Whitehall ducks scrutiny on climate change

Peter Davies says abolition of Sustainable Development Commission could provide an opportunity for Wales

Well we knew it was likely for some time, but we now have the official announcement that the UK Government will be withdrawing funding from the Sustainable Development Commission from the end of the financial year.

While recognising the need to reduce public expenditure and deal with the deficit, we are obviously saddened and disappointed with the decision, not least as the relatively small saving from abolition is minor compared to the contribution the SDC has made to reducing costs throughout Government. Our work in ensuring each Whitehall department established sustainable development action plans and in producing annual benchmarking reports on their progress in reducing energy use, transport costs, water use, and waste has demonstrated how an independent body can act as both catalyst and watchdog in delivering efficiencies.

Indeed, for those interested our latest report on Sustainable Development in Government was launched last week – here. As Geoffrey Lean’s column in the Daily Telegraph commented, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the self professed “greenest Government ever” does not want authoritative independent scrutiny of how it is doing”.

Personally my main concern will be the loss of capacity to draw on the resources from across the UK and the wider knowledge base that the SDC has been able to apply in Wales. Over my last four years as Wales’ Commissioner  on the SDC I have been able to draw heavily on the expertise  of UK Commissioner colleagues who were acknowledged leaders in their fields of food, energy, housing, and transport. The Commission has produced a series of landmark reports providing an evidence base for decision making in Government, several of which, such as “Turning the Tide” our report on tidal energy, were jointly commissioned by all the UK Governments

We worked hard to establish the SDC as an independent non-departmental government body, equally owned by all the Governments of the UK. This structure, which only came into being last year, provided for ownership of a UK wide body shared equally by the devolved administrations and Whitehall. We believed it to be a very effective way of providing the benefits of a UK structure while allowing for distinctive approaches in each nation. This point was strongly made by Welsh Environment Minister Jane Davidson in her response to the announcement. And, as Jonathon Porritt the previous chair of SDC put it:

“There’s a rich irony here. The SDC is a UK-wide body. Neither Wales nor Scotland was in favour of getting rid of the Commission, no doubt because both countries have done an infinitely better job than Whitehall on ‘mainstreaming’ sustainable development”.

However, sadness is tinged with optimism. There is now opportunity to build on Wales’ distinctive position, where sustainable development has been written into the responsibilities of Welsh Government, a duty which receives significant cross party support. Jane Davidson has made it clear that while being disappointed in the UK Government decision, she is keen to use the demise of the UK SDC as an opportunity to consider new arrangements in Wales that can build on our reputation as a leader in the field.

The UK Government claims it will achieve its commitment to being “the greenest Government in history” by bringing the SDC functions in house. Our experience in Wales is that Government cannot achieve these goals by looking inward. Instead, it needs independent structures that can build partnerships between business, the community and Government to really make an impact.

For our part the SDC in Wales is committed to delivering the work programme agreed with the Minister to the end of March and in playing a part in working with all parties to shape new arrangements for enabling Government in Wales to deliver its duty to promote sustainable development for the long term well being of Wales.

Peter Davies is the SDC’s Welsh Commissioner and a trustee of the IWA

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