Scotland still lacks a coherent sustainable development strategy despite latest initiative

A revitalised action plan for Scottish sustainable development may have gone someway towards addressing a major crisis of confidence in the Scottish Executive’s handling of sustainability, but serious gaps in the policy still remain, according to interviews with local authorities and other steakholders.

On October 9, Environment Minister Ross Finnie announced plans to set up a Sustainable Development Forum, and a strengthening of the Ministerial group on Sustainable Scotland, MOSS. This coincided with the publication of Reality check: a review of Scottish Executive activity on sustainable development, published by WWF, for which interviews were conducted with enterprise agencies, local government and the Executive’s own environment agencies, Scottish Natural Heritage and Scottish Environmental Protection Agency.

The interviews revealed a startling consensus that a problem with sustainable development in Scotland exists, a WWF spokesman told edie. The report illustrates how important it is for governments to have clear targets, strategies and the mechanisms to deliver sustainable development across all departments, combined with the political will.

The Scottish Executive appeared to have in place a promising sustainable development programme, and it has had a number of successes, as the report points out, in guiding the use of Structural funds for energy policy and planning. It has also made a sound start in taking forward economic development and sustainable development, although specific environmental issues have been understated such as ecological limits and the scale of policy response to climate change. However, where impressive progress with social inclusion has been recognised, the lack of linkage with environmental justice has undermined overall progress towards sustainable development.

But in practice, there have been “very significant gaps” in action by the Executive, according to the report, with downgrading of commitments and narrowing of the programme to waste, energy and travel (W-E-T). Progress with indicators has also been stilted and limited to W-E-T, with evidence that the Executive has insisted on ignoring experience in England, and starting from scratch. Then, regardless of the focus on W-E-T issues, there appears to have been little progress on waste, energy or travel, with travel commitments being overwhelmed by a major road programme.

Despite the recent announcement, the conservation organisation is still not convinced that sustainable development is at the heart of all Scottish policy. A WWF spokesman pointed out that although the Executive “has detailed a number of ‘actions’, it is missing the point, which is that “the bits don’t hang together and don’t add up to a coherent programme which everyone can understand. There’s no strategy, and no analysis on which to base one. Most of the actions haven’t even been considered by MOSS, and very few fit into the Executive’s only known – but inadequate – framework of W-E-T. It’s like a string of beads without the string”.

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