'The government machine is failing the environment' - Former Decc adviser Duncan Brack calls for a new Office of Environmental Responsibility

If we are serious about creating a sustainable future, we must make Whitehall fit for the challenge, says environmental policy analyst and former government adviser Duncan Brack

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By Duncan Brack

31 Mar 2015

Historians will regard the failure of governments to treat environmental objectives on a par with economic and social aims as an absurdity. Even the most cursory understanding of the forces that govern our world tells us that everything we buy, sell and manufacture, from the simplest of foodstuffs to the most complex technologies that drive the digital revolution, has its foundation in natural products and processes. It is self-evident that if we exploit these to destruction, increasing competition for diminishing resources will lead to economic crisis and political chaos. Put simply, we are living beyond the environmental limits of our one planet, and this is putting our wellbeing at risk.

So why do we base many of our political decisions, and the structure of the organisations that generate and implement these policies, on the outdated assumption that the world’s natural resources, and their capacity to provide for us, are infinite? No government that displayed an equally cavalier attitude to, say, the management of tax revenues or defence hardware would be long in office. The environment is a mainstream issue, and it is time to re-shape our institutions to reflect this reality.

I’ve witnessed Whitehall’s weaknesses from the inside. As a special adviser to Department of Energy and Climate change (DECC) ministers from 2010 to 2012, I saw how the government machine fails to ensure that every department consistently pursues environmental aims, even when that department’s activities are crucial to their realisation.  

In the current set-up, at least eight departments have critical roles to play: alongside the lead departments of DECC and Defra, the Treasury, Business, Transport, Communities and Local Government, Foreign Office and International Development are all important. I spent an inordinate amount of time arguing with special advisers in some of these other departments trying to persuade them to support our views over, for example, the Green Investment Bank or the UK’s carbon targets. Generally I failed – which may just have proved I was a rubbish adviser! – and although in the end we did sometimes manage to achieve our objectives, it came down to bargaining between cabinet ministers.

One of the striking things about my experience was how infrequently party political considerations came into my arguments. Defra generally supported us (even though at the time it had no ministers from my party, the Liberal Democrats), while other departments, particularly the Treasury and sometimes BIS, were much more sceptical. Traditional departmental priorities trumped ideological or partisan allegiances.

Part of the problem is a lack of political will. Our last four prime ministers – Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron – have all occasionally displayed an interest in environmental issues, but never consistently, and none have given it a high priority. And the country has yet to experience a green-minded chancellor.

But even when the political will is there – and the cross-party consensus behind the Climate Change Act and the need for further action to build on it offers some hope here – the machinery of government is simply not fit to support new and environmentally sustainable ways of delivering policy.

There are three problems. Firstly, policy is often dealt with issue-by-issue with little strategic overview, or no over-arching objectives to guide decisions. This makes it very hard to reconcile competing policy objectives, for example around housing development versus protection of green spaces. Even where decisions do try to balance these competing objectives, it is often the environment that loses out.

Second, there is a failure to understand the importance of our natural environment to our economic and social wellbeing. Environmental protections such as the more efficient use of water or sensible management of marine stocks are seen as a cost and a burden, a brake on prosperity, rather than the bedrock of a successful economy. The goods and services our seas, forests and clean air provide are not properly considered in policy appraisal processes and are all too often treated as a free resource.

Third, political short-termism does not provide for the longer-term response which environmental challenges require. All too often short-term pressures trump longer-term sustainability.

As a result of all this, the government departments that take the lead on environmental issues – primarily DECC and Defra – are small and of low political status compared to, for example, the Treasury, BIS or Transport. Although they do sometimes win arguments, it’s always an uphill struggle.

Working with WWF-UK, I’ve proposed a set of comprehensive reforms, set out in the report Greening the Machinery of Government: Mainstreaming Environmental Objectives, that would equip Whitehall to meet these challenges.

Long term thinking requires a clear 25 year-plan for the environment. The Committee on Climate Change, and the five-yearly carbon budgets it sets, help to impose a long-term framework on government decision-making. Now we need to mirror that structure for natural capital – natural resources, air, water, countryside – with the existing temporary Natural Capital Committee transformed into a permanent statutory body setting natural resource budgets for governments to follow.

The UK’s National Security Strategy should be rewritten to include risks to society and the economy from environmental factors, and these should be discussed regularly by the National Security Council, which is chaired by the prime minister. All public bodies should be required to report on the extent to which the risks identified by the analysis pose a threat to their ability to fulfil their responsibilities, and to produce a resilience plan to deal with the likely threats.

This would drive the development of policies that deliver better stewardship of natural capital, and inevitably accelerate efforts to combat climate change.

The current weakness of the environmental voice in government needs to be rectified. Environmentalists have long viewed the Treasury as a barrier to progress. I therefore propose the appointment of a Cabinet-level chief secretary for sustainability located within that very department. They would play a central role in driving the culture change required throughout government, ensuring that the economy is sustainable, resource-efficient and low-carbon, delivering the greatest overall welfare benefit for society. The new minister would present an annual report to parliament on the state of the UK environment, and the government’s proposed response.

While the UK is still a global leader on climate change, we are in danger of falling behind. And there is room for much more re-engagement on wider environmental issues, including the protection of the world’s oceans and forests – resources upon which we depend in the UK. So the Foreign Office should appoint an international environment minister, who alongside tackling our international carbon footprint could join up international finance and environment policy.

Procedures need to be introduced to require all government departments (and other public bodies) to consider environmental costs and benefits when taking decisions and spending money. This includes reforming the systems for monitoring and challenging departments’ business plans, systems for impact and regulatory assessment and investment appraisal, Treasury modelling tools and the system of regulatory appraisal.

Most importantly, a new Office of Environmental Responsibility should be created to advise government and hold all its departments to account against its environmental objectives. Sitting at arm’s length from government, it would report to the Treasury. The chancellor rightly received plaudits for creating an Office for Budget Responsibility, but living within our means demands prudent management of our natural, as well as financial, resources.

There are recent precedents upon which these proposals could build. This month, the Well-being of Future Generations Bill passed by the Welsh Assembly committed the public sector to sustainable development goals, set down in statute. This will ensure that Wales lives within environmental limits, tackles climate change, maintains functioning ecosystems and uses resources responsibly and sustainably. This is world-leading legislation. And this week, the House of Lords EU Committee set out admirable proposals that would see better long-term management of the North Sea’s resources to ensure a viable future for those who depend on them, integrating the environment and economics in a mirror of the Dutch North Sea 2050 Agenda.

These reforms to the machinery of government would cost little up-front, could be delivered within the existing Whitehall headcount and would potentially save billions as the UK helped avert the unimaginable consequences of unchecked environmental degradation and climate change. They would ensure Whitehall meets its own targets on biodiversity, emissions and sustainable procurement. They would put the UK back where it belongs – at the forefront of international efforts to tackle the most pressing issues of our age.

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