Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)
RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER MP, MR JOHN ADAMS AND MR STEPHEN HALL
WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002
100. I know Mr Challen wants to come in on the actual education side of things, but just to pursue the issue about, what are these indicators for, is there departmental ownership of these indicators, and what do you do with them when you have got them? For example, we have had the statement today, have we not, about there is likely to be some relaxation of green belt; how does that square with the indicator we have got only 57 per cent rather than 60 per cent of the target indicators, in terms of new buildings on brownfield sites?
(Mr Meacher) The answer to your question about responsibility for the indicators is that they are owned by the Government as a whole.
101. Which bit of Government as a whole?
(Mr Meacher) No, I am saying the set of indicators are the responsibility of the Government as a whole, they are the judgement, the overall judgement, as to whether or not we are moving in the direction of a more sustainable country; but the data behind the indicators, of course, is the responsibility of the individual department and agency.
102. Does every different indicator have a separate responsible department?
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
103. There is literally one for one, as it were, one department, or two or three?
(Mr Meacher) There is certainly at least one department which is responsible for each indicator, there may be, I am rapidly trying to think of the 15, a joint contribution, but a department, or an agency, is responsible for
104. There is somebody who takes the lead responsibility for each indicator?
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
105. We would like to have a list of that, by the way, it would be very useful to have a list of that, if we could, which department is responsible for which indicator?
(Mr Meacher) Yes. I think I have actually got it with me; yes, "Responsibility for indicators." Maybe I could pass this over to you at the end.
106. It is on the back. Take, for example, the indicators about air quality and about the concern about air quality getting worse, linked to traffic. Given the concerns then, which department would have ownership, if we are talking at one and the same time about Treasury Instruments, which might assist with reducing car journeys, or with other departments; who has actually got the ownership of doing something about the trends in the indicators that there are?
(Mr Meacher) I am just looking at air quality. The lead department there is DEFRA, together with NETCEN, which is the Technology Centre . . .
(Mr Hall) The National Environmental Technology Centre.
(Mr Meacher) Yes. First of all, air quality is not getting worse, it is actually significantly getting better, quite significantly getting better. But can I go back to the earlier, very important point; these are not just an archive of where we are going, they are a trigger for action, because, if we are not going in the right way, we have always said, we are not going to change the indicator in order to be convenient to Government or to existing policy, we are going to change the policies.
107. Can you explain then how this proposal today, that we are going to relax the green belt policy, possibly, squares with the fact that we have not met the 60 per cent target, only 57 per cent, in terms of building on land use; why are we not trying to maintain that green belt in order that we can then put more onto the brownfield sites, where is the trigger for that?
(Mr Meacher) One of the indicators is the land use indicator, H14, which is about the percentage of new-build which is on previously-developed land, and it has been around 57 per cent over a long period of time, as the graph indicates. Sixty per cent was a target that we have set; obviously it is a matter for DETR, rather than DEFRA, but the policy does remain that 60 per cent.
108. How would you square the circle? Might it be somebody's view, inside, say, DEFRA, that you could not achieve the 60 per cent if you go ahead and relax the green belt; how do you resolve it? Is it the Green Ministers' Committee that is resolving these issues, has that particular issue been referred to the Green Ministers' Committee, in order to be able to see which direction we are going to be going in; do you see what I mean, there is a contradiction somewhere at the heart of it?
(Mr Meacher) I do. The answer to your direct question is no.
109. Should it have been?
(Mr Meacher) It could be. My understanding is that we remain committed to 60 per cent, and these are hard targets to achieve. If there is to be a change of policy, obviously, that will be discussed interdepartmentally, and it certainly could come to Green Ministers; it certainly has not, at the present time.
110. If it were to be discussed by Green Ministers, which department would refer it there?
(Mr Meacher) DETR.
111. I think the DETR no longer exists, it is now DTLR?
(Mr Meacher) I am sorry, yes, it is very nostalgic. DTLR, yes.
112. Could we come to the issue of public awareness. I wonder if I could ask, if we had an indicator of public awareness of these issues, of perhaps not these particular indicators, over the last four or five years, would you say that that indicator would be showing a smiley face or a cross one?
(Mr Meacher) Of awareness or of satisfaction with the results, which?
(Mr Meacher) I would have said that there is greater awareness, but nowhere near enough to satisfy me. I think there is, of course, a difference between awareness which flashes past one's consciousness and an awareness which says "This is significant and I've got to do something about it," and it is an issue which we are all involved with. I think the latter is much less than the former, of course.
114. Are we doing enough to engage the public in it? I know that a Survey of Public Attitudes towards the Environment and Quality of Life, published last year, found 34 per cent of the public had heard of sustainable development; actually, I think that is probably quite good. But, listening to the Today programme, a week or two ago, they are doing their annual survey of the bird population; have we tried to engage the media in doing mass public, almost mass observation type exercises, and, if they can look at birds, why cannot they go out in the street and look at the number of cars, can they do things of that sort, how many journeys they make on public transport, to get the Government to engage the public in the process of monitoring these indicators and actually becoming more conscious of them?
(Mr Meacher) I am extremely keen on that, of course, extremely keen. My ambition has always been that these 15 indicators could be as resonant in the public's consciousness about the state of the nation as is the level of unemployment, or interest rates, or exports, on the six o'clock news. I would like to see it have that degree of resonance. We are not there at the moment. Now how do you do that; we have tried. "Are you doing your bit?" I do not know how many people may have seen this, as a television advertisement; it is using famous people, drawn from sports and the glamorous film world, or news presentation, people who might be role models to people, in order to make a point, often humorously, about simple ways in which they could change their life, in order to assist in sustainable development and better environmental practice. I think, again, that has had some impact. I think the latest survey I saw showed 90 per cent, which makes me rather suspicious, of people were aware of this, and 70 per cent of people said they had done something unspecified about it. Now that is, if true, very good, but, I must say, I am sceptical.
115. On the issue of road traffic, we know that every year we now have a car-free day, I think it is 22 September, which, unfortunately, in my view, this year, falls on a Sunday, when a lot of people will find it easier not to use their car perhaps; but, given that that is only four months away, the date was decided a long time ago, is enough being done to promote that sort of thing? If everybody stayed at home, it might even show a little blip on this chart?
(Mr Meacher) I have to tell you, Mr Challen, that my experience on Sunday is that even more people seem to go out for leisurely roaming about in their car even than on a weekday, they may do it in a more leisurely and less aggressive manner, but there are thousands of cars on the road, all visiting their grannies for lunch on Sunday, as far as I can see.
116. It is carrying on, really, from the points Mr Challen and Mrs Walley were making, in terms of what does the public actually care about, in terms of these indicators. And, looking at this, and I am thinking of the actual letters I get about the environment from any constituent, and yet, obviously, there is crime, etc., etc., vehicle burglary, why is there not availability of public transport, because I get more letters about the lack of buses and the horror of the buses than anything else, and I get more about that than I do about, for example, the amount of road traffic? So can you actually extend these indicators, or put things in them?
(Mr Meacher) You could, of course, and maybe you will be suggesting in a moment that we should have not only road traffic volumes, which we believe, I think rightly, is probably the best single indicator, but you could supplement that by other material, availability of trains, affordable trains which are punctual, you could have availability of buses, in rural then in urban areas. The problem is again the trade-off between keeping it relatively simple so that it impacts on the minds of people who are not anoraks, they do not spend their whole time looking at the statistics, they are not that involved, but 80 per cent of the public are not into this in a big way; we somehow have to impact on them, in a simple, straightforward but accurate manner. Now I am in favour of going to be as detailed and accurate as is possible to achieve that objective, and I suspect that means not too detailed but still accurate.
117. I was not quick enough just now, when I was asking you as to who will be responsible for taking the issue of any particular target, in this case, the land use one, to the Green Cabinet Committee, you said it would be DTLR, but, given that you are a Minister in DEFRA, how does that square with making sure that where there is a concern that needs to be ironed out there is some ministerial ownership on your part to be able to try to get this matter resolved, where there might be a conflict or not an altogether clear way forward?
(Mr Meacher) Before this goes to an interdepartmental committee, there would be extensive discussion, interdepartmentally, at official level, and quite possibly bilaterally between Ministers.
118. And have you had bilateral discussions then about this proposal to relax the green belt?
(Mr Meacher) No. I have not.
119. And would you have expected to have?
(Mr Meacher) No.