Features: April 2nd, 2004

Seeing the Bigger Picture: Delivering Local Sustainable Development

By Fay Blair and Bob Evans

The authors offer an uncompromising critique of how local services are currently delivered. They also warn of the serious downsides if the imminent reforms to local government don’t make clear that any new public service organisation must fulfil its basic obligation to protect and enhance quality of life for communities. Responses to the authors findings are also set out below.

The Power of Well-being introduced in the Local Government Act 2000 offers radical scope for innovation to help deliver community strategy objectives, but to date it has been rarely used. A profound shift in council decision-making and delivery cultures is needed to make the most of this and new models of public service delivery – such as social enterprise and Community Interest Companies – which can be geared to deliver sustainable development.

For sustainability to be mainstreamed, the frameworks of corporate management, the processes and use of specific tools (performance targets and indicators), audit, review and inspection procedures all need to be appropriately aligned and geared to a common sustainability set of criteria. This is not currently the case. Ways forward could be framed by developing a concept of ‘Principled Localism’ as a new sustainability code for governance, which might include:

• reaffirming and creating ownership of the government’s established set of principles and approaches to sustainable development among all central government departments, agencies, local government and regional bodies throughout the public sector

• establishing an obligation to mainstream and promote sustainable development principles and approaches on all the public sector

• ensuring that Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) embraces an obligation to advance sustainable development – but which encourages local authorities, through corporate self-assessments, to create their own vision and innovation

• building a suite of measures for sustainable development to enable both coherence and diversity at local or even neighbourhood level – through the performance indicators, Best Value, strategic planning and delivery procedures

• requiring that all public sector procurement meets standards of sound environmental stewardship – demonstrating a lighter ‘ecological footprint’ and increased community and social benefit

• incentivising innovation that applies sustainable development as a driver in the public sector by co-ordinating existing, and fostering new learning networks of partnerships focused on community strategies and associated activities – but which embraces greater involvement from the community, voluntary and research sectors setting standards for the development and takeup of awareness raising, development and training programmes that incorporate sustainable development principles and approaches – for all those charged with the delivery of public service and services.

There is opportunity and scope for taking sustainable development forward within local governance. There are pockets of good practice, innovation and leadership, all of which could be better tuned to that common purpose, a better quality of life for all. This will need leadership, empathy and encouragement, and co-ordination in delivery, as well as a degree of enforcement from central government. There is a general lack of understanding as to what sustainable development means. While there is a set of government-affirmed principles and approaches to sustainable development, awareness and ownership of these across departments, agencies and beyond are low. As a consequence, most people inside and outside government and the public generally find it daunting and confusing.

Curbing unsustainable economic trends and consumption poses a huge challenge. Local authorities can play their part with their community leadership role. Fulfilling the public’s expectation that they should lead by example will require greater political commitment, clarity and coherence from central government. There is a clear case for a statutory obligation on councils to demonstrate the mainstreaming and advancement of sustainable development in all that they do.

A lack of political will at all levels, combined with a focus on the short term, tends to inhibit government and business from taking tough decisions to secure the long-term public interest in sustainable development. Investing funds towards uncertain but necessary long-term change is not easily secured. This is partly driven by the fear of becoming unpopular and losing favour with the electorate. But it is also because combined commitment between partners for consistent delivery of sustainable development is lacking and there is a general distraction caused by a plethora of fresh central government initiatives.

Bringing about institutional and personal behaviour change for sustainable development means empowering and nurturing champions at all levels, in government and in the wider community. Local government has a special democratic mandate of community leadership, to procure goods and services to meet sustainable development objectives, and to secure the well-being of its communities. This increasingly requires influencing, networking and guiding the work of strategic partnerships. However, genuine partnership working for sustainability appears to be poorly understood and practised. Greater collaborative styles of working within and between organisations and participatory planning approaches with the community are crucial for making progress towards sustainable development. Ultimately, the public expects that government and the public sector generally should make efforts to get their own house in order with regard to demonstrating environmentally responsible behaviour and to lead by example.

The full report is available at http://www.jrf.org.uk

The following responses have been made to the report which was commissioned and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Sustainable Development Commission.

Ken Webster on behalf of the IDeA and LGA said:

Although the ‘Bigger Picture’ of sustainable development goes beyond local government, this presentation is primarily coming from a local government perspective.

In its own right the report, “Seeing the Bigger Picture” is important, not least because it provides a map of the many policies and programmes that have impacted one way or another on the sustainability agenda before, but especially since 2000.

It also contributes to our collective understanding of future focus and priorities. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Sustainable Development Commission should be congratulated for supporting this work.

The review of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy is about to begin and provides us with an opportunity to influence the UK sustainability agenda for the period up to the next Earth Summit in 2012 (assuming there is one). It is up to all of us to ensure by contributing to it, that the review not only sets out content priorities, but more importantly provides a framework for the interrelationships between central to regional to local governance.

The key words in this presentation are: framework, brand, and golden thread. My focus boils down to ‘consistency’ and ‘continuity’; between different levels of governance, and between corporate priorities and service delivery within local authorities. I am emphasising the opportunity provided by the review of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy for increasing consistency and continuity as levers for sustainable development.

Whilst ‘Seeing the Bigger Picture’ helps us ‘see’ the bigger picture, the reviewed UK SD Strategy must be about ‘delivering’ the bigger picture. There is a strong link between the two.

The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives said:

SOLACE welcomes the publication of this report and agrees with many of its key messages.

Local government spends £40 billion on goods, works and services and it must use those resources in ways which are more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable than at present. We agree with the report that current levels of consumption are unsustainable in the long term and that local government must do much more to reduce its ecological footprint. We believe that through its actions in education, procurement, housing, waste, planning, regeneration and elsewhere, local authorities have a huge opportunity to contribute to this agenda.

The recognition of local leadership as a necessary condition for delivering local sustainable development is also welcome. Local managerial and political leadership must be able to create the conditions for an organisation to be able to pursue innovative solutions. Furthermore, as Community Leaders – through Local Strategic Partnerships – local authorities must lead by example and build capacity among their communities to engage in these debates. By working with others local authorities have the opportunity to make real, positive changes to individual and institutional behaviour.

Central government’s contribution must also improve. We agree with the report that government departments fail to convey clear and consistent messages and that they need to do more to align their performance and funding regimes. Too often government red tape stifles the flexibility that local government needs to join up services locally and achieve necessary change.

However, by working with government and others, local authorities have a responsibility and an opportunity to lead change and to make a real difference.

Ted Cantle on behalf of the Improvement and Development agency said:

The IDeA welcomes the report, which is timely, and provides a good overview of where we have all to got to on this issue. It will help us to open up discussion and, hopefully, to focus on the actions now required.

The local government community must reflect on the points made – there are some fairly critical comments, as well as some indications of innovative work and examples of best practice. The work – and the role – of the IDeA will also need to be reconsidered in the light of this Report and we will be discussing it with colleagues and will make a more considered response in due course.

Similarly, we will need to consult on the various recommendations and consider their the resource implications and potential impact

We wish to express some disappointment that much of the Report is focused on inspecting, auditing and production of more plans – processes rather than outcomes. Local Authorities feel overwhelmed by inspection and the requirement for plans. They may also feel disempowered by such an approach and by the prospect of yet more statutory duties being placed upon them. More needs to be done to help local authorities and their partners to get to grips with the work now required. This also implies a real partnership between central and local government so the priorities are clear and backed up by the necessary resources.

With this in mind, there needs to be a stronger focus on the key deliverables and a focus on agreed targets.. Priorities need to be established from a potentially overwhelming agenda. These need to be agreed between central and local government and set within a national resource framework.

This leads on to the proposed concept of ‘principled localism’ and we wish to question whether it will be a suitable and sufficient driver for change. The idea of ‘new localism’ is not embedded in local government and is not yet universally accepted. It would be unfortunate if the idea of ‘principled localism’ gets caught up in this wider debate. In any event, the focus on the local agenda may be difficult to sustain. This is not just a matter for local authorities and local communities to resolve – indeed, many would say that these major national and global matters can only be properly addressed within a clear national framework. New powers, regulations and fiscal changes will almost certainly be required to effect change on the scale now demanded and many of these will not be in the competence of local government. Yet the role of national government is not clearly established in the Report.

We would also wish to express some concern that there is relatively little about economic and social aspects of sustainability. For example, the interface with the regional economic agenda, driven by the RDAs and the question of affordable housing and balanced communities is barely mentioned.

We would, nevertheless, welcome the opportunity to take all of the matters forward and are grateful for the opportunity to debate the issues raised in the Report and to re-focus our activities.

The Sustainable Development Practitioners said:

The Sustainability Practitioners Network welcomes the publication of this Report, to which it contributed during the research stage.

In particular the Network welcomes the thorough cross-cutting and in-depth review of current practice, and is pleased that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Sustainable Development Commission and Northumbria University have collaborated to produce this Report

The Network considers the Report demonstrates the need:

· for greater leadership by local authorities on this issue.

We consider the need for local government to take a long-term view is as strong now, as it was in the 1990s when local government led the way in implementing Local Agenda 21. Councils remain stewards of their area, which they hold in trust in trust for future generations. It is reasonable for the average person who has a full life to lead to expect their Council to think about the long-term risks and opportunities for the locality, m, as well as providing for their immediate needs

· to complement the research with detailed case studies

A useful example is the recent research on the proposals for sustainable development in London Community Strategies and Local Strategic Partnerships by London Sustainability Exchange and others (see note 2)

· to actively promote sustainable development in other Council services

Key opportunities include procurement, the requirements for new style plans in the reformed planning system, and the development of sustainable communities.

The Environmental Law Foundation said:

The Foundation provides legal advice to communities facing a threat to their environment. Through its network of expert lawyers and consultants it provides guidance and support to those in need. ELF has been involved in some of the key environmental test cases in recent years. Since its launch in 1992 ELF has referred nearly 2,000 cases to its members and handled 10,000s of inquiries from communities and individuals. It is estimated that this work has resulted in over £1/2 million worth of free advice and assistance in environmental matters.

ELF’s experience supports the conclusions in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report: ‘Seeing the Bigger Picture’. In particular, that there is a lack of understanding of sustainable development and that ownership of the principle is low across local authority departments. It is hard now to justify this position. An integrated approach sustainable development has been advocated for over a decade. It was reinforced by the introduction of the powers of well being in the Local Government Act 2000.

Over 60% of ELF cases relate to decisions taken by local authorities. There is no indication among these that sustainable development is being embraced by the authorities. In fact, the opposite may be more accurate. Sustainable development involves taking tough decisions and there has never been a more urgent time to act; ELF is experiencing a significant year on year increase in the numbers of environmental inquiries being referred to its members. Moreover, ELF’s experience is that the notion of integrating social, economic and environmental well-being is not materialising; with 65% of all people using ELF’s referral service having annual incomes of less than £15,000; well below the national average income of £25,000. This implies that it is the least well-off in our society that most need effective implementation of policies based upon sustainable development. Further, ELF’s experience has found support in a recent Environment Agency study concluding that people living in deprived neighbourhoods are most likely to suffer from the effects of pollution.

If there are to be serious efforts to improve the quality of life for all, then sustainable development, as a robust concept, must be central to local government operations and activities. It is right that local government should be at the forefront of community well being. Local government has the power – it should use it.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health said:

The CIEH is very pleased to be able to provide support to the project team through the production of this report and in its publication in the use of our facilities here today for the reports launch. This is a hugely important report, it provides the ideal opportunity, for all those involved in driving the Sustainability Agenda forward to draw breath, examine what we are doing, and where we are going. The project team of Tim O’Riordan, Ken Webster, Jane Morris and particularly Fay Blair and Bob Evans, as the authors of the report, are to be congratulated in their consultative approach in its production and the results they have achieved.

I know this report will be influential, being published at a time when the Government is reviewing its strategies in this area and with the imminent publication of the Egan Report on Sustainable Communities next month.

Clearly, we all welcome the report as it adds to all of our deliberations in this area and quite rightly the report focuses in on the principal players of Central and Local Government as those who will make a real difference to achieving sustainable development both now and in the future. The Chartered Institute produced a report earlier this year on Local Government Capacity to Deliver Sustainable Development, its conclusions and those of this report are mutually supportive and it will come as no surprise that we are enthusiastic advocates of the principle of principled localism, as articulated in the report as a means of centralising policy direction in this area. So too, are we enthusiastic advocates of the use of the wellbeing power and direction from Central Government to Local Government. I respect the position of Local Government in the need to reduce burdens on its over burdened agenda, however, there must be central direction and Sustainable Development which is not well understood and is key to the survival of society and the improvement of health and wellbeing and must be successfully mainstreamed amidst all the other pressures and tasks that Local Government is required to address.

I support the view of the Local Government Association and IDA in desiring a reduction of the tick box approach to Local Government management and principled localism provides a way forward in not only reducing burdens, but providing the necessary direction that we all need. As I have said, I understand, but am disappointed with the initial view of the IDA as expressed today by Ted Cantle, this is an important issue amongst the many important issues facing Local Government at this time and I offer the support of the Chartered Institute in helping them to address this issue further and particularly in addressing the thorny issue of the imposition of statutory powers and duties, which has in the words of the many people who have contributed to our work in this area, helped to focus politicians minds on what is required to be delivered.

Government too, I trust, will examine this report and its findings in depth. The next meeting of the Government’s Ministerial Task Group on the Review of its Sustainable Development Strategy chaired by the Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett is in May and as a member of that Ministerial Task Group I would hope to see a positive response to the issues raised in this report at our next meeting. The review process will be completed in time for 2005 and so this report is extremely timely in terms of influencing Government’s thinking in this area.

There are four bullet points on page 53 of this report which will drive our actions in this essential area of public policy;

· Clarity, coherence and consistency – across all areas of Governance

· Persistence and patience – but also determination

· Long term financing and stability of funding streams – which will give the confidence of those in the field to build the necessary partnerships required to address wellbeing. · Education, civic engagement and empowerment – particularly amongst those who drive Local Government policies, elected members and senior government officers. Above all leadership by example, and I am looking to Government and to the LGA to provide leadership by example in these areas and show us all what can be achieved and will be achieved for the benefit of the people of this country, and also to provide exemplars of Governance which can be adopted in other countries of the world.

The WWF said:

We really welcome the challenging but constructive report as it matches much of what we have learned over the past 12 years, here in the UK and abroad, about what makes sustainable development work.

We are all still learning and it is important we build on that learning. We welcome the capacity building, case studies and linking across. Government needs to understand the lessons learned and integrate into its new sustainable development strategy.

Sustainable development has to be aggregated. We have been advocating environmental footprinting for some time. This is a tool that will show if sustainable development is working. It will be available at all levels – for Local Authorities and regional bodies.

Oswald A. Dodds, MBE, on behalf of the Public Services Network and Network for Local Government said:

I welcome the report as a useful and timely examination of sustainable development (SD) and the potential and actual contributions by local government and its partners to its advancement.

I believe that central and local government and their partners have to raise their game to improve the understanding of SD both within the public sector (politicians and those working for or in the sector) and by the public at large so they see the issue and respond to it as a priority. These actions must be co-ordinated and consistent if they are to be successful.

In addition to understanding, extra capacity must be developed so that a fully joined up approach results that can maximise the opportunities to improve local economies, achieve social progress, minimise the use of natural resources and protect the environment. We need to consider radical options and accept that it is a longer term and difficult issue to tackle, impacting as it does on individual and organisational thinking and behaviour. We need to add sustainability thinking into all of our decision making processes, especially those involving procurement decisions – whether for goods and services and regardless of our procurement plans and options. This should include adding SD criteria into requirements and into evaluation/award frameworks. We need to find a way to balance economy, efficiency and effectiveness with local needs, priorities and economies and the report suggests several ways to achieve this. This will require joint activity with Government, the devolved administrations and organisations such as the Audit Commission (and its equivalents) and should result in some consensus based sustainability tools to help the sector.

The report should result in a joint review of current SD practices against its key conclusions and recommendations.

To neglect or ignore the challenges posed by the report is not, in my view, an option and I commend the report and its authors for raising such an important issue in this way.

The members of the PSnet and 4LG have, through meetings, already discussed some of the issues found in the report and I am sure will do so again in the future.

The report deserves to be widely distributed and well read and must be followed by concerted action – and I hope that the launch activity is the start of such a process.