Government advisor criticises Blair’s environment record, but says this is the best government we’ve had

Jonathon Porritt, head of the Government’s Sustainable Development Commission, has joined Environment Minister Michael Meacher in criticising the Government’s record on the environment. However, he also notes that with regard to sustainable development, this is probably the best government we’ve ever had.

Meacher’s criticisms – in which he described himself as a “lone voice in the wilderness” – were aired in an interview with the Sunday Times on 11 August (see related story). Now Porritt has added his voice to the debate in an interview on BBC One’s Breakfast with Frost programme on 25 August, and in an opinion piece in The Observer on the same day.

Porritt criticised the Government’s attitude to sustainable development and business. “I’ve got no problem about business people being in the UK delegation [at Johannesburg], … fine, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “But what I’m worried about is the government tends to listen disproportionately to business and to disparage the advice that it gets from other sectors – particularly from the NGOs – and that’s foolish too, because we need the contribution of business but we need it, not on their terms, but on the terms of what is required to deliver genuinely sustainable development both in the rich and the poor world. And that’s different from what they’re offering at the moment.”

The Government needs to work much harder at making it easier for the business community to be more sustainable, said Porritt. “For instance, this government spends something like £40 billion a year in the UK economy. Why isn’t it directing that money in such a way as to promote the best practice of the good companies and leave the companies that are doing bad on the margins?” Company law could also be changed to promote sustainability, Porritt added.

However, Porritt also defends the Blair Government. In a comment piece in Sunday’s Observer, he notes that there has been a lack of balance in media reporting on the Johannesburg Summit and the UK Government’s achievements. “For the Ecologist magazine to declare magisterially that this is the least green government we’ve ever had sounds impressive. The fact that it’s utter twaddle is irrelevant,” he said.

“As it happens, from a broader sustainable development perspective rather than a narrowly environmental one, this is probably the best government we’ve yet had,” he continues. “Not only that, it’s one of the few governments in Johannesburg that’s going to have any kind of story to tell about progress made since the Earth Summit 10 years ago.”

Former Conservative environment minister John Gummer, being interviewed alongside Porritt on Breakfast with Frost, agreed that the Government could be doing more to encourage business sustainability. Gummer has recently been described as having been a ‘leading light’ with regard to environmental stewardship. Sustainable development is not at the heart of the Government, he pointed out, repeating a new mantra that is starting to echo across the corridors of environmental power.

Although many big businesses recognise the importance of sustainable development – of wasting less water and electricity, for instance – they still have only the narrow focus of their own businesses operating in the global environment, he explained.

“What governments have to do is lift that focus and to insist that business works with NGOs and with governments to solve the problems, the solution to which each has got part, but they have to do it together.” The Johannesburg conference is one of the ways in which this can be achieved, Gummer said.

One area in which the Government needs to improve is that of procurement, which is not currently done on the basis of sustainable development, explained Gummer. “If it did that, it would change British industry entirely,” he said.

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