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Nick Triggle looks at the role, influence and commitment councils have on sustainability ...
Nick Triggle looks at the role, influence and commitment councils have on sustainability

The dust has settled on the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and the 60,000 delegates are back in their countries. Now everyone is asking what next? In Britain, step forward councils.

A three-day local government session during the summit identified the role councils will have in the next decade as the world attempts to get to grips with health care, environmental protection, education and poverty.

The session culminated with the 800 local government representatives agreeing a detailed declaration setting out what councils would plan and what they expect from their national counterparts.

The declaration adopted a three-pronged approach. It committed councils to: push forward with the development of local strategies; incorporate sustainable development principles; and adopt a culture of environmental awareness.

In return, it asked national governments to involve local government as equal partners national sustainable development strategies.

It trumpeted the role councils have played since the Rio summit in 1992: more than 6,000 councils across the world have local agenda 21 strategies, voluntary codes to improve economic, social and environmental concerns in the long term. Europe accounted for 5,000, with 93% of UK councils adopting strategies by December 2000. The session saw LA 21s taken forward with the ratification of Local Action 21, a programme to put them into practice.

Local Government International Bureau director Mike Ashley says: 'The declaration was important to establish the commitment of councils to the sustainable development process. But it is now about action. Councils must make the most of the momentum that is gathering.

'One of the pillars of so-called sustainable development is the economy and councils can influence this through planning powers. They also have a key role when it comes to environmental protection through air quality, transport, housing and waste.'

The desire to make progress appears strong. A recent survey by the Energy Saving Trust - a not-for-profit company set up after the Rio summit to address climate change - found 96% of council leaders and 95% of chief executives were adamant that their councils were 'committed' or 'totally committed' to energy efficiency.

In Wales, all 22 councils developed LA 21s. John Hopkins (Lab), the Welsh Local Government Association's environment spokesman, says councils will 'continue to make a significant contribution'.

Derek Boden (Lab), the leader of the North West Regional Assembly, adds: 'It is important that we celebrate the progress that has been made locally but we must realise that this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Far more people need to get involved and start helping translate our local plans into local action.'

However, questions remain about how effective councils can really be - they cannot do much about global poverty or the supply of water. But they do have a direct hand in sustainable energy and CO2 emissions through local transport plans.

But councils have not always been effective. Just 11% of household waste was recycled last year - an increase of 4% in five years - well below the government target of 25% by 2005-06.

What is more, many LA21 units have been disbanded in the last 12 months to make way for the community strategies brought in under the Local Government Act 2000. While these take environmental issues into account, the emphasis has not been as great as it was under LA 21s.

Mike Childs, senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth is critical of how active councils have really been.

'In some cases, councils adopted LA21s but did not use the principles when going about their everyday business. If improvements are going to be made, local authorities will have to be more active. But funding is the key - they need money to do it. All too often, the government does not take into account the many benefits acting with consideration to the environment actually brings. For example, unemployment can be reduced or costs saved in the long run. There is not much joined-up thinking.'

Mr Ashley says that he will be talking to the government about getting extra money for councils. But a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs says there is no cash specifically available while maintaining councils are still 'fundamental players' in sustainable development.

However, help will be there. A conference has been organised by the LGIB for 17 October where summit delegates, possibly including a government minister, will give feedback to council officers and members.

Councils will also be helped by the Improvement & Development Agency's local sustainability team.

Ken Webster, head of the team, is emphatic: 'The influence councils have does not naturally leap off the page but their actions do have an impact across the world. Take procurement. Councils spend£60bn or so on goods and services and can, therefore, have a huge effect on the world by buying from certain suppliers. The opportunity is there - we now have to take it.'

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