We are the UK Government’s independent adviser on sustainable development. Through advocacy, advice and
appraisal, we help put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy

Taking sustainable development forward in Scotland

29 March 2011

Closing statement from Jan Bebbington and Maf Smith

SDC Scotland has been at the heart of making Scotland healthier, greener and fairer. We have helped shape government policy in important areas like planning, waste, food and energy production since 2004. The SDC has worked with decision makers and advisors to make sustainable development the operating system of choice in the four Governments of the UK. As the SDC now closes down due to the UK and the Scottish Government withdrawing their funding, we can see the impact of our work, not least in Scotland.

In our four annual assessment reports on progress on sustainable development by the Scottish Government we have praised a range of policy areas that are moving in the right direction: renewable energy, waste and marine policy are all making Scotland more sustainable. Scotland has a world leading Climate Change Act. And the 2007-11 SNP Government overall purpose of creating ‘a Scotland for all to flourish through sustainable economic growth’ reflected the growing importance of sustainability to core government business.

So has the job been done? Emphatically not. In fact, to paraphrase Churchill, it has barely reached the "end of the beginning". High level aspirations are taking too long to translate into action on the ground and some policy areas, like transport, are clearly showing a negative trends in relation to climate change and other sustainability indicators.

Our final piece of work, the report More Than GDP, Measuring What Matters, will be published by the Carnegie UK Trust in May 2011. It encourages Scotland to follow up on the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi’s Commission’s recommendations and outlines the challenges of measuring well-being and quality of life rather than just economic activity.

This report will outline challenges the next Scottish Government will need to tackle head on. But these are not the only challenges for the next Government. Our annual assessment pointed to a range of issues that need urgent attention:

• Translation of high level aspirations to impact on the ground is taking too long in some instances. Planning and procurement are two key examples. The fact that it took two governments and six years for an energy efficiency action plan to emerge beggars belief

• Back up plans in event of policy failure – especially in the area of climate change policy – also appear to be weak. It is unlikely that all actions contained in the Report on Proposals and Policies will come to fruition, yet we have not found a willingness for Government to be transparent about this possibility or share plans (if there are any) for dealing with delivery failure

• Transport policy remains problematic, both in terms of climate change targets as well as the equity issues that unequal car ownership and access to transport creates. For example, in the UK car owners in the lowest income quintile spend 25% of household income on motoring. Poor people are also often tied to car ownership due to poor public transport provision

• We are also concerned that decisions about transport infra-structure (and the protocols used to make strategic transport decisions) will lock Scotland in to future greenhouse gas emissions thereby discouraging modal shift and requiring more stringent greenhouse gas cuts elsewhere to compensate

• The scourge of fuel poverty is still with us and is an area where performance is moving in the wrong direction. 1 in 3 households now suffer from fuel poverty (up from 1 in 4 in 2007) and the pace and scale of change is too slow for us to have any comfort that the statutory commitment to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016 will be met. In the meantime, the human cost of this failure is immeasurable

• Finally, the Government can hardly be described as leading by example in its management of its own estate and actions.

Embedding sustainable development into the architecture of Government and the work of the wider public sector is essential if we are to make joined-up progress, not just look at issues in isolation. The sustainable development prism provides this joined up perspective which is so crucial to tackling environmental, economic and social problems in a way that benefits people now and in the future.

But sustainable development involves every part of society, not just Government. Over the past ten years the SDC has found increasing and encouraging evidence of action at grassroots and individual level, as well as leadership in each sector of business, amongst NGOs and academic institutions. These activities, if scaled up and rolled out, could take us a long way towards a more sustainable future. Many of the key players came together at the Big Sustainability Summit held in London in March 2011. Plans are now unfolding to create a new, citizen-led network and establish a world-class sustainability knowledge hub amongst some of our leading universities. You can find out more about these proposals here.

Humanity can no longer simply think of existing from generation to generation, but must ensure that the world we leave behind is as good as, if not better than, the one we found. In other words, we must govern for now and the future. We wish all who are engaged in this endeavour, in whatever organisation or community, courage and determination to continue their work.

Professor Jan Bebbington, Vice-Chair Sustainable Development Commission (Scotland) and Maf Smith, Director, on behalf of the Sustainable Development Commission Scotland. 31st March 2011.

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