Science & Environment

'People's watchdog' touted to keep UK green

David Cameron
Image caption The idea is a neat twist on the Prime Minister's notion of Big Society

Sustainability experts are planning to set up a people's watchdog on green government when the spending axe falls on the official body next month.

The proposal was aired on Tuesday at a meeting of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) whose 10-year Whitehall funding is about to end.

The new body would use techniques such as crowdsourcing and social media to dissect data and lobby government.

There is no funding for the new group, although conversations are under way.

The idea is a twist on David Cameron's Big Society idea, whereby state-funded activities are hived off into the private or charitable sectors.

"There's a need for expert advice, for the government to have a serious dialogue with the experts around sustainability," said Becky Willis, one of the commission's members.

"And if they won't resource it, we'll have to find other ways of doing it."

The proposed body would monitor all government departments and follow all relevant issues, providing a running audit of the coalition's pledge to be the "greenest ever government".

People's movement

The "people's SDC" idea seeks to create communities of experts who can analyse statistics and policy, rate government performance and lobby for improvement.

"One part of this is to create something like a taxpayers' alliance, but for sustainability," said Solitaire Townsend, co-founder and director of the communications agency Futerra.

"The government has said it will put lots of data online - that's fantastic, but the average person is not going to go through and analyse it all.

"So we need to get loads of specialists to sort through it and start ranking the government - this would use more of a wiki approach and probably based on 'traffic lights', with green, amber and red for the government's performance, and done on a daily basis."

The new alliance would then seek to lobby government for change - or indeed praise it - using Twitter, Facebook, SMS and other communication tools.

Ms Townsend and her colleagues were impressed by the effectiveness of the recent campaign against moving Forestry Commission lands out of state management - which, as they noted, was not co-ordinated by the traditional environment movement but by loose networks of concerned people.

At the SDC meeting, delegates charged Futerra with turning the people's watchdog idea into reality.

It believes the operation would be cheap to run, with concerned people giving their time for free - and hopes that charitable foundations will be interested in funding the start-up.

Ideas engine

Over its 10-year existence, the SDC has advised ministers on issues as diverse as energy, health, transport, climate change and the quality of the built environment.

Image caption The "people's SDC" idea was partly inspired by campaigning on England's forestry disposal

Its final blast was to describe the government's seven-page plan on putting sustainable development in government, also published on Tuesday, as a "pretty weak package".

"There is nothing in that so-called vision about engaging people imaginatively and creatively - nothing about involving people or communities," said Jonathon Porritt, who chaired the SDC from 2000 to 2009.

"So I think [the people's SDC] is a really good idea - it would make the idea of sustainable development, which sounds rather boring to a lot of people, more inclusive and perhaps more interesting."

The government has asked the Environmental Audit Committee, made up of MPs, to take on the role of "critical friend" - though the committee is unsure of its capacity to fulfil the remit.

Its chair, Joan Walley MP, said the SDC had been an "engine room" of ideas and advice for which there could be no direct substitute.

"But in terms of moving on, looking to see how we can maintain understanding and awareness and link up information and events and bring everything together in a holistic way, [the people's SDC] could prove useful as part of something bigger."

The UK government announced last July that it would stop funding the SDC at the end of the financial year, along with other green advisory bodies such as the 41-year-old Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

The Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Assemblies followed suit, although SDC operations will continue in some form in Wales.

The commission maintains that for an annual cost of £3m, the green measures it has championed have saved the government £60-70m through reducing expenditure on items such as fuel.

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