Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

The Roots of Sustainable Development

By next year each local authority must have prepared its own Agenda 21 - the great universal DIY fix-it manual for the global woes of poverty and environmental pillage. With this impending deadline, the local Agenda 21 bandwagon is beginning to rumble into life. And on the face of it, an exciting, shiny, bandwagon it appears to be. Andy Johnson investigates.

Squall 10, Summer 1995, pp. 16-17.

Agenda 21 is the document Britain put its name to, along with many other countries, at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. For a full brief of what it says see SQUALL 9, or read it. Briefly, however, at its core is an instruction to every local authority to come up with a plan, a local Agenda 21 (LA21), to alleviate poverty in ways that do not harm the environment.

The weighty tome that is Agenda 21 comes down to two words - Sustainable Development. This notion is important. So important, in fact, that emphasis through repetition is not out of place. The core notion of Agenda 21 is the alleviation of poverty (development) in ways that do not harm the environment (sustainability).

Anyone who has entered a ramshackle disused building and made it habitable from salvaged supplies will be at home with this principle. As will anybody who has taken to the road and adopted a lifestyle with little ecological impact. Many groups believe that Agenda 21 will provide a source of funding for their community projects. Agenda 21 is not going to be like that.

The document stresses that community groups - businesses, trade unions, pressure groups and ordinary folk - should come together to discuss what their area needs. As the elected representatives of each community, the local authority should take the lead in this process. And from extensive consultation with the community they should draw up an extensive action plan; a local Agenda 21. Many local authorities have taken such a lead, with areas such as Cardiff streaking ahead.

Others have shown little interest and have been elbowed into the process by a few concerned council civil servants or local pressure groups.

The latest figures available for local authority activity were released in March and stem from a survey by the Local Government Management Board. Of the 541 councils in the country only 303 responded to the survey. Although it is important to bear in mind that Scotland are lagging someway behind because of the recent shake up of local authority boundaries. Seventy one per cent of the respondents said they were committed to the LA21 process. Of those, 80 per cent had delegated the extra duties to existing staff. Only ten per cent had appointed a new staff member. It is not clear what happened to the other ten per cent.

Agenda 21 says that local authorities should “enter into dialogue with its citizens” to learn what needs to be done. This “consultation” is currently the main area of activity. A typical starting point is like that carried out by Islington, north London, in mid-May. An all day conference was organised, on the initiative of the local Friends of the Earth group, with the bill picked up by Islington Council. Among those present were local people, the local Friends of the Earth group and other such environmental organisations, neighbourhood associations, Islington’s two MPs, local councillors, the local chamber of commerce, and volunteer groups. A list of topics for discussion was handed out at the beginning of the day and each person chose two they wished to discuss. People were then put into their specialist workshops and spent the morning discussing one topic and the afternoon the other.

With the exception of LETS, the topics focused mainly on environmental issues; waste management, recycling, traffic and pollution. A list of those bodies present reveals them to be, in the words of one attender, “all white and middle class”.

This picture is repeated across the country. But it is not so negative as it might appear. There is recognition that, for various socio-economic reasons, the poor and non-white sectors of the community are not being included. It is something referred to as “the same old faces” syndrome. But, as there is recognition, there are attempts to include everybody. How to do this, for example, was discussed at Islington.

Chris Church is quite an expert on Agenda 21. He is its co-ordinator for the United Nations Association Sustainable Communities Project. “The first thing about all consultation is that in the beginning it is awesomely slow,” he says. “This is because you have to move at the pace of the most wary. People feel a lot of alienation, through poverty and lack of equity. Where people are coming together some very interesting issues are emerging and there is scope for real community action. Not just changing what we’re doing, but how we’re doing it. But if people don’t start talking to each other that won’t happen.”

The emphasis at the moment is very strongly on “consultation”. But this process involves bringing together groups who know little of each other - if indeed they knew of each other at all - and breaking down barriers between them. It is a local community action plan which has to involve the entire community.

Peter McDonald has recently been appointed by Croydon to be their Community Officer for LA21.

“It’s about brain-storming to come up with concrete proposals,” he says. “At the moment it’s in the active consultation stage. As to what happens, that depends on the feedback we get.”

Jan McHarry works with Chris Church at the United Nations Association. “It’s groups coming together who haven’t met before and finding out they have a lot in common,” she says. “It’s forging partnerships. Where the council want the council to set up something specific, that’s the next stage. Plans are being made.”

It appears that at the moment LA21 has little to offer in the way of tangible effect. But there is, possibly, a point to the consultation as John Headstrong, a seasoned squatter and someone interested in the possibilities of Agenda 21, attests.

John went along to a conference organised by the UNA on environmental development last December. It followed a similar workshop pattern to that carried out in Islington. He joined the homelessness workshop. “They were talking about getting more money from central government and I butted in saying: ‘You’re going way off on a tangent. The solution is that in this country there are empty buildings and things get thrown away all the time.’ I gave them an example of a house with no floorboards, no pipes and no water which, two weeks later, not only had floorboards, pipes and water but double glazing all round.” John also says that at the conference he met many local councillors, not normally friendly to squatters. But they were there as individuals, as was John who nevertheless described himself as a squatter and broke down some barriers.

Although there appears to be an overemphasis on the environmental side of Agenda 21, and a lack of focus on the alleviation of poverty, Chris Church is optimistic this will change. “We know the answers on transport and waste management,” he says. “What we are lacking is the political will. But how do we get out of the ‘green ghetto’? There are councils in Gloucestershire and Leicestershire who are addressing the issues of poverty. But what is important is that poverty is a state of exclusion. So it’s not just a matter of tackling poverty, but tackling exclusion.

“I worked in the anti-poverty unit in Newham last year,” he continues. “There you had families moving one light bulb from one room to another. What strategies do you adopt to talk to them about global warming? You don’t. You have to look at their needs first.”

Chris points out that Agenda 21 is not a “fix it” nor a “magic wand” but that, through the process of widespread consultation and barrier-breaking, these issues can begin to be addressed.

An obvious example of how it can be addressed under Agenda 21 is LETS. Another is Track 2,000; a Cardiff based recycling scheme that moves beyond paper and bottles. Track 2,000 was set up by two local individuals and proved so successful that Cardiff City council took it up. Instead of filling landfill sites with household goods such as furniture, heaters and fridges they are collected by the council and, if repairable, taken to a depot. Here they are repaired by unemployed people who also pick up useful skills. Then, if anybody on the dole or someone who has recently acquired an unfurnished house needs something they go to the depot to see what’s available. This is a scheme that has Agenda 21 written all over it. The irony is that it was set up before Agenda 21 was an intelligible concept in a bureaucrat’s mind; 1991.

Brett Willers is Cardiff’s Environmental Strategy Officer, who now oversees Agenda 21. He says that Cardiff’s Agenda 21 process really started in 1991 because the council is environmentally inclined anyway. Their strategy was built up after 40 meetings with local residents and one almighty conference.

“I was appointed four years ago,” he says. “And I recently saw that Derbyshire have only just advertised a post similar to mine.” This is why Cardiff are way ahead of the field. But there are internal fears over what will happen once the boundary commission reorganises Wales because the effectiveness of a strategy depends on those running the town hall.

Ian Brown is an elected Cardiff City councillor and deputy chair of the city’s environmental services committee. He is more sceptical about the effect Agenda 21 will have. “There’s a fairly healthy bullshit factor between what we are doing practically and Agenda 21,” he says. “It’s passed me by because it’s things we do anyway.”

In other words, what’s happening in Cardiff would have happened with or without Agenda 21. Ian cynically believes that by next year a lot of consultants will have been paid and the authorities who were going to do things anyway will get on with them, and those that weren’t, won’t.

Chris Church says that four different things will come out of local Agenda 21s. Firstly will be the vision thing; the document each authority produces outlining the direction it intends to take. The second will be a method of measuring exactly how sustainable communities are. This is followed by practical projects, such as local people turning a piece of wasteland into a nature park. The final point is that this will create empowered communities unafraid to do things for themselves. “It’s creating a culture where councils understand more about what people want to do and see their role as enabling them to do it, or staying out of the way,” he says.

“There is no pot of money,” he continues by way of warning. “Councils are already cash-strapped. They have to accept that they are no longer in control; local businesses have to accept that they are not the only people who can talk about the economy; voluntary groups have to accept that they are not the only one’s wearing haloes.... No-one on the planet has yet come up with a Local Agenda 21. I don’t guarantee it, but what I do know is a lot of existing things aren’t working.”

Blah or brilliance? On the surface, breaking down barriers and uniting communities in the cause of common good can only seem exciting and, from that angle, Agenda 21 does have enormous potential. But to achieve that potential depends on those involved in the decision-making process. That, in turn, depends on the community. So perhaps those members of the community with the greatest practical knowledge on combating poverty in a sustainable way are necessary to push the community out of its “green ghetto.”

Related Articles

Local Agendas - how protesters, squatters and travellers can work with it - by Anna Makismow - Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995
What Is Agenda 21? - what is this buzzword sweeping through grassroots organisations? by Andy Johnson - Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995
Populating The International Promise - Will the Government act on its Agenda 21 commitments? By Jim Carey, Squall 10, Summer 1995.