Strategic steps

Barrie Clarke, director of communication at Water UK, analyses the sustainable development strategy and asks whether it will make a difference to the water industry

Sustainable development looks like a permanent sideshow in the public policy fairground. Main attraction status still seems way off. Will a national strategy launched in March make any difference? For the water business, with reputational capital invested, this matters.

Sustainable development (SD) came to notice at an international summit in 1992. UK governments held out until 1999, the year of the first national strategy. There were quality of life indicators and later the Sustainable Development Commission to monitor progress. In 2001 the linking of food and environment showed the value of a broad objective. Defra got the job of promoting SD across government. Every water manager knows, at least in shorthand, the aims of the first strategy:

  • social progress for everyone,
  • environment protection,
  • high economic growth and employment,,
  • (often left out) prudent use of natural resources.
  • In reaching a judgement on the new strategy, it will be useful to see how thinking has developed. Securing the future – delivering UK sustainable development strategy* replaces four aims with five principles, four priorities for action shared by the four UK administrations, 20 UK framework indicators and a further 48 indicators related to the priorities. You do not have to be Jeremy Clarkson to get that sinking feeling. But hold on, there is a respectable logic.

    The problem was not the comfy old aims themselves. It was the tendency of single-issue groups to latch onto their favourite aim, pay lip service to the rest and claim SD status for the result. This would not do. The whole point was making the four work together. So the new watchword is ‘integration’; menu prix fixe, not a la carte. The five principles are:

  • living within environmental limits,
  • ensuring a strong, healthy and just society,
  • achieving a sustainable economy,
  • promoting good governance,
  • using sound science responsibly.
  • There is enough here to justify the intention “to develop the earlier strategy, not depart from it”, but also the last two principles show Defra is not just redecorating the candyfloss stall. The overall ‘purpose’ reveals a welcome fresh approach: “The goal of sustainable development is to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the life of future generations.”

    An international dimension fills an obvious gap in the previous strategy. Sustainability for East Grinstead on its own, or even Wales, was never a runner. We are one world and those who depend on trade subsidies had better get used to the idea. Moreover, people come first.

    The environment is seen as a constraint, the economy an enabler. To her credit, Margaret Beckett has insisted on this throughout her time as environment secretary. But if this is a shift towards more proportionate environmentalism, the green movement seems to have exacted a price that may not help the strategy’s long-term prospects.

    It is the fall from grace of ‘high economic growth and employment’. Once one of four key aims, these are now mere indicators. Not even ‘framework indicators’. The two leading, if traditional, measures of succeeding nations are now ‘further’ indicators 32 (output) and 44 (employment). True, one of the principles is achieving a sustainable economy. But this pairs the abstract prosperity and opportunity with polluter pays and efficient use of resources. The overriding principle seems to be working within environmental limits. It drives three of the four priorities – working for sustainable consumption, confronting climate change, protecting natural resources and enhancing the environment.

    No-one would demur, but perhaps we should ask questions. For example, about sustainable consumption and the link with something called the ‘one planet economy’. The strategy wisely seeks to help individuals contribute through their actions day-to-day.

    Managing public reaction

    It is anyone’s guess if people will enjoy being helped to reduce their demand or to accept their ‘ecological footprint’ would need three planets to be sustainable. The danger is people being turned off by what they see as idealistic or incomprehensible aims. SD still has shallow foundations and credibility is at stake.

    Defra would say its strategy is the result of a major consultation (Taking it on), which stimulated 900 responses. We can respect that, but also know committed campaigners can dominate such exercises. The water industry hopes it will succeed. It wants SD (not necessarily in name) at the centre of the theme park. Sustainable water policy is Water UK’s core objective and next month it publishes its annual data using indicators in the strategy.

    But will it make a difference? Despite the doubts, our optimistic answer is: “Yes, as long as we accept that domination by any single issue, priority or further indicator could close the whole show down.” To avoid this, all involved should heed the current proprietor. In his introduction the prime minister
    said: “We will only succeed if we go with
    the grain of what individuals and businesses want& development, growth and prosperity need not and should not be in conflict
    with sustainability.”

    *Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. March 2005.

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