Public input to environmental policies urged

UK advisors propose environmental standard-setting approach "for the 21st century"

Governments need to develop new approaches to environmental policy making for the new millennium, an influential British advisory group said this week. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) called, in particular, for public views to be taken into greater account when environmental standards are set.

In its 21st report since its creation in 1971, the RCEP said that radical changes in the political and social environment required new approaches to environmental standard setting. The commission had focused on environmental standards, it said, because these were "often the most tangible and precise expression of the judgements that underlie environmental policies".

The RCEP's main conclusion is that new mechanisms are needed to ensure that public views are articulated during the policy making process and reflected in the outcome. Although the report is aimed mainly at the UK government, members of the commission stress that their conclusions are relevant at European level and internationally.

Events such as the inflammatory row over Shell's disposal of the Brent Spar oil storage buoy typified situations in which a lack of public participation in policy making had caused problems, the commission said. Current debate over the commercial introduction foods based on genetically modified crops raised similar issues. "What we are trying to do is to help government and the public to anticipate and avoid these kind of issues happening in the future," said commission member Richard Macrory.

The bulk of the report discusses what the commission calls the "analytical" stage of the policy making process, including its individual components of scientific assessment, analysis of technological options, assessment of risk and uncertainty, economic appraisal, and implementation issues.

At all these stages, greater transparency is needed, as well as systematic approaches for maintaining it. Any body involved in setting standards should draw an explicit distinction between scientific statements and policy recommendations, the RCEP recommended. Bodies should also create an "audit trail" documenting all considerations taken into account in reaching a decision.

Scientific understanding should remain the starting point for standard setting, the commission recommended, but the boundaries of knowledge should be clearly indicated. Likewise, risk assessments should always be accompanied by a statement of the limitations and uncertainties, which should always be made meaningful to people without particular specialist knowledge.

Governments should use "direct methods" to ensure that people's values are articulated and taken into account in policy making, including greater public input at all stages, especially where issues are complex or controversial and of broad scope. Improving the mechanisms for articulating values "should be high on the agenda for the future development of European institutions," the commission concluded.

Follow Up:
RCEP, tel: +44 171 273 6635. References: RCEP 21st report, "Setting Environmental Standards".

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