Whos the greenest of them all? By Andrew Ross

8 Jun 06
While Labour and the Conservatives join battle over who has the most sustainable policies, public sector organisations are making some serious strides forward. Andrew Ross reports on an issue whose time has come

09 June 2006

While Labour and the Conservatives join battle over who has the most sustainable policies, public sector organisations are making some serious strides forward. Andrew Ross reports on an issue whose time has come

Shortly after David Miliband slipped into his new chair as environment, food and rural affairs secretary, a letter arrived from the prime minister. 'Dear David,' it said, 'I am writing to set out the challenges ahead for your department.' The missive instructed Defra to work closely with 'several departments' to deliver 'our environmental objectives'.

This might be easier said than done. One Guardian commentator pointed out that Defra had been at 'war with the Treasury over funding, and is constantly skirmishing with the Department for Transport over aviation and roads, and the Department of Trade and Industry over everything'.

And this is only on Miliband's own side – never mind that Conservative leader David Cameron has been getting one over on the government with his 'vote blue, go green' agenda. He has certainly jangled some nerves with the high profile he has given to environmental issues. His visit to the Norwegian Arctic to take a firsthand look at receding glaciers was a publicity coup, even if his green credentials were tarnished when it emerged that, while he cycles to work, his change of clothes and paperwork get a lift by car.

Miliband's appointment as environment secretary was interpreted across Westminster as a pre-emptive move by the prime minister to line up one talented young rising star against another. While Cameron and Miliband haven't yet become sparring partners in the Commons, the territory is beginning to be staked out in cyberspace. Miliband is the first blogging minister, diligently offering earnest responses on a range

of issues.

Over at Conservative Campaign HQ, they've spent a tidy sum on new domain names as part of the Tory consultation on the 'key challenges' it wants to address. Environment is being covered by the 'quality of life' policy group. It is co-chaired by former environment secretary John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith, described by the Guardian's John Vidal as the 'golden boy of British environmentalism'. The group's brief includes energy, transport, water, food, farming and rural affairs.

So both parties are obviously working at building a constituency of interest around the environment, but when will the gloves come off? Cameron need not be in a hurry – a manifesto won't be required until 2009 at the earliest and his policy group isn't reporting until July 2007.

Miliband, meanwhile, is trying to dent the Tories' green credibility. Announcing his intention to create an 'environmental contract' that would set out rights and responsibilities in regards to how we treat the planet, he said: 'We will meet this global challenge not by words over days, but by deeds over years.'

It is worth remembering, however, that green issues do not exist in isolation. For example, the current debate about the UK's future energy supplies includes an environmental dimension. And this is inextricably bound up with other – human – factors: will people learn to welcome wind turbines, will they accept radioactive waste in their backyard, will they be able to afford ever-increasing rises in petrol prices?

Sustainable development, or sustainability – described by Gummer as 'not cheating on your children' – tries to meet this inevitable integration of environmental and social concerns head on. It sets out a vision where societies create economic progress in ways that do not damage the life support systems

of the planet, while at the same time ensuring that everyone has a reasonable quality of life, now and in the future.

'The future' has been making headlines recently. The previously self-confessed climate change sceptic Sir David Attenborough now concedes that it is 'the major challenge facing the world'. Human use of carbon – the primary source of emissions influencing climate change – is leading to rises in sea levels and changes in the weather. The implications are starting to bite: the Association of British Insurers has reported that claims for storm and flood damages in the UK doubled – to more than £6bn – between 1998 and 2003 compared with the previous five years.

The narrowly averted crisis on gas supply from Russia this winter highlighted the potential fragility of the UK's energy supplies, and a second energy review in three years by the government shows the importance it places on finding secure sustainable supplies.

Yet despite all this, our rapacious appetite for consumption shows no sign of slowing down: if everyone in the world lived like the UK average, we would need the resources of three planets instead of the one we've got. How can this mismatch be maintained indefinitely without widespread conflict over resources?

Partly to tackle these challenges, the public sector has been taking an increasing interest in sustainable development. CIPFA is launching a 'sustainability reporting framework' for organisations at its conference next week. This has been welcomed by the National Audit Office as a 'a useful guide for thinking about how public bodies can approach their sustainability reporting'.

Other initiatives are flowing thick and fast. Ted Cantle, an associate director at the Improvement and Development Agency and chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Managers' environment panel, believes that, at last, 'sustainability has moved to the top of the political agenda'.

The current UK sustainable development strategy, Securing the future, sets out national, devolved, regional and local indicators. Regional assemblies and the Welsh Assembly Government have a legal duty to promote sustainable development. Local authorities will shortly be asked to prepare sustainable community strategies. The NHS has set up its 'good corporate citizen' programme to put the issue on to trusts' to-do lists.

In all, there is a bewildering plethora of indicators, strategies and guidance documents to improve and measure sustainability performance – with more on the way. From 2008, Comprehensive Performance Assessments for councils will include 'an appropriate focus on action on climate change, sufficient to incentivise more authorities to reach the levels of the best'.

But despite the government's apparent enthusiasm, sustainable development is a slippery notion for an administration that has been obsessed by targets as the measure of performance. It can't be 'delivered' – it's not a parcel, or even a service. It is more of an aspiration, which means that it is open to different interpretations.

Take the government's sustainable communities agenda: up to 200,000 new houses are to be built in so-called growth areas in the Southeast, with the bulk of them earmarked for the Thames Gateway, an area of low-lying land to the east of London. The government says that these will be places where people 'will want to live and work, now and in the future'. Yvette Cooper, minister for housing and planning, recently argued that 'a lack of housing is unsustainable'.

But critics claim the plans themselves are unsustainable. Groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England accuse the government of dumping 'massive greenfield sprawl across the wider Southeast'. Others point out that climate change will lead to significant increases in flooding along the Thames, right where the new development is being planned.

Who is right? Adrian Robertson, programme director at the National School of Government within the Cabinet Office, says: 'What we need is dialogue and debate, not dogma. Thinking about our legacy means working differently. This will be difficult at first, and the agenda is awkward and challenging, but we can't run away from the facts.'

One local authority that is trying to set up a decision-making framework to conduct these kind of debates locally is Carmarthenshire County Council, which has committed itself to integrating sustainable development into its performance management framework. According to the Welsh Audit Office, the council is succeeding in using officer and member 'champions' to promote understanding of the issue and how it can be applied in each service area.

Andrea Keenoy, an audit manager at the National Audit Office, says: 'Sustainability reporting is important for making sure that public bodies are taking account of their long-term impact on the environment and society with the seriousness that it deserves.'

In recognition of this changing reporting role for public sector organisations, CIPFA's new framework advises organisations on how to incorporate sustainability reporting into their overall performance management. It has been developed with the leading sustainability organisation Forum for the Future.

David Bent, a member of the development team, says it will help public sector organisations to avoid ending up with 'a great big jelly of sustainability strategies and plans, with no way of knowing whether they are making a difference. It will also help organisations to manage what they measure, to rationalise activities and to prioritise what is most important.'

It should also help to raise the public sector's sustainability profile. Steve Freer, chief executive of CIPFA, says: 'There is a perception out there that the private sector is better at sustainability reporting than the public sector. I hope that the framework will show that public sector organisations are taking important steps to improve their own sustainability, too.'

Woking Borough Council is one of the first authorities to report on its sustainability performance. Tim Lowe, senior policy officer at the council, describes the process as 'loosely based on performance indicators'. He says that whatever process is chosen: 'It needs to be relatively straightforward to compile and clear about where the council needs to improve.'

Another consequence of sustainability issues rising up the agenda is that communities will look to councils and others to lead by example. Public sector organisations will be anxious to avoid the kind of damning headlines the government incurred when the Sustainable Development Commission reported last year on Whitehall's performance in this area. The SDC pointed out that 'with rising CO2 emissions, serious water wastage, and poor fuel and waste records, the government is struggling to manage its own affairs sustainably'.

One way that all public sector organisations can make positive changes is through procurement. The government's Sustainable Procurement Task Force will report shortly on how councils can use their buying power to reduce their use of resources and increase local economic activity. It is likely to have been influenced by examples such as Northumberland County Council. A review by the county found that a 10% increase in council spending locally would generate an extra £34m for the local economy. It has used this finding to change its procurement process so that local small businesses can become part of the council's supply chain.

Tom Knowland, director of sustainable development at Leeds City Council, believes that: 'In 20 years, a city that relies on fossil fuels won't be economically competitive unless it develops now in ways which don't rely heavily on natural resources. It's an economic argument to invest for the long term.'

As well as promoting new environmental technologies, the record levels of money being invested in public services provide opportunities to broaden the skills base of local areas so that communities are able to adapt sustainably to future employment markets. Barts and the London NHS Trust is aiming to recruit 80% of entry-level jobs locally (around 900 jobs in total) as part of its new building programme, ensuring that they reflect the ethnic mix of the area. The benefits will include provision of culturally and linguistically sensitive services, reduced staff turnover, lower recruitment costs and a healthier local population by reducing unemployment.

In another 20 years, it is unlikely that either David Miliband or David Cameron will be in charge of the UK sustainability agenda. But the extent to which the issue is taken seriously now will significantly influence how well the UK has adapted to climate change and other challenges come 2026. Otherwise, we might simply look back on 2006 as a time when 'being green' was trendy rather than trend-setting.

Andrew Ross writes on sustainable development, health and urban planning. CIPFA's Sustainability Framework will be launched at a lunchtime reception at its annual conference on Thursday, June 15


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