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Why Whitehall must change to meet tomorrow’s environmental challenges


Ever wondered how big policy decisions are made in government?  Decisions like infrastructure investments, healthcare delivery, house building – and dare I say it,  how best to protect the environment.

Houses of Parliament © Paul Brocklehurst / Flickr.comHouses of Parliament © Paul Brocklehurst / Flickr.com

It basically works like this: the policies of a new government are set out in the party manifesto or coalition agreement. Civil servants translate this into policy options, and ministers decide which of these options to proceed with. Of course this is a gross simplification of a complex  process with many different and often contradictory inputs to consider. Not to mention legal obligations to observe, existing commitments to deliver on and conflicting policy objectives to reconcile.

There’s never a blank canvas from which to start, external ‘events’ have a nasty habit off knocking things off course, and Parliament will rightly have its say along the way.  At the end of the day, decision making will primarily consider three key factors: the evidence underpinning a particular course of action; how much it’s likely to cost and who will pay; and political judgement.

The trouble is that this system is failing on cross-cutting issues like the protection of our environment. We know this because in the UK 60% of wildlife species are in decline, only 3% of protected areas are in ‘favourable condition’ and air pollution causes 40,000 premature deaths each year. Put simply, we are living beyond the environmental limits of our one planet and this is putting our wellbeing at risk. We are also missing out on the economic and social benefits that come from properly managing our natural capital (our seas, forests, clean water, air etc).  Something needs to change in order to reverse this trend.

Three problems

There appear to be three problems. Firstly, policy is often dealt with on an issue by issue basis, with little strategic overview and few overarching objectives to guide decisions. This makes it very hard to reconcile competing policy objectives, for example around housing development versus protection of our 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. Instead environmental protections are seen as a brake on prosperity, rather than the bedrock of a successful economy. The goods and services nature provides are not properly costed 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 and the five year electoral cycle trump longer-term sustainability. We really do need to fix the roof while the sun is shining.

The report we are publishing today – Greening the Machinery of Government: Mainstreaming Environmental Objectives  – contains a number of recommendations to equip Whitehall better to meet these challenges. These include a 25 year plan for the environment with objectives that are binding on this and future governments; a new Office of Environmental Responsibility to advise government and hold it to account; the appointment of a Chief Secretary for Sustainability to ensure the Treasury plays a central role in driving the reform required; and improvements to the way impacts on natural capital and the goods and services it provides are considered when policy is formulated.

It goes without saying, of course, that no amount of institutional reform will be effective without political leadership from the highest levels in government – I await the party manifestos with keen anticipation….

Ever wanted to build your own manifesto? Well now you can by supporting us by asking your local candidates to back strong policies to protect the environment and tackle climate change if they become your next MP.

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