Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-124)



Paddy Tipping

  120. You told us earlier on that you wanted to talk about sustainability, and the Department's own Sustainable Development Strategy was published last month, `Foundations for our Future'. The Department tells us that stakeholders were involved in its preparation; how were you involved?
  (Mr Hamblin) CPRE was involved. We attended a number of workshops which were held to look at themes which might come through in the Sustainable Development Strategy; and, as an approach, and as a process, to engage stakeholders in the development of the Strategy, this is something that CPRE very much supports. I think, as with many of these strategies, the real issue is going to be ensuring that we get the buy-in and the subsequent delivery of what the Strategy is trying to achieve, because there was not a huge amount of new material in the Strategy, it was more an explanation of how the Department was going to look at issues in different ways and measure progress in different ways, through a suite of indicators. That said, we need to ensure that the Department actually ensures that the Strategy is used, day in, day out, and is not put on shelves with a range of other strategies. In addition, we would also say that we would want to see progress being made in the development of the Countryside Quality Indicator, which has been long promised. It was initially one of a range of the sustainable development indicators, it was promised in the Rural White Paper, it is continually under development, and, even in the departmental Sustainable Development Strategy, there is not a deadline for when this is going to become available to help inform policy-making, and we believe that was an omission that should be addressed.

  121. So are you saying the process was good, there is a product, you might have anxieties about the product, but it is down to implementation now, and that is where your real concerns are?
  (Mr Hamblin) That is our main concern. One can always improve things. But, as a document, we think it reinforces what DEFRA should be doing in the future, and the real challenge is implementation, yes.
  (Mr Sinden) I think I would like to emphasise the point that Paul has already raised. This issue about the Countryside Quality Indicator, the CPRE, with its focus on landscape and landscape protection, is particularly concerned that the new Department actually embraces that dimension of its responsibilities, and there is a real danger that the qualitative aspects of the environment in rural areas, particularly the quality of the landscapes, are absent from this approach to sustainable development. Until we have a robust Countryside Quality Indicator, we fear that, it is difficult, it is not an easy concept to work on, but, nonetheless, it is an important one and a significant issue, which I think many members of the public respond to, in terms of what they see happening in the countryside. And, until we have this Indicator, I think we would be very critical of the capacity of the Department's own approach to sustainable development actually to embrace the full range of public concerns and interest in what is happening in the countryside. We will be very disappointed if this Indicator is not in place next year, three-plus years after the Government first committed itself to developing one, prior to the Rural White Paper.

  122. Conceptually, it is not difficult to put forward a number of outputs by which to measure, but there is a kind of broader question, which you talked about earlier on, which is, of course, other Departments set the landscape too, on the rural environment, housing, for example, transport, for example; and I think one of the things you have been telling us is that maybe the Department is not a sufficient champion in this area, you have got anxieties there?
  (Mr Sinden) We do, and we are seeing this coming through very strongly in some of the initiatives being promoted by other parts of Government. I mentioned previously the review of planning. I know this is not a central concern of this Committee, but you will be aware that your colleagues on the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee have recently issued a very critical report of the Government's proposals on planning, and particularly stress the absence of any convincing and robust analysis of the environmental dimensions of the planning process, the environmental objectives that planning has a critical role in delivering. And we have been concerned, in our dealings with the Department, that, at official level but also ministerial level, I think the impact on the purchase of DEFRA on that particular review has been minimal, at best, and I think this is an important aspect of the sustainable development agenda, that we would like the Department to be much more proactive across Government. I think, to sort of step back a bit from the planning review, the temptation, in dealing with this question, is to argue that there should be a sort of sustainable development unit at the heart of Government, which is actually responsible for leading the Government's thinking and policy development in this area. But we believe that that is not necessarily the right solution, we believe that DEFRA could have the ability and the capacity to be an effective leader for sustainable development across Government, but it does require buy-in and commitment from other Departments, particularly the Treasury, and particularly No.10. And I think that if you compare the relatively low importance attached to sustainability considerations with the strong, with the multi-departmental axis that there is on promoting improvements in productivity and competitiveness, you begin to see, and we would rank sustainability alongside those other important objectives, you will see, I think, the relative weakness of the Government's approach to sustainability and the relative ineffectiveness of the Department to put this issue at the top of the agenda of Government.

Diana Organ

  123. Following on from that, earlier you talked about the difficulties that the Department have about getting over its territorial approach, its silo mentality, its change culture, to reach across its own Department, but, following on from what Paddy has just said, in the DEFRA publication, they are saying that they are leading across Government on sustainable development; and we have already talked about the difficulties because the Department does not have the responsibility for land use planning, and there have been criticisms about how that particular Department has shown the way about sustainable development. I wonder if you can give us any evidence of actually DEFRA really reaching across Government Departments on sustainable development, or is there none?
  (Mr Hamblin) I think there are two ways of answering that question, or two parts, rather. There is the extent to which DEFRA is engaging in big policy debates and then there is the Machinery of Government and the tools, in which DEFRA can ensure that sustainable development is being applied throughout Whitehall; and, if time permits, we would like just to share some evidence on the Machinery of Government. We have talked about the planning review, but there are other major policy initiatives under way where DEFRA seems to be absent from these debates, at least, not visibly, air transport, for example, where the talk is all about growth rather than how do we address managing demand more effectively, and yet the growth in air transport poses a huge threat to achieving climate change targets and objectives. The review of the Ten-Year Transport Plan, which forecasts increasing traffic levels of 21 per cent in the next ten years, despite traffic being a headline indicator for sustainable development, yet DEFRA does not seem to be visibly engaged in the review, which has focused rather narrowly on the pursuit of reducing congestion and losing out on not addressing these wider traffic impacts. In relation to the Machinery of Government, one of the main mechanisms that DEFRA could use is environment appraisal, really to ensure that the environment is being examined as part of policy-making processes throughout Whitehall, and DEFRA takes a lead in that respect; yet the Green Ministers Annual Report shows that, in 2001, only 55 environmental appraisals were produced for the whole of Government, which you might think was a rather low figure, even more so when you consider the fact that 45 of those were produced by one Department. So 11 Departments have not produced a single environmental appraisal; and a number of questions have been raised on this matter by Peter Ainsworth MP. And, just to illustrate the problem, an answer received from DCMS said that, "My Right Honourable Friend, the Minister for the Arts, has not had occasion to request a formal environmental appraisal since her appointment." The Civil Service College runs training courses on environmental appraisal, to assist Whitehall to use this new technique, yet nine Departments still have not sent an official to those courses, despite the training course being described in the Green Ministers Annual Report. And, finally, if you look at the Cabinet Office website, which lists Government cross-cutting issues, sustainable development, and the Sustainable Development Unit, is absent from that list; and I think that, although small, in terms of whether it is on a website or not, is symptomatic that the environment is not at the heart of Government.

  124. So it is not working, their intervention, their lead, is not happening; and you talked earlier about how you do not think a unit needs to be there, but it needs to be, if you like, commitment and signed-up from No.10, and Treasury, in particular, which might be one way that DEFRA could actually have the capacity to do that. You also talked about the environmental audit, would you want to see DEFRA officials actually being responsible for the flagging up of a need for an environmental audit, and actually to supervise that, or should it remain within the discreet environment? How can we do it, other than saying, clouting over the head in Treasury and saying, "Right, loads more money for DEFRA because they actually do have this remit;" how else could it be done, because there is a problem within the Department, is there not, because they are civil servants that have a particular task and it is difficult to reach out?
  (Mr Hamblin) I think that DEFRA provides expertise and can help champion the need for sustainable development and for the use of environmental appraisal. I do not think it is appropriate to suggest that DEFRA officials should be involved in every single appraisal, or audit, that is undertaken by all Government Departments; but what we do need to see is much more effective use made of that tool. And that requires, for example, the Cabinet Office to lend its weight behind the use of integrated policy appraisal, which is being developed with DEFRA and the old DTLR, which tries to incorporate the multitude of different assessments which officials are asked to undertake, rural proofing, environment regulatory impact assessment; it is being developed but has not really won support yet from the Cabinet Office, and needs to. In terms of the Treasury, which you highlight as clearly an extremely important actor here, we have seen progress with the Spending Review; the Treasury have issued guidance to all Departments, as part of the Spending Review, saying that all Departments need to submit sustainable development reports with their bids for additional funding. Those are not going to be published, because they are incorporated as part of departmental bids; and it is a good process, it shows movement and it shows commitment on the part of the Treasury to try to address these wider issues, but, really, the jury is out until we see the product, in terms of the Spending Review, to see whether this has been just an assessment exercise, or whether it is actually biting on big decisions that matter and have led to sustainable outcomes in the Spending Review.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed for that. If there is anything you would like to add, please let us have it rapidly; and then no doubt we will see you ere long in another context. But thank you for coming today.

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