UK government axes its sustainability watchdog

Defra logo Defra has to find savings as part of the government's cost cutting strategy

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The UK government is to stop funding the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), its independent environmental watchdog and advisory body.

Set up by the Labour government in 2000, the SDC is among a number of green bodies to be abolished.

The news comes on the day the SDC, with a budget of £3m, published a report saying Whitehall had saved £60-70m as a result of introducing green measures.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced the details in a statement.

"This government is committed to being the greenest government ever, and the Structural Reform Plan published last week sets out how Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) will play its part in achieving this," she said.

"Reducing the deficit is priority for the government and all departments are playing their part in making efficiency savings.

"Together with (Energy and Climate Secretary) Chris Huhne, I am determined to play the lead role in driving the sustainability agenda across the whole of government and I am not willing to delegate this responsibility to an external body."

SDC chairman Will Day said he was "deeply disappointed" by the announcement.

"Our work has delivered efficiency savings totalling many times what the organisation has cost the government, and contributed towards much greater sustainability in government - both in the way it runs itself, and the decisions it makes about our wellbeing and our future," he said.

Start Quote

Caroline Spelman is behaving like the manager of a closing down sale - everything must go”

End Quote Hilary Benn Shadow environment secretary

Mr Day added that the Commission would now concentrate its efforts on ensuring that sustainability found its way "to the heart of all government decision making".

Hilary Benn, shadow environment secretary, said the coalition's pledge to be the greenest government ever was "collapsing".

"The SDC has led the way in scrutinising government's environmental performance, helping to save money in the process," he said.

"Fundamental to its success is independence from Whitehall. It's now clear that the government does not want to be held to account in this way.

"Caroline Spelman is behaving like the manager of a closing down sale - everything must go. The loser will be our natural environment."

Jonathon Porritt, who was the SDC's chairman between 2000 and 2009, responded angrily to the announcement.

"Let's not beat around the bush: their justification for getting rid of the SDC is transparently vacuous, if not downright dishonest," he said.

"This is an ideological decision - in other words, a decision driven by dogma not by evidence-based, rational analysis.

"The only conceivable reason for allowing dogma to dominate in this way is that the government doesn't want anyone independently auditing its performance on sustainable development - let alone properly-resourced, indisputably expert body operating as 'a critical friend' on an inside track within government."

Jane Davidson, Environment Minister for the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG), also expressed disappointment at Defra's decision.

"We are committed to funding the delivery of the SDC's agreed work programme this financial year. This will give us time to set in place new arrangements in Wales," she said.

WAG contributes about £360,000 each year to the SDC's core funds. The Scottish government provides £570,000 annually, Northern Ireland £120,000, and Defra £1.9m annually.

Cutting back

Defra's annual budget is in the region of £3bn a year. Under plans announced by Chancellor George Osborne in his first Budget, government departments, on average, have to deliver savings of 25% over four years as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Sizewell B nuclear reactor (Image: PA) The SDC said the disadvantages of nuclear power outweighed its benefits

However, observers suggested that Defra was likely to be forced to make even bigger savings as a result of other departments' budgets being protected from the cuts.

At the weekend, Ms Spelman indicated that a number of environmental quangos faced the axe in order to protect front-line services such as flood defences and animal health protection.

Other publicly funded organisations to be abolished include:

  • the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution
  • the Inland Waterways Advisory Council
  • the Agricultural Wages Board

"We will continue to liaise closely with the Sustainable Development Commission's partners and will work with business, civil society, local communities, universities and internationally, to help deliver sustainable development together," the environment secretary said.

She added that the House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) would be able to hold ministers to account over their environmental performance, providing a "powerful democratic scrutiny of government's work in this area".

Joan Walley MP, chairwoman of the EAC, has written a letter to Ms Spelman voicing concern about the decision to withdraw the SDC's funding and abolish the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

"These two organisations play an essential role in furthering sustainable development and environmental protection across government," she wrote.

"We have at this stage no detail, however, about what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure the functions of these two bodies are maintained.

"It is unfortunate that your proposals have not been discussed in the House of Commons, where these points might have been debated."

In the decade since the SDC was established, it has published a number of high-profile findings, including a report in 2006 that was critical of government plans to give the green light to new nuclear power stations in the UK.

It also issued an annual report card on Whitehall's own environmental performance, which sometimes made uncomfortable reading for ministers.

Reacting to the news, Friends of the Earth's executive director Andy Atkins said: "The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality - as well as keeping a critical check on progress.

"The coalition must be held to account on its promise to be the greenest government ever - and explain how it will continue to green Britain, saving money and creating jobs at the same time, without the Sustainable Development Commission's expert guidance and overview."

In May, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he wanted this government to be the "greenest ever".

He used a speech to civil servants to say that the new coalition administration pledged to cut Whitehall's emissions by 10% by 2011.

In her written ministerial statement, Ms Spelman said that her department would "continue to look closely at other Defra arm's length bodies" and did not rule out making further cuts.

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