Andrew Wood, Senior Engagement and Impact Officer for Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission, explores broader issues around policy - and what makes a good one


Since our Policy Blog is new, this seems a suitable time to explore the question of what we mean by ‘policy’. More specifically, when we are writing or critiquing policies, how do we recognise a good, implementable policy from its less useful relative, the wish list? 

Let us think about the role of policy in addressing ‘environmental limits’. This term has been around for some years now, and it chimes with Kate Raworth’s elegant ‘doughnut’ model of sustainable economics, where the economy needs to function in the ‘just and safe’ space between its social foundations and its ecological ceiling. Identifying the scientific limits is a technical exercise but choosing what to do about them requires policy choices. How do we change decisions to take account of those limits? What are the consequences of breaching a limit, compared to the consequences of making changes that would avoid breaching it?  

In terms of carbon reduction, Yorkshire and Humber has a regionally agreed target to be net-zero by 2038. To achieve this, we need to see huge sectoral changes, such as a 30-40% reduction in car mileage, two homes retrofitted every minute, and shifting all energy generation into net-zero carbon modes. These are scientific limits: we know we need to achieve them to avoid the worst climate impact scenarios. Yet, homes are still being built that will require retrofitting, and roads are still being built that will generate traffic. We need to look at the direction of change. Are rates of retrofit increasing? Is car mileage falling? Is renewable energy’s share of total supply increasing? If they are, it means that decisions, investments, and institutional capacity are coming together to take things in the right direction. If they are not, then we have problems that require policy interventions.  

For nature recovery, our heavily depleted habitats and species tell us that significant scientific limits have long since been breached. For decades, the policy approach to conserving environmental assets was to draw boundaries around key features and create protected areas, such as nature reserves, ancient woodlands and SSSIs (Site of Special Scientific Interest), and to monitor at-risk species. This gave protection for what was inside those boundaries but little protection outside them, so they became isolated islands of ecology, which is the opposite of building resilience. Current policy changes suggest a significant improvement on this, with Local Nature Recovery Strategies, Nature Recovery Networks and Biodiversity Net Gain all embracing the concept that we need nature to be more diverse and more connected in future. That said, in a complex system that has been degrading for so long, it is hard to measure the progress that these policies could enable, so there is a risk of measuring only the setting of policies (“Have you got a nature recovery strategy in place?”) rather than their implementation (“How has the nature recovery strategy changed this decision?”). 

In the planning system, the policies in Local Plans are subjected to ‘tests of soundness’. Broadly, these are designed to establish whether a policy is justified by the available evidence, is capable of being delivered, and, if it is delivered, whether it will be effective in achieving the intended outcome. Planning policies often fail to take adequate account of whether previous, similar policies have proved effective. For example, most Local Plans contain a policy to reduce the need for car travel, but previous versions of the same policy have rarely produced results. Something clearly is not working. Even if the decision-maker believes they are using the policy to inform decisions, it is not having the intended effect. A good policy is not just words, it is an intervention. 

Taking this a stage further, a good policy is not a mandatory rule, it is a signpost at a decision point. It tells the decision-maker, “If you want to achieve this outcome, then here is a recommended intervention”. If the decision-maker is faced with a mandatory rule, there is no decision point because the rule must be followed.  

Once you recognise them as signposts, you realise policies cannot be put in place until there is evidence they can be achieved. Think about those scary graphs of increasing atmospheric carbon, increasing temperature, increasing incidence of extreme weather events.  Turn a graph like that on its side and imagine it as a path across a landscape – it is a well-made path, easy to follow, but you have learned that just over the horizon there is a major obstruction. To take a new route which avoids the obstruction, you must step off this well-made path and on to a vaguer, less inviting one. The hill is getting steeper, so the later you turn off, the more dangerous your alternative path could be. And you also need to persuade your friends, family, employer, teacher to take this untested route with you. What you really need is a signpost at the junction, to reassure you and your companions that the path does lead to where you need to go. And the signpost can’t be put up until someone has already tested the route.  

This means we can ask two questions to test how useful a policy is. Firstly, does it provide guidance at a decision point, helping the decision-maker to be informed about the consequences of their decision? And secondly, can we measure the difference that policy is making – is it shaping decisions and how is that changing outcomes? That in turn allows us to consider the role of the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission’s work in terms of regional level activities to shape and implement policy. In short, does working on a policy intervention at a regional scale make it more feasible, effective, and measurable? And if - as is generally the case at present - there is a lack of institutional capacity at regional level, how can we work around that through informal collaborations? These are questions we will be exploring in the coming months – so stay tuned! 

14 December 2022

Photo: Leeds City Council