Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: The case for rethinking green governance

Published in ENDS Report (Issue 409, p55), in February 2009.

During the second half of the eighties I made frequent trips to the countries on the other side of what used to be called the Iron Curtain. The trips were funded by George Soros. They were part of his vigorous campaign to undermine Communism by exploiting the relative freedom for public dissent on environmental matters – a political phenomenon still evident today in China.

My task was to build links between Western European environmentalists and the nascent green movement in the East. The Czech environmentalists were particularly active and I learned much about the reality of life in an authoritarian state from them.

One of their main frustrations was the fragmented nature of the institutions charged with managing the environment. Josef Vavrousek, a key figure in the Velvet Revolution and the first Czech Minister of the Environment after it, guided me through the politics. The fragmentation, he explained, was no accident but a deliberate bureaucratic design intended to prevent any centres of power developing to undermine the Politburo’s stranglehold.

The result was a tangled web of conflicting responsibilities that was impossible to pull together for effective action. Even though the Czech environmental legislation was written to a high standard, the result was a deeply degraded environment. One tale he told illustrates the Carollian – or perhaps Orwellian – world in which he worked. Water quality was then a responsibility of the Czech health ministry. It had set stringent limits on the 3,000 discharges into the Vtlava River running through Prague. The industry minister had however exempted every one of the firms responsible for the discharges from having to comply with those limits.

It would be wrong to think there was any such deliberate intent behind the current fragmentation of Britain’s environmental institutions. We have no Politburo, though for a while we had a sofa. Now there is the horseshoe at 12 Downing Street. Our administrative culture has little taste for grand designs. On the whole we prefer to muddle through. As I wrote last month (ENDS Report 408, p 58), there is no evidence of any design at all in the constant changes in the environmental machinery of government over the past 12 years – though muddle is present in abundance.

The Department of the Environment that Labour inherited when it took office was itself a product of a happy accident. Britain was one of the first countries anywhere to establish a Department of the Environment. It did so in 1970 as part of its preparations for the first of the great mega-conferences on the environment in Stockholm in 1972.

At that time there was a fashion for brigading government departments to form ‘super-ministries’. This led to the putting together of the Housing Ministry, the Ministry of Local Government and Planning and the Ministry of Public Works. The addition of the small Central Unit on Environmental Pollution (CUEP) from the Cabinet Office legitimised calling the whole thing the Department of the Environment, thus catching the mood of the moment.

By chance this turned out to be a rather good design. Having responsibility for local government finance made this a particularly important department for whichever party was in power, since the Secretary of State for the Environment played a central role in keeping the grassroots of the ruling party happy. That meant the job was entrusted to a senior politician with real clout.

The CUEP became the environmental brain for the whole department. Since its budget was relatively small compared to that of the department as a whole, it was fairly immune to successive rounds of expenditure cuts. Putting planning in the same department led over time to a much closer alignment between environment policy and land-use planning policy. This meant a capacity, which no longer really exists, to anticipate and prevent environmental problems rather than having to regulate after the act.

Compared to what we have now this was a big and powerful department with a clear focus and real political muscle. It had a high reputation around Whitehall and attracted able and ambitious civil servants and politicians. Three decades of institutional stability saw a steady increase in its influence and in the coherence of government policy towards the environment.

Then came New Labour, modernisation and the incoherent and disaggregated muddle I described last month. This is not good for either business or the environment. And given the growing seriousness and scale of environmental problems, it was no good for the future prosperity and security of 60 million UK citizens.

Managing the environment is going to become more –not less – difficult as this century advances. Public anxiety about the state of the environment will grow, not diminish. The UK has a great wealth of assets to deploy to meet the environmental challenges of the 21st century– first-class environmental science, superb engineers, terrific environmental expertise within the professions, an alert and informed citizenry, a skilled and active community of voluntary organisations, innovative and responsible businesses. But the sum of these assets adds up to far less than the parts. The essential clarity of focus and strength of purpose that can only be provided by public policy is missing at the centre.

It is time we took a long, hard look at the governance of the environment in the UK. It would be good to get the horses ahead of the carts for a change so we could start by thinking before we make announcements.

We have a habit in the UK of creating bodies that are – like the BBC – more admired abroad than they are valued at home. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is one such body. It should be asked to conduct an examination of environmental governance. Our environmental NGOs have paid rather less attention than they ought to environmental governance issues. They should enter into a dialogue with business on how we might better arrange our environmental assets to deliver more value.