The Sustainable Development Commission - the government’s official watchdog on sustainability matters - formally closed its doors yesterday, after being axed because of spending cuts.
The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) – the government’s official watchdog on sustainability matters – formally closed its doors yesterday, after being axed because of spending cuts. Its demise leaves a gaping hole in the coalition government’s provisions for ensuring long-term environmental, social and economic sustainability across the UK.
Where the SDC once stood as an independent body, reporting directly to the Cabinet Office, now no dedicated government organisation exists to guarantee Whitehall integrates sustainability into its activities.
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman’s regal but naïve announcement that she would “take a personal lead” in subsuming the SDC’s role within Defra “with an enhanced departmental capability and presence” were thinly fleshed out in February.
In a 7-page paper on ‘Mainstreaming sustainable development’ – which would be commendable for its brevity if it were of any substance – it was revealed that Spelman would sit on the Economic Affairs Committee:
“…to enforce the government’s commitment to sustainability across policy making.”
But will the environment secretary have any power to “enforce” such a large and challenging agenda? The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) think not. In a recent report on the future of sustainable development in government, the EAC noted: “Defra officials told us that they have not considered the possibility of applying sanctions on departments for poor performance on sustainable development.”
Instead, they recommended moving responsibility for enforcing sustainability performance to either the Treasury or the Cabinet Office, with a new ‘Minister for Sustainable Development’ operating in close proximity to the prime minister. These recommendations were entirely ignored by the government.
Left Foot Forward can now reveal that the government also ignored the SDC’s own proposal for a replacement body. In a paper seen exclusively by this blog, the SDC proposed, during negotiations about next steps, the creation of an Office of Future Generations.
The paper states:
“In the same way as this government has set up an Office for Budgetary Responsibility… focused on managing an independently audited and transparent national balance sheet… an Office for Future Generations would enable it to better monitor and support action against a set of Quality of Life indicators.”
The SDC’s proposal also recognised the need to embed sustainable development at the apex of Whitehall, rather than in a ‘single-issue department’ like Defra:
“The Office for Future Generations would need to report to, or be part of, the centre of government.
“It would provide a streamlined and cost-effective way to strengthen the role of the Cabinet Office and Treasury to… improve long term performance and policy innovation… put in place, and report on performance to government against better measures of progress [including wellbeing indicators]… [and] drive departmental efficiency in ways which include, but go well beyond cost and carbon.”
To any conservative aware of the words of Edmund Burke – that society is “a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those yet unborn” – the idea of an Office of Future Generations would surely have proven irresistible. But it appears that the government has dismissed the concept out of hand.
It needs to revisit these sets of proposals. A body that could represent the interests of future generations and embed long-term decision making across government is badly needed. All governments suffer from a short-termist perspective bred by the electoral cycle. This government suffers from an additional myopia, bred by its timetable for cutting the deficit within five years.
This preoccupation is leading to all other priorities being subordinated to a narrowly-defined (and ideologically infused) economic imperative. Good governance requires scrutiny: cutting scrutiny at the same time as making major structural changes to planning, energy markets and the entire welfare state seems suspect and ill thought through, to say the least.
With these concerns in mind, a new NGO coalition, the Alliance for Future Generations, is in the process of being formed.
“To ensure that long-termism and the needs of future generations are brought into the heart of UK democracy and policy processes in order to safeguard the earth and secure intergenerational justice.”
The debate about how best to achieve this has already begun, with a series of policy options laid out in a recent study commissioned by WWF, and further suggestions contained in the SDC’s final report, Governing for the Future. They are recommended reading for anyone who is concerned about the interests of the next – and future – generations.
The last words, however, should go to the Sustainable Development Commission:
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“With the closure of the SDC, this is unfinished business on a grand scale – how to take the future wellbeing of people and planet out of short-term parliamentary cycles and partisan politics.
“If ever there was a candidate for cross-party consensus, this is surely it.”