Down-to-earth plans to save the planet

Councils are taking steps to turn the vision of the Rio Earth Summit into a reality, says Liza Donaldson
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The Independent Online
The vision of a better quality of life for our children in the 21st century was captured in the idea of "sustainable development" that emerged from the United Nations' Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Helping to make that vision a reality, however, is proving a significant, if not the significant management challenge facing local authorities. Their success or failure will be critical for the communities they serve.

Rio's Agenda 21, a wide-ranging statement of intent named after the next century, translates for councils into Local Agenda 21, an environmental action plan that requires councils around the globe to draw up strategies for sustainable development - making sure that each generation meets its needs in ways that do not destroy the ability of future generations to meet theirs. This is not, as one cynic put it, about giving "another bunch of tree-huggers" a free hand to force people to eat lentils. Its main aim, according to Kirklees Council, a leader in the field, is to "ensure that we don't cheat our children out of a good quality of life". It covers not only environmental issues but also economic development and equity concerns. The deadline for councils' individual action plans is the Habitat 2 conference in Istanbul in June 1996.

Local authorities are key players in sustainable development because two-thirds of Agenda 21 needs their co-operation and commitment to be delivered. Councils, however, cannot act alone, and are expected to set up partnerships for sustainable development with the community, including business, education, voluntary and community groups.

So how well have councils progressed, and what management lessons are emerging? John Harman, leader of Kirklees Borough Council, who attended the Rio summit, says that despite "painfully slow" progress on the national and international fronts, British local authorities are "a star turn" compared with many other councils in Europe.

He points to a survey carried out for the Local Government Management Board (LGMB), which is charged with co-ordinating and driving Local Agenda 21 for councils. It shows that out of 303 councils, 214, or 71 per cent, are committed to taking part in the Local Agenda 21 process - 15 per cent up on last year. Tony Hams, the LGMB's environmental adviser, says: "There has been a whole splat of launches of Local Agenda 21 initiatives - one a week. The enthusiasm and buzz of something really new is there."

The survey revealed that councils are seizing on the idea that they must put their own houses in order first. Nearly half have carried out an internal environmental audit, and 187 (62 per cent of the total) are seeking to adopt key management tools, such as an environmental management system - a structured system for identifying where councils have an impact on the environment, and what actions to take as a result. Less encouraging however, is the finding that only 111 councils - 37 per cent - have integrated sustainable development into their corporate strategies.

The councils that have made most progress are those which are less bureaucratic and have made "big cultural changes to make them more open and flexible", says Mr Harman. But being open, he warns, means that as councils raise awareness of the issues, they must not be deaf to the signals their communities are sending back to them, even if they are not expected or wanted.

It is a message coming home sharply to councils through a pilot project supervised by the LGMB and consultants. It involved 10 authorities working with their communities to select indicators to measure progress towards sustainability.

A conference in London earlier this week, addressed by the Prince of Wales, saw the launch of a national index to encourage others to do the same.

At Labour-controlled Merton Borough Council in south London, 27 indicators were selected after a straw poll of 500 residents and advice from a mixed group drawn from the commercial, voluntary and public sectors, as well as individual participants. Their input meant that, in addition to indicators suggested by consultants, such as air pollution, river water quality, and freshwater pond life, eight were contributed directly from the community. These included: decay levels in children's teeth, as an indicator of health, water quality and health education; road accidents, which together with fears over personal safety were reinforcing a trend for parents to drive children to school; and the number of people who live and work in the borough, an indicator of how far the community is economically self-supporting.

Merton's indicators will play a vital role in the action plan it is to draw up next year. The leader of the council is Tony Coleman, who worked for Unilever and Burton Group, and who regards his councillors as board members and officers as executive directors. He says that both he and the outgoing chief executive, Heather Rabbatts, share a view on the importance of sustainability. But "top-down management should meet bottom-up management halfway" to forge a consensus on the route forward, a task Mr Coleman admits "is not easy".

Elsewhere, this sort of approach has run into problems. At Lancashire County Council, for instance, the indicators project came up with some disturbing findings, through eight focus groups, drawn from people off the streets in Lancashire. The groups of six to 10 people were cynical about national and even local government, and did not pay attention to information from such sources, which they did not trust. They were concerned about beach pollution, litter and dog mess, and even wider global problems, but felt powerless to do anything about them.

Graham Pinfield, head of the county's environment policy unit, said the study had exposed pockets of an underclass of disengaged people. It highlighted the need for people to "own their indicators and feel they could influence their local environment". Researchers recommend that new ways of consulting the public on an open-ended basis need to be found, and the council must develop better listening mechanisms.

At Reading Council, an authority with a strong tradition of top-down schemes, a similar initiative had more positive results. Run with the Worldwide Fund for Nature and a special community expert, the scheme avoided jargon like "sustainable", replacing it with "Globe - Go Local on a Better Environment".

Sylvie Pierce, the chief executive, told this week's conference: "We started to realise that the `top-down' approach we were taking preached mainly to a captive and converted audience." The task was to reach out to the other 98 per cent of people, starting with neighbourhood groups such as tenant and resident associations and parent/teacher group members, and broadening their view, encouraging them to voice concerns on wider environmental issues. Nervous council officers had to do a lot of preparation, she said. She added: "In a way we had to get ready for quite a change in culture." The confidence of everyone involved, officers, councillors and residents, had to be nurtured.

"Right from the start we made it clear that every opinion was a valued one, no matter how wild and wacky - even a fluorescent dog pooh day, where residents would spray-paint the offending items," she says.

The WWF clearly thinks the scheme is a success, and plans to extend it to 20 councils. The experiment has drummed home the key message about Agenda 21, trumpeted by Kirklees Council, namely that "everyone has to realise it is not the local authority's job, or business's job, or solely the Government's job. We must manage it so that grassroots development is supported and enabled, meeting top-down management halfway."