UK government initiatives to enhance sustainable development and maximise economic growth

March 21st, 2011 by Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP

Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP addresses the SDUK Conference on 17 March 2011 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

This is a lightly edited transcript of the address to the SDUK conference on 17 March 2011 by Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP, UK Secretary of State, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.


“Thank you very much for inviting me to this conference.

We are happy to engage in this whole subject that so many people who care as passionately as I do about sustainable development and I will be very happy to answer those questions.

It is a real pleasure to be here today.  My passion about sustainable development I am sure is mirrored by yours, and it’s a passion that wants to see us drive everything we do through the prism of sustainable development, not just for the sake of the natural world but for the sake of our economy too, and for the sake of our society, and our well being.  Now I know I am not alone in this.  You are here because you really care about this as well.

Sustainability is clearly influencing the business plans of government departments, and you can see that if you go on individual government websites.  There is clear evidence of the mainstreaming of sustainable development in those work programmes that we have all set out to do.  So for example it is good to see the (UK) Department for Transport recently establish its £560 million sustainable travel initiative.  It’s a clear statement in its business plan for it to see a sustainable railway system.  They’re all there in the business plans.  And it’s important I think to know their desire to give local authorities more power and flexibility to meet local transport needs.  It’s going to be a big challenge with rising fuel prices.

So initiatives like this highlight the good work being carried out under the sustainable development banner right across government.  It builds on the work that came out of the 1992 summit in Rio de Janeiro, which led to the first National Sustainable Development Strategy under, as it happens, the previous Conservative Government.  And it informs our work as we look forward to the challenges of Rio+20 which is coming up fast.

With the Olympic Games in London next year we are looking to provide the most sustainable, modern Olympic games ever.  And the games that are planned in Brazil four years later also aspire to be sustainable.  Now we will certainly have plenty of Best Practice to share with colleagues in Brazil when I go and visit them next month, and I know one of the things they are very keen to talk to us about is how to make an event like the Olympics genuinely sustainable.

I think such ambition underlines the need for as step-change from what’s gone before – a step-change that sees us chart a new course – a course that makes sustainable development a core objective across Whitehall.

This was a view that was very much at the forefront of our minds when we announced our initiative to mainstream sustainable development within government at the end of last month.

Here we launched a new approach that embeds sustainable development in everything we do and it is built on four pillars so it is sustainable.

The first of these is to mainstream sustainable development policy.  Now, this is something that DEFRA alone can’t do because you’re talking about all government departments, so we look to the Cabinet Office, which is a cross-cutting department in government to help us with this by scrutinising the departmental business plans that I referred to against sustainable development principals to ensure that sustainable development is properly embedded.  And my colleague, Oliver Letwin regularly reviews with Secretaries of State like myself the progress that we are making in our business plans according to the time scales we have set ourselves to start and finish particular actions, and he is one who can really help push us to deliver on our sustainable development agenda.

We will shortly produce a Green Book guidance for decision makers to take account of the social aspects and the value of nature during policy appraisal.

The second of these pillars is about Ministerial oversight and perhaps those of you who are familiar with the way previous government worked from the inside will know that actually we are returning now to a cabinet committee structure.  I find it quite exciting because it means you meet your fellow cabinet colleagues several times a week as we meet in cabinet committees like the Economic Affairs cabinet committee of which I am now a member, and the Home Affairs cabinet committee of which I am a member, and it really will enable me to challenge or reject the policies that fail the sustainable development tests laid out in their vision.  I also have a role as a member of the Home Affairs Reducing Regulation committee.  Where once again we are looking very closely at regulations that departments want to bring in with a view to taking out regulations that we no longer need because we don’t want to increase the burden on business but I will be there to ask the hard questions about the regulatory impact on sustainable development.

And DEFRA will continue to have its traditional role of reviewing all new policy.  Something we do in government is we write around to all our cabinet colleagues when we are thinking of doing something new so I see the new policy that is being planned in other departments at an early stage, and have a chance to cross-check those against the principals of sustainable development.

I think it is very important that government leads by example through reducing the environmental impact of the government’s own estate, minimising waste levels, water usage, and greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time making use of existing and new government buying standards.

Government is a big driver of change. It is also a major procurer in public procurement and by revising government buying standards to make sure that sustainable development is at the heart of them we can really help change behaviours.

The whole time we want to make the process open, transparent, and subject to independent scrutiny.  Developing further sustainable development indicators and reporting more frequently on the progress that we’re making.

So fourthly, I suggested that part of this four pillar structure should be to make use of the Environmental Audit Select Committee, an important select committee within Parliament that has the power to call Secretaries of State to account before it, to give account of the progress that they are making in their individual departments on sustainable development.  And I work very closely with the Select Committee Chairman and I am trying to find her some more resources through those parliamentary authorities to make sure that that Select Committee is in a position to really hold our feet to the fire for progress on sustainable development.

Now all of this enables us to focus on tangible actions within departments by making sustainable development the new business as usual – that’s what it should be.  And the work has already started as I hope I have set out.

Caroline Spelmen, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs speaks at the SDUK conference in Westminster on 17 March 2011 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Since last May we have made a number of announcements of policy decisions that will help deliver our sustainable development objective.  These include, for example, the Green Deal whereby existing homes can be adapted so people can live sustainably within them.  I think this is incredibly important and it is something new.  We have consultation on the carbon price floor, greater support for the export of clean technologies, and within DEFRA we are reviewing our waste policy where we aim to move towards Zero Waste as increasingly people don’t see waste as waste but waste as resources.

We have created a £1 billion commitment to the Green Investment Bank to help invest in infrastructure that will help underpin sustainable development, and we will reform the planning system so that sustainable development is mainstream.  And in the immediate future we are looking to publish a Green Economy Roadmap and here we will outline how we plan to maximise economic growth in tandem with tackling climate change.  Again, within DEFRA we are working on a Natural Environment White Paper – the first for twenty years, and in developing this paper, we’re looking at the sustainable use of our natural resources.  We want to bolster our commitment to value our natural capital in the policy making process.

My department is preparing a Water White Paper, again the first for 20 years, reviewing the progress of that industry, which has seen substantial changes in the last 20 years, but we need to make sure that the industry can cope with the challenges coming towards us – the challenges of climate change, the pressure there will be on water supply, and looking to make that whole industry resilient and sustainable for the next 20 years and beyond.

Of course, just as the rest of Whitehall has realised that one department can’t deliver on our objectives across the whole of government, then certainly government can’t be expected to deliver everything across the whole country so here I see our role as putting in place an effective framework that enables others to deliver and do the right thing.

It was good to see plans being drawn up for a People’s Sustainable Development Commission recently – a spontaneous coming together of individuals who have a passion for sustainability who will lobby us to improve our performance on sustainable development and push us to go further.  That in my book is all very Big Society.

Their challenge to us can also be a spur to business.  I recently published a report on resource efficiency – a report  which found that UK business could save £23 billion per year my improving the way it uses energy and water as well as reducing its waste.   All companies, large and small, can benefit from resource efficiency savings.

I recently heard of a small company in East Sussex that literally saved thousands of pounds with minimal investment through measures to reduce their energy, water and transport use.  I think the private sector is more aware of market forces to be able to react to changing views and attitudes.  I think that business is probably ahead of government when it comes to sustainable development.  So take for example Marks & Spencer and Unilever.  Both of them have embraced the sustainable development agenda. Both see it as being central to a flourishing business model.

In 2007 Marks & Spencer launched Plan A only to become the world’s most sustainable major retailer.  Working with suppliers to combat climate change, reduce waste, and trade ethically, and help customers live healthier lifestyles.  It is called Plan A because they believe it is the only way to do business – no Plan B.

Unilever’s recent Sustainable Living Plan commits the company to sourcing 100% of their agriculturally-based materials sustainably across the whole supply chain.  Their plans for growth depend on their plan to reduce costs and ensure security of resources and accelerate innovation.  So companies like Nestle, Marks & Spencer, Unilever are also leading the way on the wider international stage because part of the green economy means being part of the global economy.  Sourcing products and raw materials across the planet has an impact on people and communities in every corner of the world so it is important therefore for UK businesses to be innovative and outward looking.  Important for them to be able to see the big picture and understand the social, environmental and economic impact that business decisions can have.

UK business is well placed to become a world leader in developing resource efficient green technology and reducing the negative impact that we have on the natural world.

I firmly believe that sustainability and the green agenda have a role to play in transforming our own economy offering real opportunities for our future success.  The need for greater energy efficiency, and generating less waste and preserving our natural resources – all can help us on the road to economic recovery.

Last month’s mainstreaming sustainable development announcement sets us on course to achieve our objectives within this wider framework.  This is the road we intend to take, and with others help I believe we will successfully complete the journey – a journey which starts now with our sights firmly set on Rio+20 next year.  Thank you.

3 Responses to “UK government initiatives to enhance sustainable development and maximise economic growth”

  1. Keith

    Dear Caroline,

    I note that you are holding Unilever up as an example of a company ‘leading’ on sustainability, yet Unilever only agreed to act on their use of unsustainable palm oil after lobbying and direct action from Greenpeace. So given that this was a response to a campaign that was giving them very unhelpful PR coverage over an issue they were well aware of would you still describe them as ‘leading’? Therefore might it not be more justifiable to take leadership from Greenpeace rather than Unilever, or maybe even from independent sustainability experts who have neither corporate profits nor public image to influence their opinions?

    Also, whilst it’s nice to note that you support the People’s SDC, given the cost effectiveness of the SDC’s work on sustainable development and the time it will take the PSDC to develop, would it not have been more sustainable not to cut the SDC in the first place?

    I’m an SD professional and find the new Government’s attitude to SD deeply concerning.

  2. Dr Frank Holland

    Mrs Spelman,

    We live in a finite world, there are limits to growth, as was pointed out in the book of that name in 1972. Things have gotten worse since then and we are banging up against those limits, and we cannot sustain growth anymore. To talk about sustainable development (whatever that is) and growth in the same presentation makes a mockery of everybody aiming for sustainable living.

    Growth in a capitalist system depends on increasing the uses of resources to pay back the debts required to generate that growth, and is clearly not sustainable in a finite world.

  3. cisono

    Caroline Spelman has a long association with the bio-tech industry. She and her husband set up in the 1980s the firm Spelman, Cormack & Associates, a food & bio-tech lobbying firm. It appears that, since her foray into politics, the firm is no longer doing trade. However, it is her pro-GMO stance which is frightening. Her appointment to the head of D.E.F.R.A. is a “sellout”, a travesty to the farming community of the UK, as well as the citizens who rely on honest opinions of government officials to look out for the best interests of the nation.

    I have no trust in Caroline Spelman. I was hoping women would be better politicians than men, that they would have more integrity, but alas Caroline Spelman is not such a lady. How disappointing.

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