Was the Sustainable Development Commission too good to escape the bonfire?
The next time David Cameron proclaims that the coalition is “the greenest Government ever” ask yourself this question. Why would “the greenest Government ever” scrap an organisation that promoted sustainable development and saved the previous administration Â£60-70million a year, at a cost of a mere Â£3 million a year?
The answer just might be this – it was too good. But it wasn’t always like this, so what went right?
The SDC started life 10 years ago, and as George Monbiot put it in the Guardian (on 22/07/10) the SDC was “a strange little beast”. Indeed so, for an organisation that began life being criticised by some for being too close to government and industry, it has surprised many by breaking those shackles and growing in respectability. In doing so, of course, this strange little beast found its claws and stepped up its scrutiny and criticism of government policy – reflecting what many in our field consider to be a continued lack of commitment to climate change and sustainable development, and an unwillingness to listen to and act on expert advice.
Despite having appeared to rise up the global political agenda following the Rio Summit in 1992 there is scant evidence that sustainable development was considered a serious driver for policy making in the latter years of the Conservative administration and the early years of New Labour. As a result the SDC was born into an environment of political scepticism.Â At an SDC event that I attended a few years ago Jonathan Porritt, then Chair of the organisation, reminded the audience that the inclusion of “Using sound science responsibly” in the Government’s 5 Principles of Sustainable Development was intended as a buffer against using scientific evidence, because those who drafted them thought that such evidence was insufficient and inconclusive. The SDC, to their eternal credit, helped prove them wrong.
Whilst I’m no big fan of Porritt, he did lay the foundations for what the SDC became in its final year. When Will Day took over in August 2009 it was a watershed moment for the SDC. Day’s criticisms of Government policy came thick and fast, and although he stressed that his remarks were personal they were openly applauded by many environmentalists, who hoped that they signalled a much-needed new direction for the SDC. First he took aim at ‘clean coal’ – “Never use the words ‘clean coal’, I do not believe clean coal exists” – before directing his fire at the aviation industry by opposing the third runway at Heathrow and advocating making air travel more expensive to discourage people from flying for foreign holidays. He was also unafraid of stating that the Government must make unpopular decisions to tackle climate change (Guardian, 13/08/09).
The problem for the Government was that all this advice was coming from an organisation that it would find somewhat difficult to dismiss in public. An organisation composed of leaders in its field, and directly funded by the Government it was becoming so vocal in criticising.
Then in the dying months of a New Labour Government that was busy trying to fend off a recession and restore economic growth a bombshell landed on its doorstep. This came in the form of Prof Tim Jackson’s game-changing book ‘Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet’, published by none other than the SDC.
Within less than a year Day and the SDC had publicly challenged a cornerstone of UK energy policy, waded into one of the most contentious transport proposals put forward in recent years, argued for policies that it knew would not be popular with the electorate, and blown a massive intellectual hole through the ‘growth is good’ ideology. In hindsight it couldn’t last, and in July 2010 the new Coalition Government fired back.
When the Coalition announced its ‘bonfire of the quangos’ those in the SDC must have feared the worst but hoped that, having helped save over 20 times the cost of their meagre budget, they might survive the raging inferno. But the coup de grace was delivered by the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, who has reassured us that, in the absence of the SDC, “The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee will provide powerful democratic scrutiny of Governmentâ€™s work in this area”.
So who sits on the Environmental Audit Committee to provide that scrutiny? At the time of writing the new membership list has yet to be published, but needless to say it’s a committee of MPs, and a look at the previous list of members shows an absolute dearth of expert knowledge (with the honourable exception of Colin Challen). Obviously the Committee will be able to draw on support from Defra and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). However Defra is facing significant cuts to its funding and the Cabinet Office’s first annual review of DECC concludes with the warning that DECC suffers from “significant weaknesses in capability for future delivery that require urgent action. Not well placed to address weaknesses and needs significant additional action and support to secure effective delivery. Not well placed to deliver improvement over the medium term”. 
So one might have thought that a Government being driven by the need to reduce its spending and improve its efficiency would see the value in maintaining a highly cost-effective organisation that has proven its ability to support it in doing just that, and whose achievements have been recognised by both the Scottish and Welsh Assembly Governments. But for some reason that didn’t save it from the bonfire, perhaps it really was too good?
By scrapping the SDC, and also the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Coalition Government may have signalled its real attitude to climate change and sustainable development. In handing over the SDC’s scrutiny role to the Environmental Audit Committee it has abandoned the use of an expert arms-length organisation in favour of a small group of MPs, many of whom may be lacking in knowledge and carrying political and personal agendas. The SDC may have made a rather unpromising start to life, but this “strange little beast” has grown to become a useful, highly informed, and increasingly vocal element of our democracy, so it’s sad but unsurprising to see its demise.
So next time you hear Cameron or Clegg proclaiming that the Coalition is “the greenest Government ever” , remember that one of its first actions was to throw the SDC on the bonfire.
1. Cabinet Office, 2009. Civil Service Capability Reviews: Department for Energy and Climate Change. December 2009. Available at: http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/Assets/DECC%20Capability%20Review%20web_tcm6-35128.pdf