Holding the 'Greenest Government ever' to its word 2

Remember the Sustainable Development Commission? For ten years it”s been trying to get Government to embed sustainability into its operations and policies – until last July the Coalition pulled the plug on its funding. The SDC is currently sitting on death row, awaiting final termination at the end of the financial year this April. But there might yet be a happy twist to the sorry tale.

Just before Christmas, buried amidst the snow and news about Wikileaks, the Environmental Audit Committee released a report into the future of sustainable development across government, now that the SDC has been scheduled for the chop. Its key recommendation – which could turn the demise of the SDC into a triumph for good governance – is for responsibility for sustainable development to be handed over to the Cabinet Office.

Could the Cabinet Office help green Whitehall?

There is a delicious irony to the idea that the department that ultimately sanctioned the SDC”s abolition, under Francis Maude”s much-criticised bonfire of the quangos“, should be compelled to take over its duties. But it also makes perfect political sense. The SDC, as the committee”s report notes, has always been out on a limb, whilst its sponsoring department, Defra, “is not in a position to be able to make departments act more sustainably”. (It is even less so now, with its budget cut by 29%.) Defra Minister Caroline Spelman has declared, rather regally, that she will “take a personal lead” in subsuming the SDC”s role, “with an enhanced departmental capability and presence”. But her proposal is both implausible and unworkable. Sustainable development is something that needs to be integrated right the casino way across government; thus, it makes sense for that task to pass to a department with an overarching mandate, rather than a “single-issue” ministry. The Treasury, perhaps? The EAC consider this option, noting (with some relish at the possibilities) that HMT has the power to

… ensure compliance simply by subtracting the required negotiated savings from department’s budgets at the outset. Defra officials told us that they  have not considered the possibility of applying sanctions on departments for poor performance on sustainable development. The Treasury, however, unlike Defra, is in a position  to apply real sanctions, if it so chose, including financial sanctions.

But a green Treasury? Really? Surely not, given its age-old opposition to ringfencing green taxes, reluctance to hand out much cash to the environment departments, and recent stonewalling of a Green Investment Bank. No, the EAC are right to pass over this option (voicing concern along the way that they wish “to make sure that the whole process isn’t captured by the existing Treasury view […] of the world”) and instead alight upon the Cabinet Office as the best new home for sustainable development. They recommend a new post be created – for a Minister of Sustainable Development – replete with staff moved across from Defra and new powers to exert pressure over Whitehall. The committee demand the Treasury be “ready to play a more committed supporting role” and note that “the Cabinet Office”s proximity to the Prime Minister would further suit it to the task”.

I would go one further, and involve the PM himself formally. When David Cameron made his first visit to DECC back in May, he stated boldly, “There is a fourth Minister in this department that cares passionately about this agenda, and that is me.” Great rhetoric, but what has this amounted to so far? Perhaps, though, Cameron”s words should be interpreted literally, and a new title added to his job alongside First Lord of the Treasury . That would certainly be a way to make good on the abolition of the SDC, add substance to the oft-repeated claim of his being “the greenest government ever”, and finally embed sustainability at the top of Government agendas.


  1. Harold Forbes Harold Forbes

    Business has long recognised that successful change management begins with the leadership team’s enthusiasm & support for the topic. In particular the Chief Executive needs to show urgency in both action and message. When the enthusiasm and motivation to achieve the change comes from the top it quickly becomes an essential and unquestioned part of an organisation’s procedures, otherwise it is just another thing on the “to do list”. That is probably why Paul Polman at Unilever has taken such a definitive position on sustainability at Unilever.
    Although governments are not, nor should be, businesses they can take some of the learning from business in this area. If the Prime Minister were to take personal responsibility it would be a tremendously powerful statement. He is more likely to do so if he can sense some political advantage in it, and that is where the public can help. Last year the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition organised a “Big Connection” urging people to meet with their constituency MP and tell them some of the actions they should be pushing for with the Energy Security Bill and Cancun talks: 220 constituency MP’s were duly called on by their constituents. If this number were to build to cover all constituencies, sustainability would quickly move up the agenda.

  2. marco valente marco valente

    Hi Guy, and bloggers at ClimateSafety.
    Thank you for the article. I found your insights quite valuable and I agree that the positive side of the story is that the PM might take the chance to embed strategic sustainability at the core of the government’s operations. As I am reading the story as an outsider (not from the UK) I don’t have enough context to go into the details of the matter. An overall consideration to share though: It would be really hard to embed sustainability at the core of the operations and the agenda of a government unless one takes a step back and looks at the bigger picture. Impacts on the environment are the result of affluence, technology and population, and the impact on the environment per each pound spent is quite large because the economic system in the UK is designed in a very unsustainable way. So, even with some cosmetic measure to reduce some impacts by small amounts (say: let’s save 10% chemicals, oil, plastic, paper..) if the money saving you get from it will be re-spent in an unsustainable system, likely it will wipe off all the efforts. As long as the things we value are so strongly linked with the root causes of unsustainability, all we can hope are marginal, piecemeal gains. It would be important to redefine the two gods all our societies worship: the way we measure GDP and the high profitability of unsustainable investments.


Leave a comment

  • (will not be published)