Several months ago I attended a press conference at the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) to launch its latest strategy for "professionalising" government procurement and estate management.
Speaking at the press conference to unveil the new Transforming Government Procurement document, OGC chief executive John Oughton said that the latest strategy was defined by a desire to deliver "value for money", which rather begs the question what was the government department in charge of all public sector procurement trying to deliver before? But, anyway, I digress.
After listening to an hour of civil servants talking about how they plan to get yet more value for money from our taxes by improving the government estate and getting different departments to work together when procuring goods and services, I asked if, in the light of the recent Stern Report and the government's targets for reducing carbon emissions, there was a case for focusing on vale for the environment as well as value for money?
There was, as I recall, a short silence – which was hardly surprising given that there was just a page on sustainable procurement in the whole 28 page strategy document – before one of the civil servants mentioned something about a cut in carbon emissions due to a recent fleet procurement deal and Oughton said that a separate Sustainable Procurement Action Plan would be available shortly featuring more details on how the government plans to help achieve its environmental targets and that the OGC did not want to pre-empt it.
Said Action Plan did indeed arrive in early March providing 60 pages on how the government plans to "be among the European Union (EU) leaders in sustainable procurement by 2009".
But if the government is big on sustainability Action Plans sustainability action is proving much more elusive, according to a damning new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).
The report found that the majority of government departments and agencies are failing to meet targets to make new buildings and major refurbishments sustainable and concluded that as a result it is not delivering value for money and is in serious danger of missing its targets to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2020.
While a few departments were singled out for praise the report found that in 2005-06 only 35 percent of new builds and 18 percent of refurbishments had carried out or planned to carry out environmental assessments.
Moreover, of those that did carry out assessments the majority of projects failed to achieve the NAO's top sustainability rankings of "excellent" or "very good".
The NAO said that a "fragmentation of policy responsibility among government bodies" and "lack of sufficient knowledge and expertise" were contributing directly to the lack of environmental awareness across government construction projects and recommended "that the bodies with central responsibility for sustainability in construction – including Defra, OGC and possibly the DTI – should establish a source of expertise available to all departments" and provide more best practice support and advice for other departments.
It also warned that Whitehall needed to do more to challenge the perception that there was a conflict between value for money and sustainability, adding that contrary to perceptions amongst many civil servants environmentally sustainable projects tended to deliver more cost savings in the long term than those projects that ignore environmental considerations.
"When I last reported on construction in 2005, I emphasised the need to consider both the costs and benefits over the whole life of a building, not just the initial capital required," said head of the NAO Sir John Bourn. "Despite this, today's report highlights a continuing failure by departments to consider the long-term value of sustainability in their new builds and refurbishments."
The report is just the latest piece of evidence to highlight the hypocrisy at the heart of the government's recent environmental rhetoric.
Earlier this year a similar study from the Sustainable Development Commission concluded that the government would miss its target to reduce carbon emissions by 12.5 percent by 2010 and also revealed that many government departments were failing to record even basic environmental metrics.
Meanwhile, the farcical saga surrounding the DTI's Low Carbon Buildings Programme grants scheme took another twist today after The Guardian reported that the government has shut the household grants scheme down until May as it works out a better way of distributing grants.
According to several of the renewable energy installation providers effected by the decision the government also warned them that the delay could be extended if they complained to the press - something a government spokesperson denied.
Despite complaints that some installation firms have had to lay off staff as sales have plummeted, the government insisted that with the budget for the scheme having recently increased and demand for grants continuing to climb the delay was necessary to improve the allocation process and ensure that the grants were being properly spent on renewable energy installations.
However, once again the dichotomy between the government's rhetoric about the importance of tackling climate change and its ill conceived environmental policies has once again been laid bare.
It would be nice to think that these latest developments will embarrass the government into prioritising environmental considerations across civil service projects and finally sorting out its shambolic environmental grant and incentive schemes. But given embarrassment is an emotion that appears to have been surgically removed from all Members of Parliament it is far more likely that the government's inadequate environmental actions will continue to lag far behind its impressive rhetoric.
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