Margaret Beckett: By working together, we can bring about a sustainable future for all

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It is a stark and arresting fact that, since the middle of the 20th century, humankind has consumed more natural resources than in all previous human history. This has resulted in more pollution and waste; and contributed to climate change which is now acknowledged to be one of the greatest challenges for the coming century.

It is a stark and arresting fact that, since the middle of the 20th century, humankind has consumed more natural resources than in all previous human history. This has resulted in more pollution and waste; and contributed to climate change which is now acknowledged to be one of the greatest challenges for the coming century.

So when I'm asked, "What is sustainable development?" it isn't hard to point out what is not sustainable. This makes the case for urgent and serious change. But translating that into action is another matter.

In publishing the UK Sustainable Development Strategy this month, the two key messages were this - first, the Government itself is determined to take a lead and that sustainable development is for everybody; and, second, that citizens and communities have real choices which can contribute to sustainable development.

We need consumers, business and the public to demand, use, and support sustainable products and services and to choose more sustainable transport options. I very much hope that the case studies in this supplement will interest those who are willing to come on board; they certainly demonstrate how sustainable development can be applied.

We are looking at new ways of involving people in making decisions about their futures. And next year, the launch of a new information service, Environment Direct, will be able to help, complementing the advice already available from the Energy Saving Trust, the Carbon Trust and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

But, the first of my key messages is that the Government must take a lead. As a purchaser of more than £13bn worth of goods and services each year, there is much it can contribute. So I have asked Sir Neville Simms, a highly respected business leader, to chair a new task force to draw up an action plan by April next year. Its focus will be how to help the public to make more sustainable choices, but also how to encourage innovation and help drive the market for the future's sustainable products.

There is one area where we will take immediate action. We are introducing a new scheme to "offset" the carbon impacts of Government air travel. All Government departments will participate by April 2006. When there is no alternative to flying, Government will compensate for carbon dioxide released from our flights by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. This initiative will not detract from our wider emission reduction objectives for aviation, but is a useful interim measure which raises awareness of the environmental impact of air travel and provides a means to tackle emissions on a voluntary basis.

There are many examples of how the Government is encouraging more sustainable farming, the purchase of more sustainable food in the public sector and promoting more flexible working to reduce the reliance on travel.

Some organisations who are already delivering the vision and showing how it can be done include the following:

*Whipps Cross Hospital in East London, which is working with the Sustainable Development Commission to ensure the redevelopment of the hospital follows sustainable development principles, creating local jobs and improved healthcare facilities, while protecting the environment.

*With more than 8,000 suppliers and an annual spend of over £500m, Norfolk Council is making an impact on sustainability within its supply chain. The Supplier Support Scheme offers free advice and training to the Council's suppliers to ensure that they are working sustainably.

*Global Action Plan (GAP), who run a number of successful projects aimed at educating consumers about the choices they make. The charity provides practical advice about making changes at home, at work, and at school in an effort to support sustainable development.

*Hill Holt Wood in Lincolnshire was previously severely felled by a timber company who had used it unsustainably. In 2002, ownership of the wood was transferred to the local community and a Social Enterprise was set up.

*Baywind Energy Co-op owns six wind turbines in Cumbria and sells the energy through a Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation contract with a turnover of £475,000. Shares in the Co-op can return up to eight per cent if shareholders take advantage of an Enterprise Investment Scheme.

Delivery is crucial and a major theme of the strategy. But change on the ground must involve people at the local and community level; where everyday actions can improve our neighbourhoods and create better places to live. The strategy outlines a new programme called "Community Action 2020 - Together We Can" to be launched in the autumn, which will empower local people to act more sustainably.

The Government is determined to set the pace - to lead by example and then to follow through our promises into delivery. The organisations mentioned above show how others are pointing a powerful direction forward. Over the years ahead we want many more to follow their lead. Acting together, we can secure the future for us all.

Margaret Beckett is Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. For more information, visit: www.defra.gov.uk or www.sustainable-development.gov.uk

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