Heading in the right direction?

The Government's sustainability policies are turning from red to green, but do they go far enough? Kate Hilpern reports

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The wintry chill of recent weeks will have sent many of us scurrying to crank up the central heating. But finding other ways to get warm - such as installing cavity wall insulation and investing in double glazing - is just one of the ways in which individuals right through to major businesses can help bring about a better quality of life without compromising the quality of life for future generations. Indeed, if there's one overarching message of the Government's new Sustainable Development Strategy, it is that every little helps.

The wintry chill of recent weeks will have sent many of us scurrying to crank up the central heating. But finding other ways to get warm - such as installing cavity wall insulation and investing in double glazing - is just one of the ways in which individuals right through to major businesses can help bring about a better quality of life without compromising the quality of life for future generations. Indeed, if there's one overarching message of the Government's new Sustainable Development Strategy, it is that every little helps.

"The strategy is focused around four key themes - climate change and energy, sustainable consumption and production, sustainable communities, and, finally, natural resource protection and environmental enhancement. Each and every one of us can make a contribution to these areas by changing our behaviour around things like how we use energy, choices of travel, how we get rid of waste and what products we choose to buy," explains Elliot Morley, Environment Minister.

Public support for sustainability is rising fast, if recent headlines are anything to go by. Latest figures by the Fairtrade Foundation, for instance, show that consumers are increasingly prepared to pay a premium for a product to ensure farmers in the developing world are guaranteed a stable income against a backdrop of fluctuating market prices. Sales of approved Fairtrade products rose by 52 per cent last year.

What's more, product development is making it easier than ever to aid sustainability. "Take televisions," says Morley. "The standby power of the latest ones is minuscule compared to a few years ago. Most computers now turn themselves off, and the emissions and fuel consumption of modern cars has improved radically."

Nevertheless, he admits, many of us - whether individuals, manufacturers, employers or even Government departments - still need a push in the right direction, which is where the strategy comes in. Recent Government research has found that behaviours are slower to change than attitudes, accounting for the carefully devised recipe of regulation, standards, incentives and support programmes that all make up the Government's plan of action.

"Recycling is a good example of something which has public support, but where regulation - in this case, incentives to councils for providing box collections - has actually brought about the lifestyle change that's needed on the ground," explains Morley. Similarly, the obligation on electricity companies to provide subsidised home insulation encourages individuals to waste less energy.

The Government has learned that financial incentives can be particularly effective. "That's why car tax schemes have been changed to focus on emissions rather than miles," he says. "Another example is the landfill tax which works against people disposing of materials, whether it's companies or councils."

Then there is the climate change levy on companies, which gives an 80 per cent discount for those who meet agreed energy savings. Money from that levy goes to the Carbon Trust, which in turn gives grants to companies for energy savings devices. "This kind of loop, where deterrents and incentives work hand in hand is a typical theme of our new strategy," he says.

What the strategy does not do, however, is forget the importance of winning hearts and minds. Regulation alone can lead to people changing the way they live begrudgingly and only in the short-term, jeopardising any long-term change. That, explains Morley, is the reason for the myriad of current television advertisements, separately trying to win viewers over on areas ranging from recycling to energy efficiency. Neither is the Government forcing businesses to do things like provide flexible working for its workers or take up corporate social responsibility, but instead is trying to persuade them of the benefits.

Although this is not the first Sustainable Development Strategy, it's widely accepted that its predecessor, the 1999 plan, was perceived to have been only partially implemented. "The new one is a development of that and by proposing additional measures, it will focus far more on actual delivery," says Mr Morley.

In particular, the Government is proposing two additional measures that it believes will be powerful catalysts for improved performance - creating a new independent watchdog with the task of reviewing the Government's performance and, secondly, leading by example in Government, through sustainable procurement.

When it comes to schools, for example, the Building Schools for the Future and Academies programmes involves rebuilding or renewing all secondary schools in need of modernisation over the next 10 to 15 years. Good design, efficiency and sustainability are at the heart of this programme. Over-glazed, poorly insulated and often porous buildings of the Sixties and Seventies have high running costs and, unless well maintained, do not provide the learning and working environments needed today.

Meanwhile, sustainable development is becoming a significant part of the school curriculum so that the issue is promoted in a stimulating learning context.

Central government departments are also leading by example. The Department of Health has, for example, recently put in place a web-based system for recording and monitoring its environmental performance, which will improve the Department's ability to track and report progress against targets.

Furthermore, policy now requires all central government departments to favour suppliers who use timber that's both legal and sustainable (some legal timber isn't sustainable) - not only when it comes to building, but also for things such as furniture and stationery.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister says it takes the issue particularly seriously. "We have long recognised that principles of sustainable development need to underpin the creation of sustainable thriving communities," says a spokesperson. "Issues such as flood risk, waste minimisation, water resource and energy needs will be designed in from the outset."

There is still some question over whether the strategy goes far enough, however. Philip Sellwood, chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust questions whether there is enough commitment around new builds. He would recommend a requirement that, say, 10 per cent of all new houses should be built to zero carbon and feels there are benefits in firm targets, for example in the Thames Gateway and Milton Keynes Corridor where, he feels, the commitment is being driven by local authorities.

Waste and recycling

If the Government is to meet its challenging recycling target for next year, we will need to be recycling a quarter of our household rubbish by then. Little wonder that the Government is working with local authorities to continually develop innovative methods of persuading people to get rid of more waste in this environmentally friendly way.

The national campaign Recycle Now is certainly helping. It comprises a number of adverts - 90.5 per cent of people across England have seen one - and a recycling week for June.

Local councils are also major players, with at least two-thirds of households having access to doorstep recycling services. England household waste recycling is now at 17.7 per cent.

But it's not just households that produce waste, which is why not-for-profit organisations are also being supported by the Government to introduce other pioneering programmes: London Remade has funded the installation of over 250 commuter recycling bins, located outside stations to collect some of the 460,000 newspapers read everyday.

Businesses and retailers also have a key role to play when it comes to waste, with Defra and WRAP continually helping them to introduce cost-effective and innovative waste reduction and recycling programmes.

Perhaps the most exciting news for consumers is that more recycled products - from garden furniture to photo albums - are becoming available. After all, for recycling to work, there needs to be markets for the products made with recycled materials. Buying recycled, points out the Government, helps keep reusable material in the economy, reduces waste needing to be landfilled and conserves resources, particularly energy.

Transport

Newquay Tertherras School has been working for some time with the county council and the sustainable transport charity Sustrans on improving safe cycle and walking routes for its pupils and the results are promising. "A fifth of students now walk to school and five per cent are cycling - and the numbers continue to rise. Considering we are in a complicated catchment area, which means half our youngsters already get the bus to school, we're really pleased," says Steve Dunn, deputy head.

Among the school's most successful measures have been making changes to routes where there have been perceived obstacles and dangers, informing youngsters about the advantages of walking and cycling, introducing secure bicycle sheds and consulting with the school council to ensure decisions are democratic. "In addition, the route links up to a local sports centre, so anyone can cycle from the town to the sports centre and then onto our site. Everyone gains,' he says.

It's just one example of local commitment to improving alternatives to car transport, with the overall aim of improving both the environment and the health of the nation. Indeed, a significant part of the Government's new Sustainable Development Strategy is promoting walking and cycling, with the Department for Transport having announced £10 million of funding to develop hundreds of safe walking and cycling routes to schools and other funding to help persuade adults to leave their cars behind.

Sustrans, who co-ordinate the National Cycle Network and are developing links with schools across England, welcomes the move. "Although Government statistics are suggesting people cycle less than in the past, we know that in 2003, 126 million trips were made on the network and a good proportion of those are replacing car journeys," says a spokesperson.

Car sharing schemes are also high on the agenda of the strategy, following a report entitled "Smarter Choices", which looked at the impact and potential of "soft" measures like this. A spokesperson for Liftshare.com, the UK's largest car sharing website, explains the advantages. "The benefits to society include reduced congestion and pollution, and with the Government introducing high occupancy vehicle lanes in the next few years, there will be the added incentive to individuals of getting to work quicker. A growing number of companies are also setting up company car parking for car shares, so you get to park right by the front door. At Powergen, the MD actually washes the cars from time to time."

Improved public transport would be even more persuasive, of course. Good news is that the Department for Transport promises to correct decades of under-investment in transport networks. Over £70 million a week is currently being invested in rail, with the result that record numbers of people are travelling by train - more than a billion last year. A significant investment is also being made into bus routes, including in rural areas.

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