What does the Scottish Government’s decision to stop funding the Sustainable Development Commission mean for the sustainability agenda?
From the moment the UK Government announced its decision to cut funding for the Whitehall branch of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) in July, the days were numbered for its sister organisation north of the border.
Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead announced at the end of last month the Scottish Government’s decision to stop funding the SDC in Scotland by March 2011, in a response to a Parliamentary Question from SNP MSP Rob Gibson.
Lochhead explained that the SDC’s main roles of providing advice and scrutinising the sustainability of government policy and public sector practice would not continue.
He stated that the Government did “attach importance to promotion of behaviour change and building capacity for sustainability delivery” and that while there would no longer be a body dealing exclusively with sustainability scrutiny, Audit Scotland has recently updated its capacity on sustainability with the help of the SDC and a Best Value sustainability toolkit has been put in place.
Lochhead also said that the Scottish Government “was pleased to note” the work being done by the Scottish Parliament and its committees to scrutinise sustainability and that environmental voluntary organisations worked in “a variety of ways” to hold Government to account on aspects of sustainability. He noted that the Committee on Climate Change, set up to advise the UK Government on climate change and setting of carbon budgets, also had a role in reviewing Scotland’s progress on emissions reduction targets and he reported that funding for the Scottish Sustainable Development Forum would continue.
Although the relatively detailed answer did set out how the Scottish Government plans to take things forward once the SDC is wound up, it also hinted that the tough outlook for public spending could be partly to blame, pointing to the Crerar Review and the need to avoid duplication of scrutiny functions. During First Minister’s Questions last week, Alex Salmond essentially laid the cards on the table when he was asked by Labour energy spokesperson Lewis Macdonald why the SDC had been scrapped.
The First Minister replied that the knock-on impact of the UK Government’s decision to withdraw funding for the UK body meant that the SDC in Scotland would have had to be established as a new NDPB – a move which Salmond said would have incurred “considerable costs”.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government told Holyrood that the Government was confident scrutiny of sustainability “would continue to be robust” and said that the Scottish Government had done a great deal to promote sustainable development by making ‘Sustainable Economic Growth’ one of its five strategic objectives from the start of its term.
While the announcement of SDC Scotland’s abolition has largely gone unnoticed in the press, the environmental community is extremely worried about what the decision will mean in the long term.
WWF Scotland director, Dr Richard Dixon, described the news as the “worst possible result for sustainable development”.
He said: “A time of tight finances is exactly when you most need an independent check that the Government is balancing shortterm finance with long-term social and environmental progress. Instead a strong track record of incisive analysis and five years of experience is to be thrown away.” Labour environment spokesperson Sarah Boyack has undertaken to work to “find out the true impact of the decision” while Green MSP Patrick Harvie said the news was “depressing but unsurprising”.
There is concern that losing the holistic approach that the SDC took to looking at policy will be hugely damaging to progress on the climate change agenda.
“We understand completely the financial situation that the Scottish Government finds itself in. We have told the Scottish Government that we think that it should be identifying key environmental functions which should be protected and one of these we thought was the auditing function performed by the Sustainable Development Commission,” says Andy Myles, Parliamentary Officer of Scottish Environment LINK, which represents over 30 environmental bodies in Scotland.
“At a time when the Government say that climate change is a major problem facing us and that we have world-leading climate change targets, actually independent scrutiny, real, hard, scrutiny of how this is being delivered is being stripped out of the system and that is deeply regrettable.” Over the five years it has been in existence, SDC Scotland has carried out work looking at improving health and wellbeing, making transport more sustainable, educating young people about sustainability and looking after the environment and supporting community groups on the receiving end of funding from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund. The environmental community sees merit in having a single body dedicated to sustainability with an overview of every policy area and there is concern not only that expertise will be lost when the organisation goes, but also that the understanding of the need to be able to look at the complex ways in which different policies interact will be lost.
SDC Scotland Commissioner Jan Bebbington believes that there will be a lack of capacity when her organisation goes. “We looked at [issues] in the round and looked at many, many manifestations of unsustainable behaviour and hopefully some manifestations of sustainable behaviour as well and we were able to draw those things together and learn and cross fertilise between different areas,” she says.
Bebbington says the roles that SDC Scotland carried of scrutinising government, advocating sustainable development principles and building sustainability capacity within government and the public sector are all better managed under one organisation.
“As soon as you start separating out the roles to different parties, you lose that synergy which was something that we could do because we looked at all three,” she says.
Bebbington explains that many sustainability considerations involve “wicked problems” which she describes as complex problems requiring a massive amount of informed consideration “to even be undecided about them”. On whether or not the Scottish Government’s decision to abolish SDC Scotland reflects an inability to understand the considerations involved in sustainable development, she says: “There’s two ways [to approach this]: If you think this economy is more or less alright but a bit of fiddling around the edges would lead us to more sustainable forms of development and with some minor changes we will actually morph into an area where we’ll be both ecologically secure and socially just, if that’s what you think then moving toward sustainable development is relatively straightforward.
“Now I’d say that’s probably a mainstream view of the nature of the challenges we’re facing, but the less mainstream view, which is my view, is that those challenges are actually much more fundamental. So it is about a total redesign of our economy alongside quite a big transformation that’s about our cultural and social expectations of what the good life is. If you agree with that view, which is certainly where the SDC is coming from, then we’ve been scrapped a bit too early.
“We’ve got plenty of work to do but also the kind of work that needs to be done actually requires a great deal of sophistication and understanding. I can’t tell you how to get to a sustainable economy because it’s so multidimensional but also it’s not for me to tell people what to do, it’s for us to build and discover.” Bebbington says building a sustainable economy will require “radical participatory democracy” and involvement from all areas of society, and one of SDC Scotland’s roles was to provide sustainability advice to community groups. It is not yet clear how its abolition will affect these groups.
Carin Schwartz, treasurer of Transition Town Forres (TTF), a community group which has benefited from money from the Climate Challenge Fund, attended training and networking events arranged by the SDC. She says that while TTF would have liked more of the events to have been held outwith the central belt, group members did gain a lot. “It was very inspiring and very helpful to meet other groups who went through the same process and that is something that I don’t know if it’s possible to continue to ask for that but it was very, very helpful and our group benefited very much from that.” She says that SDC Scotland’s understanding of climate issues and how to help others understand the message that TTF was trying to get across was a particularly helpful aspect of the events.
“It was the exchange of ideas; it was to find out how to bring a difficult message across. In comparison to starting a local scout group or a local horticultural group or a local group with a special interest where everyone joining the group comes because they all have that same aim: they don’t need convincing, they’re coming to the group because they’re looking for something.
“Starting a group working on climate change and the climate challenge situation has been difficult in so far as that a lot of people are still in denial. It is not a particularly joyful task to come out and engage in and that has been very difficult. It was very helpful to speak to other community groups to see particularly what obstacles they had met and how they had overcome them, what had worked for them.” Help to hone an effective message on climate change and sustainable development is something which is still required, and Myles says that there is concern amongst Scottish Environment LINK members about how splitting up SDC’s roles will affect this. He also says that there are worries about Audit Scotland’s ability to carry out scrutiny of sustainability to the same standard.
“Auditing sustainability is something which is relatively specialist, it’s in an area of growing scientific understanding but it’s still a young discipline,” he says.
“The SDC were experts in the field and their annual review of government was the best in the field and that is now, sadly, lost, that is gone. No longer [will] we have a specialist agency measuring the sustainability of government in Scotland.
“I’m quite certain that Audit Scotland and the Scottish Parliament will try their hardest to make sure that things are properly scrutinised but I would say they’re going to be stretching their resources for scrutiny yet wider because the SDC has gone. It’s not going to intensify in any way.” COSLA environment spokesperson Councillor Alison Hay is also of the view that Audit Scotland’s role will need to be clarified in order for it to be able to carry out scrutiny of sustainability effectively.
“Audit Scotland need the expertise and have they got the expertise in which to do it?” she asks. She says that sustainability arrangements for each local authority are different and this might cause problems in scrutinising them. “Audit Scotland like to take a blanket approach sometimes to things and you can’t take blanket approaches to this type of a subject. I would need to see the details on how [they] planned to take things forward but there would need to be flexibility on how they approached the subject because no two councils are the same on some of the work that they’re doing.” While Audit Scotland was not willing to give an interview at this time on whether or not it would be making changes to incorporate more scrutiny of sustainability, a spokesperson highlighted last week’s publication of the ‘Improving Energy Efficiency’ report as an example of work already being carried out and said that Best Value reports of councils do currently consider sustainability.
The spokesperson added: “Following the Scottish Government’s decision to withdraw funding from the Sustainable Development Commission, we will continue to keep our work in this area under review.” At this point, it does not seem like the Scottish Government intends to discuss expanding Audit Scotland’s role on sustainability scrutiny, as the Government spokesperson stated: “It is for Audit Scotland and the Scottish Parliament to decide how to focus and organise their scrutiny on sustainability issues.” This will be worrying news for Bebbington.
A fortnight after learning of its fate, SDC Scotland published its Fourth Annual Assessment of the Scottish Government’s progress on sustainability and the verdict was that progress is patchy. While the report welcomed work to encourage renewable energy, it also said there had been a failure to “signal the move away from dependence on oil and gas” and for this reason the Scottish Government was failing to “future-proof” the economy.
The report looked at the SNP’s full term in government and said that failures in many areas of delivery were resulting in those worst off in society being left further behind.
In addition, the report said that transport policy is actually moving in the wrong direction, becoming more unsustainable.
It suggests using sustainability as a “policy lens” which should be used as a guide when drawing up all policy rather than viewing sustainability as something which only affects the environment.
However, their report also says that there is hope for advancement of the sustainability agenda, with the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework providing hope on reducing inequality. In addition, the Audit Scotland report on public sector energy efficiency found that 85 per cent of public bodies now have an energy efficiency strategy in place, although energy use actually increased in the three years to March 2009.
The Fourth Assessment is also critical of the failure to tackle fuel poverty, the lack of overall interaction between policies and the lack of room for failure in the plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
SDC Scotland recommends creating a vision of Scotland based on prosperity and what it entails and using more initiatives such as the Climate Challenge Fund to get the wider public more involved. Reflecting this belief, its final piece of work before winding up in March next year will be a report looking at what Scotland can learn from the commission set up by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and chaired by Professor Joseph Stigltz to look at measuring success using alternatives to GDP. The work will be carried out in collaboration with the Carnegie UK Trust and Bebbington says she hopes that it will be able to provide the Scottish Government with guidelines on how to measure wellbeing and ensure SDC Scotland leaves a lasting legacy.
It is likely that the effects of SDC Scotland’s abolition will take a while to be felt, but what is clear is that losing the organisation will make it more difficult to see policy in a holistic way. While other forums such as the Scottish Sustainable Development Forum and the Sustainable Scotland Network ensure discussion continues, the demise of a body with enough clout to see certain changes are made in government could see progress slipping and without Audit Scotland being given extra capacity and expertise to properly scrutinise, this could go unnoticed.