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.