Reconfiguring government to ensure a Net Zero society

Charlie Speller shares his ideas for an alternative, joined-up governance structure that could help the UK reach net zero emissions.

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author and do not represent the views of the Civil Service or the Civil Service Environment Network.

A vintage photograph showing Whitehall, with the cenotaph in the foreground.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In 2019, the Committee for Climate Change recommended that meeting net zero would require “changes to the Government’s overall approach to driving down emissions. For example, the PM could chair regular meetings of a Climate Cabinet that includes the Chancellor and relevant SoS, with transparent public reports of progress and plans.”[1] Rather unfortunately it required the protests of the recently removed COP26 President, Claire O’Neill, to subsequently highlight that the committee had not yet met 5 months after its announcement.

The inability and the implied lack of importance demonstrated by the lack of urgency given to this committee’s formation highlights that whilst undoubtedly an important instrument to raise the profile of environmental issues in Whitehall, a glamorous new Cabinet may not necessarily be the answer to all climate related dilemmas. Much more needs to be done and, in this blog, I will share some ideas for how a more joined-up Government could help tackle the environmental crisis.

I have written a more extensive paper if you wanted to talk about this in more depth but thought it best to keep it short for this platform. The below diagram gives an indication of what a more effective governance structure might look like.

A diagrammatic representation of the governance structure set out in the main text of the blog post.
A suggested alternative governance structure

Central bodies

Recommendation A - Cabinet Office Team - National Resilience Unit

There needs to be greater central authority if environmental principles are to underpin government policy and match the ambitions of political leaders. A recent report critiquing the Draft Environment Bill called on the Cabinet Office to issue guidance to ensure Departments commit to achieving delivery of the targets and milestones in their single departmental plans.[2]

There are multiple reasons why Cabinet Office (CO) is the right place to guarantee results;

  • Authority – power lies at the heart of government and if given the responsibility to challenge departments to come up with answers, it has more chance of being effective from CO rather than Defra/BEIS.

  • Experience – the CO is used to dealing with functions and issues that cut across government. The Social Exclusion Unit is an example of successful join up using CO expertise. Experience of coordinating complex departments will be essential criteria for the senior civil servants chosen to lead the unit.

  • Symbolic – placing the function for a governmental priority, an issue which is viewed as the second most important problem for young people and the third most for the whole UK population, in the hands of a government department that is seen to be relatively junior in terms of ministerial reshuffles sends the wrong message to the market, businesses, citizens and the international community. It reinforces that environmental issues are one department’s problem rather than a series of issues that affect the economy, quality of life and health and wellbeing, to name a few.

  • Confusion – “I am getting lost in the fog of consultations and mechanism…where does accountability lie?”[3] There is undoubtedly confusion regarding who owns what and why. Having a central figurehead with clear cross-department responsibility would help clarify ownership.

A National Resilience Unit (NRU) led by senior civil servants within Cabinet Office could be based upon the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS). The CCS is responsible for emergency planning and works with other departments to anticipate, assess, prevent, respond and recover from short term crises. The NRU could have a similar remit but with a long-term view and an environmental lens by seconding in the relevant environmental experts from across government. Its role could include co-ordinating government departments, setting the agenda for the environmental cabinet, behaving as the internal driver of the primordial nature of environmental issues and streamlining objectives across government. Its ability to forge meaningful links with each government department would determine its success. They may choose to organise themselves into specialist topic areas such as Biodiversity and Air Quality, general themes like Adaptation and Mitigation or by government department. This could be done in a similar way to The Social Exclusion Unit.

Recommendation B - Cabinet-level involvement

Having a high-level environmental cabinet could work in tandem with a more effective structure below it. It would give political weight and impetus to the environment; it would ensure sustained political support; it would allocate responsibility to senior Ministers; and, it would compel cross-government thinking. Combined, these factors could propel the rest of government into positive action especially if the hub of expertise that would be the NRU plays a significant role in the content of these meetings.

Recommendation C - The Treasury

The Treasury has to be involved further in the drive for greater environmental consideration across government. It has the ability to apply real sanctions to government departments and is used to working closely with all government departments. HMT has shown leadership recently in announcing an end to gas heating in new homes and it is encouraging that The Dasgupta Review will be delivered by October 2020, analysing the relationship between economics and biodiversity. That said, much more can be done and ought to be done as controlling public spending and taxation will be fundamental in driving the transition to Net Zero. Options that would complement my recommendations include:

  • The creation of a Nature Fund - A stronger Office for Environmental Protection with the ability to hold governmental departments to account could ring-fence funds that could be used to ensure departments hit their environmental targets in way that results in value for money.

  • Chancellor chairing Environmental Cabinet - The Chancellor could chair the Environmental Cabinet to ensure central government buy in and an economic eye is cast over the proposals in play. This would provide the senior political leadership necessary as well as the financial might.

  • Environmental Spending Review - Scrutinises departmental spending periodically to determine whether sufficient funds have been allocated to meet policy aims. Members of the Environmental Cabinet and/or the NRU could be accountable to this spending review for their departments’ spending commitments.

The independent bodies

Recommendation D - Modifications to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - Review + Enforcement

The OEP is necessary to fill the governance gap that will be left by the EU. Its clear remit ought to be monitoring of targets and enforcement of non-compliance. However, its current terms of reference lack teeth and to be truly effective it needs to be strengthened to resemble The Office for Budget Responsibility. There are three fundamental changes that would strengthen its ability to influence government as an independent watchdog responsible for enforcement of environmental targets.

  • Truly Independent