Repainting the town hall green: Proposals from the recent Earth Summit in Rio have begun filtering down to local authorities, Rebecca Renner reports

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The Independent Online
THE MUCH-HYPED hot air that came out of the Earth Summit in Rio last month looks set to breathe new life into environmental action by local government. Having agreed to Agenda 21, a wide-ranging list of environmental proposals for the next century, the Government and local authorities are now faced with the task of deciding how best to turn that agreement into reality.

The Government's principal concern is to establish good links with businesses, local authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). John Harman, leader of Kirklees council in West Yorkshire and an adviser to the UK delegation to the Earth Summit, hopes that over the next few months the local authority associations will be able to put together proposals for handling the UK's Rio commitments at community level.

'The environment is one topic which involves districts, counties and metropolitan authorities and so all three authority associations are involved,' he says. 'It is very important not to duplicate each other's work, so we hope to set up a joint national advisory body and pull in NGOs and business. It is absolutely clear that action at the local level has got to involve all sectors - government, business and voluntary organisations.'

The new challenge comes at an opportune time for local authority environmental managers and co-ordinators. Many councils have worked through an overall environmental strategy, monitored its progress with environmental audits, established an environmental team, and forged links with voluntary organisations and local businesses.

Sutton council in Surrey was one of the first local authorities to produce an environmental policy in 1986. Last year it adopted a three-year programme for an in-house audit to examine the council's performance in implementing its environmental statement. A steering group made up of officers from finance, social services, education, leisure services, technical services, the housing department and the chief executive's office oversees the environmental strategy and forms the core staff for the audit programme.

Using council staff for the work saves money and ensures that the auditors have an intimate knowledge of how the council works, but it also slows down the process. For example, the three-year programme calls for two internal audits annually, but so far only the internal transport audit has been finished. The review of internal building policies, also planned for last year, is on hold because the officer in charge is on maternity leave.

Assistant chief planning officer Helmut Lusser, a driving force behind the council's environmental plans, says it is difficult for senior officers to find time for the audit work, but he hopes to speed up the process by training more junior officers to do the job.

Paddy Davies, assistant policy development adviser in the chief executive's office and one of the three council staff who conducted the transport audit, says that the six-month project occupied about 10 per cent of her time.

The transport audit found good news about efforts to reduce the energy usage and air pollution of Sutton's fleet of 300 cars, buses and lorries; but the review of the use of private vehicles on council business highlighted some inconsistencies between the environmental statement, which aims to promote public transport, and council policy. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in the provision of free parking spaces at work. The internal audit makes this clear: 'Parking for many staff is subsidised; it would be more consistent to subsidise alternative means of travel to work.' It recommends that nominal parking charges should be considered with any revenue raised going towards anti-pollution measures for staff, for example free emission tests or subsidised public transport. This is being discussed by staff representatives and officers.

The review also gave the team valuable experience in conducting an audit, says Ms Davies, and Sutton is now considering swapping audit expertise with other authorities.

Kirklees was the first local authority to try comprehensively to assess the state of the environment within its area. This external audit, a joint venture between the council and Friends of the Earth, was followed up by an environmental charter and the appointment of a full-time environmental co- ordinator, Dr Philip Webber, in October 1990. His first priority was to raise the operation's profile and to increase resources. 'Now we have a team in place and we are ready to look closely at our policies,' he says. He plans to use the Friends of the Earth local government charter for the environment together with Agenda 21 to create 'an initial wish list' and then, over the next nine months, turn this into performance targets for each department. The project will be the full-time job of one of his officers.

Dr Webber has skills and experience which combine scientific expertise with an understanding of how to survive and prosper in local government. His research combined physics, chemistry and chemical engineering and involved work on catalysts such as platinum, one of the principle constituents of the catalytic converters he advocates today to reduce air pollution. But he also became involved with local government and environmental issues in the late 1970s. In 1986 he moved out of research and into local government as the deputy director of emergency planning for South Yorkshire where he says his work was instrumental in halting a proposed toxic waste incinerator at Doncaster.

His environmental unit, with just six of the authority's 20,000 employees, is small but it has enough status to be effective within the council, he says.

The unit has the ability to put proposals and papers directly to council committees - usually the environment or planning and economic development committees. The unit's budget of pounds 300,000 a year for environmental projects is small compared with the council budget of around pounds 300m, but Dr Webber uses the council's grants to attract other money and multiply the overall environmental funding. A Department of Environment derelict land grant contributes pounds 1m, Countryside Commission funding provides pounds 100,000 and other sources also feed into the environmental pot.

The environment unit, with its multidisciplinary approach, is run differently from Kirklees' other departments, Dr Webber says. Most environmental issues involve three or four departments, a range of different disciplines, and require a different management style which he enjoys. 'You can't do this job if you want tight-line management and hierarchies. It's all about networks and alliances and facilitating things. I see myself as a catalyst.'

But there are also disadvantages. People can be very territorial about their work and there can be clear conflicts of interest between departments. Dr Webber also finds that the classic conflicts between development and the environment are all too common. Business interests have recently clashed with local people over a proposal for a new motorway and most development proposals which generate jobs have environmental objections. But he believes that sustainable development offers a path away from conflict - and he says there are signs that companies also appreciate this approach. 'Companies are beginning to offer to plant new trees somewhere else if they destroy existing ones and they are more willing to consider modifying existing buildings than building new.' He believes environmental joint ventures with business will grow because the business community realises that to be green makes commercial sense.

Geoff Wright, Leeds council's environmental manager, agrees. 'We set up a forum on the environment and the response from business is amazing. One of the largest hotels in town offered us free conference rooms and a management consultancy is offering help with the organisation.'

Mr Wright and Dr Webber believe this trend will continue, driven by pressure from consumers and big companies. Leeds already vets the environmental record of companies that tender for contracts. Both men believe that eco-labelling will be a consumer issue push companies closer to integrated environmental policies.

(Photograph omitted)

This article first appeared in Thursday's Independent