Page last updated at 03:41 GMT, Monday, 27 July 2009 04:41 UK

Harrabin's Notes: Porritt's pop

In his regular column, the BBC's environment analyst Roger Harrabin draws on his experience of a quarter of a century reporting the environment to assess the stinging critcism by the government's outgoing adviser on sustainable development.

Power station
Sir Jonathon Porritt launched a wide-ranging attack on the government

Sir Jonathon Porritt, the government's adviser on sustainable development, has delivered a damning critique of government failures on the economy, the environment and social justice.

As he leaves office, Sir Jonathon accuses ministers and civil servants of failing to create a new economy fit for the 21st Century, of being stuck with an economic ideology from the days of Mrs Thatcher, of failing to match green rhetoric with action, and of shameful neglect of the poor.

For a decade Sir Jonathon has led the Sustainable Development Commission - set up to monitor government progress towards delivering prosperity in a way that protects the poor and safeguards the environment for future generations.

His conclusion is that government has understood the task in theory - but not put it into practice.

He says ministers should feel abiding shame that they have allowed the numbers of people in fuel poverty to increase, they have failed to meet their targets on combating child poverty, and that they have spent billions on the Iraq war and the Trident missile system whilst starving funds for tackling climate change.

Society 'more unhappy'

He said civil servants in the Department for Transport were undermining attempts to cut greenhouse gases, and at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills they had consistently obstructed attempts to improve energy efficiency.

He believes the Treasury is stuck with an out-dated economic model which promotes consumer-driven economic growth, even if it makes society more unhappy, more unequal and damages the environment.

Sir Jonathon predicts that China and India will overtake the UK in creating a green 21st Century economy.

A government spokesman said the UK had a strong record on climate change and was hitting its internationally-agreed targets.

But this critique from one who has seen the inside of government workings will rattle the government. And there will be some insiders who think some of these claims are justified.

Sir Jonathon says Business Secretary Lord Mandelson has in the past been particularly hostile to sustainable development.

"I am hoping that Lord Mandelson in his time at business is going to be true to the sort of speeches he is now giving about the importance of the UK getting good at a green industrial revolution.

Sir Jonathon Porritt
China and India are overtaking our frail efforts to develop green technologies
Sir Jonathon Porritt

"Maybe he can undo a decade of systematic obstruction inside the business departments which stood in the way of sustainable technologies, of the UK achieving breakthroughs on energy efficiency.

"It systematically rubbished energy efficiency programmes and managed to see off Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] in battle after battle.

"I have seen a number of ministers go through that department with a serious intent to change the way it did the sustainable technologies agenda… most imaginatively Patricia Hewitt.

"They've all been seen off until very recently. I can only attribute that to a generation of other senior civil servants who had other interests to promote.

"Largely the defence of interests of large energy sectors and technologies in a way they felt trumped any concerns about climate change, sustainability, green technologies and so on.

"As EU Commissioner he [Lord Mandelson] made it very clear that his responsibility was to promote competitiveness - and if other things had to wait their turn, then so be it.

"Now we understand more about what competitiveness will mean, and on his desk there will be a steer that countries like China and India are overtaking our frail efforts to develop green technologies, smart ways of creating wealth.

"We are 3.5% of a £3 trillion market. The government has a commitment to increase that dramatically but we are coming from a very low base.

"William Waldegrave unfurled a policy to a great fanfare in 1986. We were told Britain was going to lead the world into a new clean, green, global economy.

'£3bn wasted energy'

"Nothing's happened over various repetitions of that speech for 25 years.

"I am certain that what's been going on has weakened UK competitiveness. The business department has pointed to £3bn of wasted energy year in, year out. Very little has been done to drive out that inefficiency from the system.

"Ask anybody in Treasury and business why they haven't been able to settle on a definition on what resource efficiency means. They can't agree."

Sir Jonathon said the government's sustainable development strategy, Securing the Future, was seen by many people outside the UK as the best working model for making sustainable development a reality.

The government got completely seduced by the (Thatcherite) economic model it inherited in 1997. It felt the model should be run full-on
Sir Jonathon Porritt

"But there's a gap between the architecture and what's happening on the ground. The rhetoric - delivery gap is very large indeed.

"There is significant under-performance in most of main areas of sustainable development - child poverty, CO2 reductions, obesity, planning concerns.

"The government got completely seduced by the (Thatcherite) economic model it inherited in 1997. It felt the model should be run full-on.

"That model is hostile to sustainable development where you are not discounting factors about people's wellbeing and the state of the environment.

"If you look at what the Treasury has done since 1997 it is dogmatically to defend the model of consumption-driven economic growth regardless of some of the costs that growth generates.

"That's still at the heart of what government wants to get back to after the economic crash. It has been surreal over the past 18 months.

"I am not saying politicians don't have to get capital markets sorted out - but to sort them out without significantly amending the way they operate to ensure less risk and more sustainable outcomes, is a massive failure of economic and political leadership."

A Department for Energy and Climate Change spokesman said: "The UK's leadership on climate change is rooted in a strong record at home.

"A cut in emissions of 21% on 1990 levels, twice our Kyoto target; £60bn going into low carbon in the three years to 2011; 880,000 green jobs, and 2m of the poorest homes helped with heating and insulation.

"We're moving further and faster, driven by a 2050 80% target set into law and strong commitment on climate change in Cabinet. Jonathan Porrit last week praised our Low Carbon Transition Plan."

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