POSTED: March 3, 2017
Politics & Enterprise

Brexit, devolution and the Sustainable Development Goals | A summary from the UKSSD workshop


On 1st of March at the UKSSD Annual Conference: Unlocking the UK’s potential: from ambition to transformation, CUSP Co-investigator and GSI Director, Professor Aled Jones, ran a CUSP/Sustainability East breakout session on ‘Devolution, Brexit and the Sustainable Development Goals.’ The workshop explored the evolution of governance within the UK and the impact of power transfers from Brussels back to London, and on downward to city-regions.

© UKSSD (modified)

While the implications of these tandem developments for the delivery of SDGs within the UK are still unclear, our discussion on the day with actors from the private, public and third sector proved fruitful for gathering initial insights and a way forward.

Introducing the interlinking topics, Aled first touched on policy areas of particular concern for the South-East UK: agriculture, fisheries and trade. These areas are particularly relevant for SDG delivery and the concentration of expertise in Brussels. With the different political frameworks come differents sets of metrics though as Aled pointed out: the lack of coherence between the UK (66), EU (132), and global (230) indicators of sustainable development is not exactly helpful. Only three of these indicators use the same statistical measure across the three frameworks: GDP per capita, Greenhouse gas emissions and share of renewable energy.

Moving onto a brief review of city-region devolution, the lack of a vision for what would be considered ‘successful’ devolution was quite alarming and suggested that Government may simply look at local/regional GDP growth and the quantity of built homes, rather than quality. However, there does seem to be more attention at the local level on wellbeing and ‘inclusive growth,’ linking people in rural communities with the economic prosperity of their urban counterparts.

Following these introductory remarks, participants were asked to explore implications of Brexit and devolution for SDG implementation in the UK in smaller groups, including how delivery against SDGs could be ensured at various geographic scales. And in short, the dominant view was: ‘Brexit – bad, Devolution – (potentially) good.”

Participants largely saw Brexit as a major distraction from efforts to translate SD goals and targets into transformational action. Views on devolution, on the other hand, were more optimistic, due in part to positive examples such as Wales’ 2015 Well-being of Future Generations Act, which codifies a commitment to sustainable development in Welsh law, and the uptake of SDGs in cities such as Brighton and Bristol. For successful implementation, however, local leaders must first be made aware of SDGs and how they can be used to solve current on-the-ground problems.

If SDGs aren’t clearly linked to quantifiable benefits, they run the risk of being perceived as additional burdens to already strained budgets. To this end, it was suggested that cost-benefit analyses be provided to devolved governments so that local leaders can more easily grasp the benefits of SDG implementation. One participant even suggested the potential for a ‘race to the top,’ particularly in the presence of networks between devolved governments. Such networks would also improve shared learning between local/regional leaders and their ability to collectively lobby Government for transformational change.

There are also concerns, however, about the increased risk of scapegoating and challenges for assigning responsibility when public services are not met. This fear is particularly relevant for devolution in the context of growing austerity and the inability of devolved city-regions to independently raise revenue. ‘Scalar dumping’, or the passing of service provision responsibility onto local authorities, while withholding resources needed to provide said services, is a genuine concern.

Moving forward, participants were asked, in practical terms, how to make Brexit and Devolution an opportunity for UK delivery of SDGs. Working with and coordinating devolved governments was a clear first step. Yet, steering mechanisms for sustainable development are also needed at the national level to accelerate, rather than work against, actions taken by devolved authorities. Despite original pessimism over Brexit, one participant dared to ask if Government could adopt global SDGs as a guiding framework for Brexit and thereby codify the goals in UK national law? “Brexit stood against many things… but what if it could stand for SDGs?”

Though a rather bold suggestion, participants discussed how such a case could be made – led by a coalition of business, social, and environmental groups – with an emphasis on utilizing the strong voice of private sector actors. One united sustainable development agenda would have more traction with Government, but must be charted soon. Given UKSSD’s work in bringing all sectors and sustainability themes together, they could play a coordinating role in developing a positive vision in the near future.

Lauren is a PhD researcher at the Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University. Under the supervision of CUSP co-investigator Aled Jones, her research focuses specifically on devolution in the East of England and its implications for social, economic, and environmental development in the region. The PhD is funded by Sustainability East.

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