE is after, according to Mr Osborn.
The second initiative was the Panel on Sustainable Development. This "group of wise persons" has met once since the strategy was published, and Mr Osborn noted that "they are beginning to try to reach a preliminary view of what are the key issues that they should make something of this year. They will particularly also have in mind how to give us the right sort of friendly pressure on developing indicators of progress across the whole field, indicators of sustainability, something that would assist us in target setting in the future."
The third new institution, the Citizens' Environmental Initiative, took a step forward two days after the hearing when the DoE announced that it will be chaired by Professor Graham Ashworth, who is currently Director General of the Tidy Britain Group. He will devote one and a half days per week to his new post.
The initiative has a new name, Going for Green. Its organising committee's terms of reference are "to advise the Government, following consultation with voluntary bodies, local authorities, the churches and others, how best to increase people's awareness of the part their personal choices can play in delivering sustainable development, and to enlist people's support and commitment in the coming years by organising, and raising sponsorship for, national promotional events and projects for local action."