Green campaigners concerned by closure

  • Jonathan Starling, executive director of Greenrock

A government department dedicated to ensuring the island’s sustainability has been dismantled, leading green campaigners to fear that environmental issues are not a priority.

The Sustainable Development Department was formed to put into action the Sustainable Development Implementation Plan, a voluminous report released by the Cabinet Office’s Central Policy Unit a decade ago, after four years of information gathering and public consultation.

Sustainable development has been defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The mandate of the department was not confined to the environment — it was supposed to promote sustainability in all public and private sector policymaking — but much of its work considered how to manage natural resources and environmental impacts, including climate change.

Now the department and the CPU no longer exist as separate entities, having been merged to become the new Policy and Strategy Section within the Cabinet Office. An advisory body appointed by the Premier, the Sustainable Development Round Table, has disappeared too, holding its last meeting in May 2016 and leaving little trace behind.

In response to questions, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman insisted this week that the Government had not “abandoned the concept of sustainable development”, saying its principles were “expected to be at the heart of the work being done” by the new section.

But environmentalists questioned if that was the case.

Jonathan Starling, executive director of Greenrock, told The Royal Gazette: “We have rather grave concerns that the Sustainable Development Department no longer exists as an entity.

“While we had hoped that it was just a name change and that wouldn’t necessarily change the essence of the department/unit, we were also aware that language is powerful — by eliminating the name ‘sustainable development’ one also eliminates the focus on sustainable development.

“We saw it as a potentially backwards step. Unfortunately, I think that our concerns have largely been borne out. Not only has the reference to sustainable development been dropped from the new unit, but also the emphasis and focus on sustainability. We believe this is a retrograde step.”

Bill Zuill, executive director of the Bermuda National Trust, said: “The Bermuda National Trust is disappointed to learn that the Sustainable Development Unit is no longer a stand-alone government entity, because this decision sends a message, fairly or not, that sustainable development is not a priority of the Government.

“It is also regrettable because, since the mid-2000s, a great many people, including but not limited to members of the Sustainable Development Round Table, dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to fashioning the Sustainable Development Plan and the policies surrounding it. The Trust sincerely hopes that this work will not go to waste.”

Michael Dunkley told the House of Assembly earlier this year that the Policy and Strategy Section was an “amalgamation of the former Central Policy Unit and the Sustainable Development Department”.

The Premier’s comments didn’t touch on how the section would incorporate SD aims but said “one of the principle goals of the merger was to realise a more centralised approach to policy and strategy development, while strengthening decision-making and improving effectiveness”.

Mr Starling said: “As far as I can tell, the new unit has no mandate to push sustainability issues. I’m sure that the staff moved from SD into the new unit will still try and work sustainability into its work, but with no clear mandate to do so, and no independent watchdog holding the Government to account like the SD Round Table was supposed to, I have very little confidence regarding this.

“I find it very disappointing, to be honest. The SD initiative was quite groundbreaking and had a lot of potential.

“The SD Plan itself was due for an update; a lot has changed in the decade since it was first initiated and, just like the Bermuda Plan, it needs regular updates.”

Mr Zuill said the problems that led to the need for a sustainable development policy, such as pressure on open space, congestion and “runaway housing costs”, all connected to strong economic growth, had diminished as the economy had contracted.

But he added: “The National Trust believes that that is, in fact, the ideal time for the creation of a coherent, principled sustainable development policy that will be in place ahead of a time when the island sees a return to stronger growth.

“In this way, the principles of sustainable development will already be in place and will be well understood when development pressures increase.”

In the only annual report it ever released, in December 2013, the Sustainable Development Department gave information on its ongoing projects, which involved public health, agriculture, the marine environment, a children’s agenda and recycling.

It also revealed an ad hoc working group on climate change had been set up within the Cabinet Office, noting that Bermuda ranked 15th in the world for highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions so had a “moral obligation to the global community to implement mitigation measures and reduce the emissions”.

The working group has “paused” its meetings, according to the Cabinet spokeswoman. Meanwhile, it is unclear if Bermuda is meeting the obligations it committed to when it signed up to the Kyoto Protocol in 2007.

The Cabinet spokeswoman said: “Climate change policy work is still required and is expected to feature in [the] Policy and Strategy Section during this year.”

Alex Scott brought the idea of sustainable development to Bermuda, later describing it as one of his most important achievements as Premier.

His successor Ewart Brown released the final plan, after encouraging MPs to come up with a less abstract term than “sustainable development” to capture the public’s attention. An alternative phrase was never found.

In 2013, civil servant Magnus Henagulph recommended the SD Department be axed, in his prize-winning submission to the Sage Commission, a body tasked with assessing government efficiency.

He wrote: “This department needs to be closed. Salaries and rent cost more than half-a-million dollars a year and nothing to show for it.”

Mr Starling said he believed the department was a success “for the most part” and achieved a lot of the tangible objectives of the SD Plan, though those achievements weren’t necessarily “communicated enough” to the public.