Opinion: Will Day on sustainable government

The long-term impact of a changing climate is cruelly revealing the weaknesses in our government structures, argues Will Day

By Civil Service World

13 Mar 2014

“I suspect that you will want to suggest that government should invest to save,” said the very senior civil servant on my first meeting with him in my capacity as chair of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC). “We like the ‘S’ word, but suggestions that government should invest would not be welcome.”

The UK was not alone. An environment minister from a southern European country told me last year that in his cabinet discussions, “the environment is seen as the enemy of growth”: there was an assumption that factoring environmental concerns into decision-making would “add cost and delay” to the only political priority around his cabinet table – “growth and jobs”. Sound familiar?

Roll the clock forward and, even if you still choose not to believe that 97%-plus of the world’s scientists are correct about anthropogenic climate disruption, the impact of increased rainfall over the past months has raised some hard questions about the calculations that underpin (or impede) the UK’s investment decisions on adaptation, let alone mitigation. The Treasury requirement for value for money in environment department investments – £8 saved for every £1 invested – doesn’t see much public discussion, but there’s no doubt that people standing in a waterlogged farm or business might view it as both short-sighted and cold-blooded.

This is frustrating, because many of the ingredients for responsible decision-making are in place. The scientific advice has been available to government for decades, and is unequivocal. Valuations of natural capital and ecosystems are improving in both public and private sector decision-making. The Climate Change Act, National Adaptation Plan and Climate Change Committee are in place, and show the UK leading on climate change policy.

Yet the rhetoric of environmental regulation as the enemy of growth, and the knee-jerk reactions to the recent extreme weather, suggest that the long-term impacts of a changing climate are either misunderstood, or just politically inconvenient. Certainly, appropriate action still seems well down the priority list. PwC’s recent analysis of the public sector finance function reminded us that the context doesn’t make it easy: “Public sector organisations are facing a tough balancing act,” it said, “between a necessary internal focus on efficiency, effectiveness – the value for money equation – with a mission to enable growth that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. Whilst political and fiscal priorities between the main political parties will be different in terms of areas of spend, austerity is set to continue, and finance teams’ decisions remain firmly in the spotlight and have a leading role to play.”

I sit on a recently-formed Local Nature Partnership, and that’s proving revealing at county level. Growth and housebuilding (two dogwhistle issues, politically) attract the attention of local government just as potently as they do in Whitehall, and many LNPs are being met – initially, at least – with instinctive reserve by their better funded Local Enterprise Partnerships.
Many civil servants, all too aware of the long-term implications of an inadequate response, must chafe at the constraints. I would like to disbelieve the suggestion that in some parts of Whitehall, the use of the words ‘climate’ and ‘change’ in the same sentence (and, indeed, ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’) are still considered career-limiting.

The fact is that climate change could have been designed to deliberately highlight the inherent weaknesses in the way in which government responds to issues. Timeframes measured in decades; complex causes and impacts requiring cross-departmental responses; global as well as domestic implications; a polarised media and public opinion; a requirement for up-front investment at a time of austerity; and ineffective pricing mechanisms, which play havoc with value for money analysis. The list is much longer, neatly targeting the system’s weaknesses.

That, however, is absolutely no excuse for fumbling the response. No part of society or the economy will be untouched by the impacts of a disrupted climate. In the last few weeks, we have seen just a taste of what will come. Prevention (and, yes, that may well mean investment) will be a great deal cheaper than cure. Do the sums.

Let’s end on an optimistic note, though. One genuine gleam in the darkness is the recently-launched NHS Sustainable Development Strategy for the Health and Care System 2014-2020. Not just because it recognises – and better than many such strategies – the holistic nature of the impact of a changing climate, and the response that will be required; but also because it’s a co-production between Public Health England, the NHS and the Local Government Association. It’s a start – but there’s a long, long way to go.

Will Day is a former chair of the Sustainable Development Commission and a climate change advisor to PwC.

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