Government stresses local responsibility in sustainable development strategy
The Government has pledged to lead by example in its new sustainable development strategy, 'Securing the Future', launched this week.
Currently the Government procurement budget is about £13 billion a year, and when coupled with the wider public sector reaches about £125 billion a year. This, the government says, could act as a powerful driver for innovation in sustainable design as well as exerting a powerful influence over consumption patterns. This could be particularly true in the construction sector as the Government is committed to such a large building programme for schools, hospitals and housing.
By the end of the year each and every government department will have to produce its own action plan so as to ensure delivery of the procurement goals.
The strategy features around 250 commitments to action in four key areas: sustainable consumption and production, climate change and energy conservation, protection of natural resources, and sustainable communities.
Launching the strategy, Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "By joining up thinking and action across all levels of government, and by setting long-term objectives, the government is dedicated to securing the future for all. I want to use this new strategy as a catalyst for action."
He announced that a new scheme starting April 2006 would require all government departments to offset the carbon impacts of their air travel through investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects to compensate for carbon dioxide emissions.
Mr Blair acknowledged that this was a symbolic gesture, but said it was, nevertheless an important symbolic gesture.
In addition to the central government measures, the strategy also contains details of the 'Community Action 2020 - Together We Can' program which will launch in the Autumn. It will give local groups support, information and training to influence what goes on in their communities. They will be given specific support to help influence local authorities Sustainable Community Strategies and local development plans.
Mr Blair said he was impressed with what some communities had achieved at with Local Agenda 21 on transport, waste, energy and creating places people want to live. "That made a big difference, and we can build on this. There's a lot of good public will out there and if we don't do this, those people will be asking why we didn't. If we can't achieve sustainability at a local level, then it will be difficult to achieve internationally."
One thing that seemed to be missing from the strategy, however, was any 'sticks' to force business into becoming more sustainable. The government seems convinced that business will be encouraged to embrace sustainable standards through consumer demand, as stimulated by its own procurement policies, and will fall into line in order to capitalise on this.
Certainly, a number of features of the strategy are designed to assist business in making more sustainable choices, such as the Sustainable Consumption and Production task force, the new business resource efficiency and reduction of waste programme, a new sustainable design forum. However, it seems there will be little in the way of penalties for non-compliance, or not making an effort. Given that businesses are some of our worst polluters and have such a bad record on recycling, this seemed a notable omission.
Similarly, the lack of progress over reduction of transport emissions was glossed over. Charlotte Atkins of the DfT said the situation was: "improving, but still much needs to be done."
She admitted that congestion was "unacceptably high" and that cars were cheaper now than at any other time. She also said that demand for aviation was growing at an alarming rate, adding enormously to emissions levels from transport. Rather than moving to reduce demand, however, Ms Atkins said that: "plans to expand airports in the South East have been designed with the environment in mind". Quite how the environment came to mind was left unanswered.
Despite this, the strategy was broadly welcomed. Johnathon Porritt, chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, itself given a stronger role in the plan to act as independent watchdog over government progress, said:
"This strategy is a vast improvement on the 1999 strategy and demonstrates a new determination on the part of government to make sustainable development a real priority. It offers timetabled plans for action and seeks to engage us all in driving change. If the Government keeps its promises, and does so visibly leading from the centre, we will finally begin to see the kind of action we now so urgently need."
By David Hopkins