I am slightly concerned that as I am the last in a long line of speech-makers before lunch, you will find the length of my speech to be thoroughly unsustainable. I was always brought up to believe that the average attention span of the human being is a maximum of 20 minutes, so I shall try and cram in the salient points I want to make in that space of time, which will probably leave you with five or 10 minutes at the end, in which you can drift off and think about the many other things which no doubt vie for your attention apart from sustainability indicators and a plethora of Round Table guidance notes! The other cause of concern I have is that of following two such distinguished figures as Jonathon Porritt and the Secretary of State for the Environment. I am sure you will find that each has successfully complemented the other!
The Earth Summit threw out a challenge to all Local Authorities to do their bit to help achieve sustainable development at the local level. In common with a number of initiatives which came from that conference, the challenge was absolutely straightforward, and many of you will know (I daresay off by heart by now!) the familiar quote that:
'By 1996, most local authorities in each country should have undertaken a consultative process with their populations and achieved a consensus on a Local Agenda 21 for the community'. (It trips off the tongue in the most deliciously simple way, doesn't it; but I suspect the reality is somewhat different!)
I must start by congratulating the Local Government Management Board on taking up the challenge with such vigour, on behalf of the local authority associations and the other sectors represented on the national steering group. Indeed, those who know about such things assure me that the United Kingdom leads the rest of Europe, and most of the world, on these issues. Similarly, at the national level, it is encouraging that this country was one of the first to produce a national strategy for sustainable development. So I am delighted that you are holding this conference today to take stock of the Local Agenda 21 process, and to look further ahead.
Local Agenda 21, of course, is the new agenda of sustainable development which seeks to integrate environmental, economic and social factors with a strong community consensus. It is succeeding in many parts of this country because, I suspect, it embodies many things that people - individual people - believe deep down in themselves. It is a planned, democratic process involving the whole community. It is about improving the quality of life for everyone - but within the constraints set by the natural environment. It sees local government as the steward of the local environment (with responsibilities not only for land use planning, management of open areas and environmental protection but also for local economic development and social issues). It integrates commitment to the local environment with local economic development and local social care. These are things which I have been trying to do, in a very small way but over a considerable number of years, through the work of my various Trusts and other organisations, so I do have some personal experience of what can be achieved - and the work of the eight splendid Project Officers of my Prince of Wales' Committe in Wales provides some particularly good examples.
If anyone asks me why else I place such emphasis on the local dimension (apart from the fact that I am speaking to an audience containing so many representatives of local government), there are two reasons. Firstly, because in an increasingly cosmopolitan world, with much talk of such things as the global village, the information super highway and the Internet, it is worth remembering that in this country two-thirds of the population still live within five miles of their place of birth. And, secondly, because applying policies - whether they are devised in Rio, Whitehall, Brussels or Geneva - at a local level is perhaps the ultimate test of whether or not they can actually be made to work.
One of the excellent publications produced by the UK Local Agenda 21 steering group is called 'Local Agenda 21: A Step-by-Step Guide' and, if you can bear it, I would now like to try and offer just a few thoughts on some of those steps.
The initial step, of course, is for a Local Authority to put its own house in order, including putting the necessary management systems in place. And I think we need to be clear that unless this can be done, you will find it very difficult to convince anyone else (let alone your preferred partners) to put their houses in order. Doing this takes time; it takes confidence, it needs your best people and it requires strong leadership. And you don't need me to remind you that you have had one or two other pressing issues to deal with in the last couple of years...! It is hardly surprising that in some areas the Local Agenda 21 process has been rather marginalised, not least in Wales where re-organisation can now be grasped as an opportunity to establish a strong environmental ethic in the new unitary authorities. It seems to me that Local Agenda 21 could possibly be a central element in re-building and making a fresh start in local government.
An Environmental Audit, or state of the environment report, must surely play an important part in the process of taking stock. One of the best examples is provided by Lancashire County Council and their many partners in the Lancashire Environmental Forum. I was presented with a copy of their Green Audit when I visited the Lancashire Wildlife Trust almost four years ago and it remains a model for others to follow. But audit without action achieves nothing, and the Lancastrians are now moving forward. Every measure in their Environmental Action Programme was hammered out by round-tables of local stakeholder groups and they are looking carefully at the indicators which will reveal progress towards a more sustainable future. More than 80 organisations have been involved in the Forum's work and I do wish them continued success.
Ladies and gentlemen, there can be no doubt that real progress towards the more sustainable future we all now seem to seek requires Local Authorities to integrate sustainable development criteria into all their policies and initiatives. But this is where life starts to get difficult! Sustainable development and real life must often seem a long way apart - particularly to the hard-pressed planner and road engineer, let alone to the Treasurer... I don't, I'm afraid, have an easy way of describing the importance of sustainable development to the short-sighted or the insular (and please don't think for a moment that I am accusing all planners, road engineers or Treasurers of being either of those things!), but I do believe that everyone in a position of responsible stewardship in local government should be making a serious attempt to take a genuinely long-term view of life and the available resources in their locality, and observing the precautionary principle. This will, however, require an unusual degree of willingness to put aside vested interests and to cross over cherished departmental boundaries...
If we are serious about seeking sustainable development, I believe we have to tackle the long-term agenda with a real awareness of the environmental constraints on our actions. In the past, the major constraints on our actions were technological, financial or intellectual. Now and in the future, if we are to behave responsibly towards future generations - leaving them the maximum number of options - I believe the constraints will increasingly be environmental.
It is difficult enough, I know, to take a convincing look even 10 to 15 years ahead. But, once again, if we are serious about seeking sustainable development, we must try and encompass a much longer timescale, and forget the kind of short-term assumptions which necessarily dominate our day-to-day thinking. Is it actually impossible to look 30 or 40 - or even 100 - years ahead? Of course it is difficult to predict demand accurately, but if the environmental capital of such things as minerals, water and wildlife habitats can be identified, assessed and measured then the demand can be managed. I know that in Peterborough, for instance, the Environment City Trust have attempted to define systematically their natural environmental capital and natural assets at the local level.
Part of the envrionmental capital which, I believe, we have a duty to protect for future generations is the fabric of the built environment in our villages, towns and cities. This fabric is precious and the quality of design both in refurbishment and new-build has therefore to be of the greatest integrity and highest quality. Two initiatives in this area seem to be worthy of praise. The Department of the Environment's 'Quality in Town and Country' initiative, launched in July last year, and the soon to be published 'Design Guide for Sustainable Settlements' - a joint publication by the LGMB and the University of the West of England - seem to complement each other admirably. At the local level, I was fascinated to see the Cottenham Village Design Statement produced with the encouragement of the Countryside Commission. It contains succinct, practical, comprehensive guidance which exemplifies the bottom-up approach and I hope it will succeed in its aim of influencing decisions over design and development in the village. I do recommend it to you.
It is, of course, easier for a Local Authority to design and implement policies based on sustainable development if they have the enthusiastic support of the general public. A two-way process of education and consultation is essential and can only enhance genuine local democracy but it sure isn't easy, as I am sure you know only too well! I was therefore delighted to see the strong emphasis that Sir Crispin Tickell and his Advisory Panel placed on enviornmental education and infrastructure in their first report to the Secretary of State. I have pointed out many times (and will keep on pointing out!) that any approach to today's problems of environment and development which does not have a strong element of community participation is virtually certain to fail. Local communities must be involved at the earliest stage, and as key partners. If this happens there is a chance that we might see rather less campaigning against the things people don't want and rather more pro-active campaigning for the things they do want. A move, in fact, from NIMBYism to IMBYism! In the past, all too often, national, regional, and even local bodies have tried to impose solutions on communities and have ended up by alienating the people they seek to serve, with fairly disastrous consequences.
But attitudes are changing and there are a number of organisations which do try to alter the balance of decisions away from the developer and planner and towards those who live and work in the local community. One example is the Vision 21 initiative in Gloucestershire. Another is the Urban Villages Forum. The Urban Villages Concept, with which I have to admit I am myself closely involved, is about making our cities more pleasant to live in and more environmentally responsible. It aims to create communities through the establishment of mixed uses to provide a self-sustaining balance of homes and employment with easy access on foot to local services and amenities, entertainment, shops and facilities for recreation. This process depends crucially on community consultation and I believe the recent 'Planning for Real' exercise organised by the Urban Villages Forum for West Silvertown, in London's Docklands, provides an example of the kind of community participation to which we could all aspire. Here, a community planning weekend, open to everyone with a current or future interest in the area - but above all the people who live, or want to live, there - concluded that the aim of establishing an Urban Village could be achieved - provided that the development process was consensus-led and promoted by a true partnership that included major landowners and the local community.
Partnership, of course, is hard work. It means handing over a measure of control and accepting compromises, but again there are some excellent examples of Local Authorities working with voluntary groups and businesses for the long-term benefit of local communities. Almost all businesses, and especially the smaller ones, still need to be better informed about environmental requirements and implications. When the VAT man is at the door, it is entirely understandable that the problems of our environment will drift out of the thoughts of a hard pressed manager! But recent requirements to reduce waste and pollution impose real and necessary obligations on all businesses. Local authorities can assist small businesses to become aware of these requirements and help them to respond through local Green Business Networks. In Bedfordshire, for example, such a network has gone from a very small beginning to a membership of 150 companies in a few months. The network was initiated by the County Council but it is the businesses that now run the network for their own benefit.
The UK Local Agenda 21 initiative steering group itself shows just what can be done in partnership - comprising, as it does, elected members and representatives of voluntary, development and environmental organisations, businesses, trade unions, women's groups, education and parish councils. Perhaps the most exciting work to emerge so far from this group is the 'Sustainability Indicators Research Project'. This project involved 10 local authorities working with their local communities to decide which issues were significant in achieving local sustainability and then going out and collecting data to see whether things were getting better or worse for each of the chosen indicators. It is already clear that the indicators are a most useful tool in the Local Agenda 21 process. Not only does the process show up areas of local deficiency where action should be targeted, but it helps to involve all sorts of people in the local community in the work of Local Agenda 21. I do believe that this process has much to recommend it and I hope all local authorities will give the idea serious consideration. I understand that the report of the pilot phase will be available shortly, and I shall look forward to reading that.
At this point, I would like to single out the role, or perhaps I should say potential role, in the Local Agenda 21 process, of Parish Councils (and Community Councils in Wales). Not only are such councils democratically elected, but they are the elected body closest to the everyday lives of individual people. Exercises such as 'parish profiling', in which people are literally invited on a door-to-door basis to contribute their thoughts and ideas, clearly have much to recommend them in a process which has as much to do with enthusiasm, inspiration and co-ordination as it has to do with executive functions. This is exemplified by the excellent work with parishes in Mendip which shows how a small rural district can be as effective in the essential bottom-up process of community involvement as larger counties and cities. It is all very well delivering 'blueprints for a sustainable future' but unless people - individual people - are encouraged to feel a sense of ownership in them, there is unlikely to be much forward movement. I therefore welcome the Local Agenda 21 steering group's proposal to produce guidance for Parish Councils.
But, of course, you do not live in a vacuum. You need to - indeed many of you already do - work with neighbouring authorities to ensure a coherent approach across a wide area. For example, I know that those of you who represent Authorities preparing Local Plans must already ensure that your approach is consistent with an agreed Structure Plan, and in turn must link your Local Plans creatively to neighbouring Plans. The list of things you are required to do seems utterly endless and must sometimes appear to be the quickest way to a nervous breakdown!
But what, I can hear you murmuring to yourselves, about the decisions which lie largely outside your influence, yet are vital in the pursuit of sustainable development? When you are presented with a level of housing provision or minerals extraction that apparently has to be accommodated in your area, or a major road scheme promoted by the Department of Transport, what are you supposed to do? This is not an idle question, as anyone who has been following the debate about minerals extraction in the South West or the concerns of local authorities around the M25 can tell you.
I do not underestimate the importance of these issues. Nor do I believe that solutions should elude us - though they may take some time to find. This search is integral to the ultimate success of the Local Agenda 21 process.
The Government has, of course, already embraced the concept of sustainable development in a variety of ways: not least through its support for Local Agenda 21 and by the major revisions to the planning legislation and guidance notes it has made since 1991. Declared policy objectives now include requirements to reduce the need to travel, to moderate demands in relation to an environmentally sustainable supply of resources, and to examine appropriate locations for new development by reference to sustainability criteria. But I believe that the logical next step has to be to look carefully at the land-hungry and too often environmentally damaging activities of large-scale housing, development, road construction and mineral extraction.
Planning policy has, of course, to attempt to reconcile national and local interests, and the latter cannot always take priority, but the present 'top-down' method by which demand is deemed to be immutable and local authorities are told - usually via Regional Planning Guidance - how much development they have to accommodate does not appear to be very sustainable. I do sympathise with those who wish to challenge such assumptions by reference to the capacity of the environment to absorb major developments of this kind, and to propose alternatives which either meet society's needs in a different way or accept the legitimacy of environmental constraints on development.
I know, for instance, that at least one County Council is in the middle of a major debate on the level of its housing allocation at this very moment, and it would obviously be quite improper for me to come down on one side or the other. But let me say unequivocally that the process of debate - however painful - is an important one, and I hope it will be replicated elsewhere. Unless local authorities feel confident and free to challenge supposed 'conventional' wisdom when they believe that to follow it would breach sustainability criteria, we will never get off the starting blocks in this vitally important task.
Ladie and gentlemen, I said at the beginning of this rather lengthy talk that the UK leads Europe, and most of the world, in putting the Local Agenda 21 process into action. Some local authorities are doing outstandingly good work, and I shall be making a point of going to see some of the best examples in the latter part of this year and during 1996. But progress around the country is still patchy and I would like to encourage those who are just starting out on the process to learn from those who are already setting an example. At the moment, I think you will agree that there are still rather too many local authorities where the Chief Executives and a considerable number of elected members are sitting back and thinking that Local Agenda 21 has nothing to offer except problems. In other authorities, a PR-driven programme is serving as a substitute for the kind of substantive programme which the best authorities are already delivering - and for which there is widespread public support.
Equally, I would urge those who are making real progress not to be too modest about their achievements. On the contrary, I hope they might be generous with their time and resources in showing others what they have achieved. Indeed, I would have thought it might be worth looking for a way of recording and disseminating such good work as widely as possible and, conceivably, I may be able to help with this in some way or other.
Much of the credit for the progress achieved so far must go to the Local Government Management Board, the local authority associations, and other members of the Local Agenda 21 steering group. I do congratulate them most warmly on their achievements and hope they will redouble their efforts in the cause of encouraging local government to put sustainable development into practice, for the benefit of local communities, all over the country."