The Square Meal report emphasised that Government commitment and action are key to securing a sustainable food and farming systems. Traditionally, regulation has played a crucial role in the UK and right across Europe. However, concerns about the costs of regulation to business have increasingly led both UK and EU policymakers to promote the use of voluntary alternatives to regulation in seeking to achieve policy objectives.
This enthusiasm for voluntary approaches has not been matched by any evidence to demonstrate whether such a policy shift is advisable. That is why we undertook new research – Using regulation as a last resort? Assessing the performance of voluntary approaches – to review the effectiveness of over 150 voluntary schemes across a range of sectors and issues to determine how well they perform.
The results of this research show that the impact of most voluntary schemes is limited. Over 80% of schemes were found to perform poorly. The majority of schemes set unambitious targets or failed to achieve their key targets. In addition, many were undermined by low rates of private sector participation and the resultant lack of a level playing field for those participants that genuinely wanted to improve their performance. The research found nothing to support the claim that voluntary approaches can be an effective alternative to regulation.
Voluntary approaches for tackling the spread of invasive non-native species, eliminating single use plastic bags, reducing the use of peat based composts and addressing pesticide use, have all failed. Examples from waste, energy efficiency, advertising, pharmaceuticals, pollution and health demonstrate how voluntary approaches are consistently performing well below expectations. A key reason for failure is the lack of alignment between commercial incentives and environmental or social benefits.
One assumed benefit of voluntary schemes is that they can be cheaper than other forms of government action. This assumption is not borne out by the evidence. One interesting feature of voluntary schemes is that they involve a transfer of costs from the public to private sectors. The UK Government has a rolling programme aimed at ‘Cutting Red Tape’ which seeks evidence of unnecessary burdens on business. The agriculture sector review consultation received a grand total of 20 responses, half of which were actually taking issue with costs of problems associated with assurance schemes and other voluntary initiatives, not with government regulation at all.
So where does this leave the prospects for the use of voluntary initiatives? Firstly, they do have a place in policymaking, if they are appropriately designed, with defined targets and independent monitoring, and used in concert with other policy interventions. Secondly, voluntary actions taken by those in the private sector seeking to improve their environmental performance should be strongly supported, given the potential for significant improvements to be made by those businesses who acknowledge the need to act sustainably. Such schemes can be an important means of business demonstrating leadership and signalling to government, the preferred direction of travel.
The current Westminster Government has a manifesto target to reduce the burden of ‘red tape’ on business to the tune of £10 billion by the end of this parliament. If they believe they can achieve this saving by replacing regulation and effective market based interventions with voluntary initiatives, they are very much mistaken.
by Paul Morling, RSPB