Round table hopes for `greens'

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The Independent Online
Representatives of all sectors of society are summoned by the Government today to the first meeting of a new round-table on sustainable development. Adopting the role of King Arthur will be John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment.

"Sustainable development" is the big idea behind almost all environmental discourse, tripping off the tongues of government ministers and environmentalists of all shades of green. Several leading pressure groups are joining the round-table but not Greenpeace. ``We want something with more point than a round-table,'' said Chris Rose, a senior campaigner. ``What's needed now is political will and practical implementation.''

But Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, will be at the inaugural meeting in central London. ``There's a real chance this body will make progress and be more than just a talking shop,'' he said. "If it isn't, after a year or two we'll say thank you and walk away.''

Sustainable development means growth that avoids harm to the prospects of future generations from escalating environmental damage and the running down of irreplaceable natural resources. No one can agree the detail, but there is a consensus that much of today's economic growth does not fit the bill.

Prime examples are the remorseless increase in traffic and energy consumption, which cause the bulk of pollution and rise in step with Gross National Product. These are among the first topics likely to be examined.

Some 30 people will attend, including representatives of agriculture, trade unions, local government, tourism and academia as well as several leading environment and nature conservation groups. There is one bishop and no fewer than nine industry representatives.

The new body has parallels with the National Economic Development Council, a power centre under the last Labour government which brought together trade unions, employers and the Government to draw up strategies for growth. The council, known as Neddy, had a large secretariat and numerous working parties. It was gradually demoted under successive Conservative governments and closed in the late Eighties.

The new round-table was first announced a year ago, as part of Britain's follow up to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. It has taken so long to set up because of lengthy negotiations between the Department of the Environment and environmental groups.The department was desperate for them to join, fearing a lack of credibility if they stayed away. They, in turn, recognised the chance to gain a higher profile and more powers for the round-table.

It has been agreed that ministers from other government departments can be invited to meetings, as well as non- governmental organisations. It will meet once a quarter and publish recommendations.

Co-chairman with Mr Gummer is the Oxford biology professor Sir Richard Southwood.