Targets for sustainable developmentGovernment fails to act on White Paper promises

The Government is failing to fulfil many of the commitments made in its annual White Papers on the environment. The major reorientation of environmental policy to favour the use of market mechanisms promised in last year's White Paper has not materialised. And action on numerous initiatives on air, water, waste, contaminated land, hazardous substances and other issues, some promised as far back as the mid-1980s, has not been forthcoming.

Shortly after his return from last summer's Earth Summit in Rio, the Prime Minister wrote an introduction to the annual White Paper on the environment. "The Government's commitment to the environment remains undiminished," he asserted. And with the participation of people throughout the United Kingdom who share that commitment, he promised that that the Government "will turn the words of Rio into the reality of a better environment."

Almost twelve months later, those words ring not a little hollow. Our analysis opposite of the progress achieved on a sample of pledges made in the White Paper shows that even if all its many other commitments had been achieved - and they certainly have not been - the Government's record would be a dismal one.

The idea of an annual White Paper containing targets and deadlines for action was and remains eminently worthwhile. Indeed, the concept has been used on many occasions by Ministers to encourage businesses to set themselves environmental targets and report publicly on their progress against them. But a business which performed as badly as the Government has done over the past twelve months would get a panning, and rightly so.

There is also good reason to question whether the Government has properly appreciated the importance of targets in setting the UK on the path towards sustainable development. Until now, for example, it has disdained suggestions that sectoral energy efficiency targets should form part of its national strategy for controlling carbon dioxide emissions. Support for the concept of targets has come not only from environmentalists but from the Government's Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment. Its latest report (see pp 4-5 ) returns to the theme, urging the Government to set a target for energy efficiency in the domestic sector - although it must be said that the Committee itself has been conspicuously unsuccessful in its efforts to persuade several sectors of industry and the motor manufacturers to volunteer energy or fuel efficiency targets of their own.

The Dutch Government has done more than any other in developing a target-based approach to environmental policy. It has done so by means of sectoral covenants with industry - the latest being the chemical industry (see pp 16-19 ) - and it is now developing ideas on how consumers could play a part in reducing resource consumption and pollution (see pp 19-21 ). Dutch industrialists may not be overjoyed about the environmental investments they will have to make over the next 20 years to meet their sectoral targets, but they are certainly happier to be working within a framework which gives them certainty about the Government's long-term environmental objectives and the latitude to develop their own ways of meeting them, rather than being squeezed in a regulatory vice. The Dutch model is one which deserves to be treated seriously by the UK Government as it prepares its own sustainability plan.

 The cycle of annual White Papers began in 1990, when the Government laid out several hundred commitments to action on the environment. Progress against these was reported in 1991 and 1992 in White Papers which also made new commitments.

Perhaps its most conspicuous failure has been in the field of economic instruments. At the instigation of the then Environment Secretary, Michael Howard, the 1992 White Paper announced a "new presumption" in favour of economic instruments instead of regulation, and unveiled a series of initiatives which, it claimed, marked "a significant advance towards more market based solutions" (ENDS Report 213, pp 20-21 ).

Little has come of those initiatives. The only economic instruments introduced since last September were announced in the March Budget. They were the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel and power, which had not been mentioned in the White Papers, and an increase in the rate of duty on petrol and diesel.

However, other promises have not borne fruit. The 1992 White Paper promised consultation papers on effluent charges to create an added incentive for dischargers to reduce effluent loads on surface waters, and on emissions trading to promote more cost-effective ways of curbing releases of acid gases from power stations and major industrial sources. Both were due by the end of 1992, but neither has been published.

In the waste management field, the Government promised to announce conclusions "early in 1993" on the use of economic instruments to stimulate recycling. Instead, Environment Secretary John Gummer passed the buck to packaging producers and users in July when he asked them to come forward by the end of the year with proposals to promote recycling (ENDS Report 222, p 31 ). And an announcement of the Government's intentions with regard to a landfill levy is still awaited.

A consultation document on changes to the charging system for water abstraction with a view to promoting water conservation was promised in 1992, albeit without a publication deadline. It, too, has yet to be issued.

In the 1990 White Paper, the Government pledged to consider the use of market-based instruments measures to prevent the creation of new derelict and contaminated land, and to encourage owners of such land to bring it back into use. This followed a review by the Department of the Environment (DoE) in 1989 (ENDS Report 176, pp 21-22). A consultation paper eventually followed in February 1992 (ENDS Report 205, pp 25-26 ). But nothing more was heard on the subject until the DoE published MINIS 14, its latest annual manpower planning document, in June. This revealed that it intends to devote 0.5 man-years in 1993/4 to the "new task" of developing "policy initiatives which impose costs of dereliction upon polluter, rather than taxpayer."

Similar slippages are evident in other areas, as the following sample indicates:

  • AIR
  • Domestic smoke control:
    A ban on the sale of unauthorised smoky fuels within smoke control areas was promised in 1991. Consultations had already been carried out in 1986, and again in 1989 (ENDS Report 178, p 28). In the 1992 White Paper the Government promised to introduce the ban in autumn 1992. But the necessary regulations have yet to materialise.

    Likewise, a ban on the sale of high-sulphur fuels for domestic use (ENDS Report 210, p 30 ) was promised for the end of 1992, but this, too, has not been implemented.

  • Air quality guidelines: The 1992 White Paper placed a new emphasis on the use of air quality guidelines or targets to guide emission control measures. A discussion paper on the topic was promised for 1993, and MINIS 14 revealed that the DoE intended to issue this in July. The deadline was missed. According to MINIS 14, the first of the new guidelines, covering ozone and benzene, are due in September.

  • Air quality monitoring: The 1992 White Paper promised a consultation paper setting out proposals to integrate local and central government monitoring during 1993. Ministers have since undertaken to issue it this summer, and the publication target in MINIS 14 was July. This, too, was missed.

  • Volatile organic compounds: The UK is required by a European treaty to reduce its VOC emissions by 30% from 1988 levels by 1999. The 1992 White Paper said that a strategy for meeting this target would be completed by October 1992, but to date only a consultation paper has been issued (ENDS Report 214, pp 32-34 ).

  • Response to Royal Commission: Last summer, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution published a wide-ranging report on freshwater quality (ENDS Report 209, pp 18-20 ). The 1992 White Paper promised a response early this year, but none has been forthcoming.

  • Statutory water quality objectives: According to the 1991 White Paper, the phased introduction of SWQOs would begin in 1992. The deadline was missed, and the following year the Government promised that implementation would begin in 1993. However, regulations enabling the process to begin have again been delayed, and the DoE has been leaning on the National Rivers Authority to limit the initial batch of waters for which it intends to propose SWQOs and to extend the timetable for achieving them so as to minimise costs on dischargers (ENDS Report 215, pp 26-27 ).

  • Oil and chemical stores: Regulations laying down design and construction standards for oil and chemical stores with a view to preventing water pollution incidents have been promised since the late 1980s. The rules were promised again in the 1991 White Paper, and in 1992 the Government said it would issue a consultation paper by the end of that year. It is still awaited.

  • Red list substances: Proposals for statutory water quality standards for the UK's "red list" of hazardous substances were issued by the DoE in November 1991 (ENDS Report 202, pp 29-30). The 1992 White Paper followed up by promising implementing regulations "later this year" - but these have yet to be introduced.

  • Licensing: The new system of waste management licensing provided for by the Environmental Protection Act 1990 was due for implementation last April. After two postponements, Ministers have yet to announced a revised implementation timetable.

  • Recycling plans: Waste collection authorities were obliged by the 1990 Act to prepare recycling plans and submit them in draft to the Secretary of State. The 1991 White Paper said that recycling plans would be "in place nationally" by August 1992. This could have been done, as indeed the 1990 White Paper suggested it would be done, by obliging councils to submit their plans by that date. Instead, they were simply asked to do so. Many failed to comply and, indeed, a year later several English, and almost one-third of Scottish, local authorities have yet to submit their draft plans (see p 29 ).

  • Waste Management Papers: The 1991 White Paper promised that seven new or revised WMPs would be issued by April 1993. Three had been issued by the time the next White Paper was published, and this promised six more WMPs by April 1993. However, none of these has been issued. The missing guidance was to have covered waste disposal plans, waste licensing, landfill completion, clinical waste, PCBs, and special waste in general.

  • Diffuse pollution: In its 1991 White Paper, the Government promised to "consult during 1992 on ways to control diffuse sources of the most dangerous chemicals and encourage their substitution with safer ones." The promise was repeated in virtually identical terms in the 1992 White Paper. Almost a year has since passed but a consultation paper is still awaited. MINIS 14 says that it will be issued in October.

  • PCBs:
    A phase-out of polychlorinated biphenyls and their safe destruction by 1999 is required under the terms of a North Sea agreement. In 1991, the Government said it would consult on a phase-out plan during 1992. It failed to do so, but promised in the 1992 White Paper that consultations would be carried out in 1993. According to MINIS 14 a consultation paper was due in February. It has yet to be issued.

  • Lead: A ban on the use of lead solder in water pipes was originally promised for the end of 1991 after proposals had been issued in April 1991 (ENDS Report 195, p 32). After this deadline was missed a revised target of October 1992 was set. The regulations are still awaited.

  • Planning and pollution: Concern about the scope for conflicting requirements on industry under planning and pollution control laws led the DoE to issue a draft Planning Policy Guidance note on the topic last year (ENDS Report 209, p 32 ). The final version, according to the 1992 White Paper, should have been issued by the end of that year. It remains to be published.

  • Environmental assessment: A guide to good practice in the preparation of environmental statements by developers was originally promised in 1990, and the 1992 White Paper said it would be issued "within the next six months". Now, according to MINIS 14, publication will be at the end of 1993 following a period of consultation - although the necessary consultation paper has yet to be issued.

    Although action has been forthcoming on many commitments in the White Papers, there are plenty more on which the Government has failed to meet its targets.

    Part of the explanation can be found in MINIS 14. There, Dr David Fisk, head of the DoE's Air, Climate and Toxic Substances Directorate, reports that in both 1993/4 and subsequent years it faces a "particular difficulty" of a "declining resource base with which to deliver the substantial commitments to develop legislation that are in the pipeline." And his counterpart in the Water Directorate, Neil Summerton, notes that the burden of work has forced civil servants to work "many hours of unpaid overtime", enabling them to display their "usual uncomplaining dedication to the public service." The Prime Minister's deregulation initiative, which took off at the end of 1992, has also distracted DoE staff from work on White Paper commitments.

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