Defra announced yesterday that it is to stop funding the Sustainable Development Commission [SDC] from next April. The Secretary of State's written notice says:
On sustainability ... we are determined to play the lead role across the whole of government. We will mainstream sustainability, strengthen the government’s performance in this area and put processes in place to join up activity across government much more effectively. I am not willing simply to delegate this responsibility to an external body.
"Focusing responsibility for sustainable development policy within Defra will improve accountability, avoid duplication and lead to essential efficiencies."
Put another way: we don't want any more advice from outsider experts, thanks all the same.
Well, fittingly, and as we all know, want and need are two quite different things.
In Barcelona last week sitting on a PhD jury – one of these public defences that are literally and metaphorically foreign to the UK. The thesis was in Catalan with a presentation to an audience of about 35 in that language, with Spanish and English interludes. I had read a 50 page English summary of the thesis, and was familiar with the research over a 6 year involvement between Bath and the Catalan university. When the candidate had finished his 50 minute presentation, and his supervisors had had a say (a novel twist, I thought), we three jurists had ours. I spoke about the international context of the research and its potential contribution. The last to speak (in Catalan) was the president of the jury, and I had a translator whispering in my ear. I thought the learned and venerable professor was making some quite critical points to do with neglected literature, omitted data, and un-nuanced argument, etc, and so I kept asking my interpreter: "Is that a critical point?" "Yes", she'd always respond, "but not a negative one." Oh, I thought, and where do you draw that line?
In the end, we graded it "Excellent cum laude", everyone was happy, and cava was splashed about. Later, I asked another venerable and learned professor, this time someone whom I had known for a while, what was all the critical but not negative stuff from the president of the jury: "Just showing off" they said; "illustrating how clever they are and how little the candidate really knows." Experience suggests that this a tendency also found here, but in Barcelona, on that occasion at least, it wasn't allowed to get in the way of the outcome.
The coalition government announced today that, from 2011, the Ministry of Defence is to set up programmes in order to raise awareness of defence issues within the UK; this will include work in schools. An MoD representative said "We recognise the importance of ensuring that the public is informed about defence matters and consider that schools play a vital role in this endeavour." She went on: "Of course, as always, it is critical that the projects the MoD funds demonstrate results and impact. The use of funds for defence awareness will be scrutinised very closely and we will be tightening our annual review processes. Projects which are failing to meet their objectives, or projects which are not demonstrating that their activities are achieving higher levels of public awareness/support for defence will be closed."
So, at last some sense in the disasterous Building Schools for the Future programme – it's being axed. Michael Gove told MPs: "Throughout its life it has been characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy". He might (and should) have added, mostly to mediocre sustainability standards. So, a pause for thought must be good for everybody: a chance to ensure that the very, VERY highest sustainability standards are enforced (and not an option to be easily abandoned), and a chance to ensure that the damn things don't have to be torn down after 30 years. Well done MG.