Updated: Sep 29, 2020
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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?” 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 – At the moment, the chair person and the non-executive members of the OEP will be appointed by The Secretary of State for Defra. In addition, its funding will be set by the same Minister. This does not lend itself to being an authoritative and independent body.
Add Climate Change – In the same vein that it will currently monitor and enforce the 25YEP, it should have a similar focus on the Net Zero promise in terms of emissions. These issues are inherently intertwined. To name but a few examples, the restoration of peat bogs can conserve local biodiversity whilst also sequestering carbon from the atmosphere; electric vehicles reduce both local air pollution and carbon emissions; environmental regulations can significantly overlap with CC outcomes in farming, afforestation, flood management, onshore and offshore fossil fuel development, planning consents, soil management, land use and forestry. The CCC recently stated that “mitigating and adapting to CC forms an essential component of progress which cannot be disentangled from a wider assessment of the state of the natural environment.”
Stronger Enforcement – The OEP needs to have the necessary powers to pursue legal measures that will ensure governments are developing and delivering timely strategies. Is judicial review the best way to do this? These can sometimes be long and expensive. Its ability to enforce effectively will act as a motivator for departments’ compliance. There may be scope for a fining mechanism, of which funds received would be ring-fenced by Treasury for spending on green policies as part of a Nature Fund sitting at the heart of HMT. (See Recommendation C)
RECOMMENDATION E - CLIMATE CHANGE COMMITTEE - ADVICE, RESEARCH + STRATEGY
The CCC needs to retain its strict focus on advising government strategy in terms of climate change. However, the whole could be more effective if it expanded its remit to do this for environmental protection issues as well as emissions. When changed alongside the OEP, you would create two clearly defined independent bodies one advising and strategizing, the other reviewing and enforcing.
RECOMMENDATION F - A NEW APPRAISAL MECHANISM
Government should put the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) on a firm footing to continue to allow it to co-ordinate a programme of environmental data monitoring. It should become responsible for:
Making environmental appraisals available for departments across government;
Building capability within departments to understand and use the metrics effectively; and,
Oversight of the maintenance and improvement of the metrics themselves.
As a truly independent body, it could work in tandem with bodies like the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and reviews like the Dasgupta Review to provide the basis for high quality environmental appraisal in every department. Moreover, it could take responsibility for building capacity within departments by upskilling civil servants to learn about natural capital and how to incorporate its metrics into policy development at the early stages rather than retrospectively.
RECOMMENDATION G - STRATEGIC REVIEW OF GOVERNMENT MACHINERY/THE WIDER DEFRA FAMILY
There’s an argument that environmental progress has been hampered by the mass of different institutions that have developed separately from one another. This can be negative because of confused responsibilities and/or duplication of work which causes inefficiencies. Moreover, institutional competition must be protected against as not only will these bodies look to further an issue, but they are also motivated by their desire for influence and budgets which incentivise them to compete with other environmental bodies rather than working with them.
A deep dive strategic review into the roles and responsibilities of all the current bodies should be undertaken with the view to attributing precise purposes to each one, ensuring that objectives do not overlap. Dieter Helm has argued that government needs to start with a fresh piece of paper telling the EAC that “chaotic institutional structures have emerged in a piecemeal fashion in the last two decades with little or no thought being given to the overlapping duties of various regulators, agencies and public bodies.”
LIMITATIONS OF SELECT COMMITTEES
“You have to work with departments to understand circumstances otherwise you are producing reports on information that doesn’t even exist”
The EAC plays a vital role in holding government to account and does some fantastic work, however it feels as if government is too reliant on its role to help drive the agenda. There is a distinction between scrutiny that assists government to either improve performance or transparency and scrutiny that aids accountability. The latter is covered by Select Committees and this should not be used as a replacement for the former. If caught earlier in the process, fewer mistakes would be made and negative environmental performance minimised.
Moreover, being dragged in front of a select committee can reinforce an inherent defensive nature amongst ministers and civil servants. Internal scrutiny can get better results as it takes leaders away from the public gaze. That said, if those structures are not in place then the role of the EAC and other committees is essential in scrutinising government.
REFERENCES  CCC, Progress Report, 13.
 Read more - https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/1951/195102.htm  Burke quoted in Environmental Audit Committee, The Structure of Government and the challenge of Climate Change – Ninth Report of the Session 2006-07, (House of Commons, 2007) Ev43-44.  CCC Report, Progress Report, 3.  Environmental Audit Committee, The Structure of Government, Ev 22  Environmental Audit Committee, Embedding Sustainable Development, 25. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash