HC Deb 03 June 1998 vol 313 cc476-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

11.11 pm
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am delighted to be able to debate the topic of Local Agenda 21. It is ironic but pleasing that it is sandwiched between yesterday's debate on electoral reform and tomorrow's debate on the modernisation of the House. Local Agenda 21 and its constituent parts shows what is happening in the wider political field. It shows that there is much democratic engagement outside this place, and we must recognise that and view it as an opportunity and not as a threat.

Many hon. Members will know about Local Agenda 21, but it is important to discuss it and to speak about my experiences in my constituency and in Gloucestershire. The Government have already picked up the ball on the agenda and if in some small way I can help the process along, I am willing to do so. It is not for me to pre-empt what the Minister will say, but "Opportunities for Change", the Government's consultation document on sustainable development and sustainable local communities for the 21st century on why and how to prepare an effective Local Agenda 21 strategy, is an important statement. The Government have shown how the debate can be advanced.

What is Local Agenda 21 and its true meaning? It derives from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the so-called Earth summit, which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. At the conference, 179 countries, including, of course, the United Kingdom, signed up to an agenda for change in the 21st century, known as Agenda 21. Local Agenda 21 reflects the important part that was played by local government and local democracy at that conference, and important requirements were placed upon them to produce the necessary local change. That was not an imposition, but rather an evolution of what was happening and what could be achieved. The key element is the drive towards sustainable development that is most attainable locally.

As has been said: Many of the problems and solutions being addressed by Agenda 21 have their roots in local activities … 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'. Through consultation and consensus-building, Local Authorities would learn from citizens and from local, civic, community, business and industrial organisations and acquire the information needed for formulating the best strategies. The process of consultation would increase household awareness of sustainable development issues. Local Authority programmes, policies, laws and regulations to achieve Agenda 21 objectives would be assessed and modified, based on local programmes adopted. My experience relates to Vision 21 in Gloucestershire, which is how we refer to Local Agenda 21 there. Local Agenda 21 was welcomed in my county. Since 1993, an enthusiastic group of individuals have gradually moulded into a successful team, and have steered the local agenda process with a remarkable amount of achievement. It was originally parented by the Rendezvous Society, and, for that, all of us who have been involved in the process owe it an enormous debt of gratitude.

Vision 21 is now held up as a model of what is possible, and I know that other local agenda teams have drawn heavily on its experiences. If, as the Government suggest, there is much to be learned by the spread of good practice, there appears to be no better place to use as an exemplar.

As part of Vision 21, many thousands of different individuals have come together to engage in this most worthwhile of pursuits—to plan our future society on the basis of a sustainable development approach. Many of those individuals may have attended only one event, such as a conference or campaign activity. However, their contribution has always been welcomed and valued.

As always, while some of our involvement has been minimal, others have worked relentlessly to make Vision 21 the success that it has become. It is never possible to mention many by name, but I should like to make special mention of Lindsay Colbourne, Julia Bennett, Alison Parfitt, Conrad Young, David Christmas, Sue Porter, Diana Ray and Richard Keating, who have done so much to drive Vision 21 along. If I have left out others who should be mentioned, I apologise, but I feel that at least some should be recalled by name, such has been their contribution to democracy in all its form, particularly from Gloucestershire's perspective.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the whole exercise has been the way in which people from across the political divide have combined for the benefit of their constituents—likewise, the manner in which professionals have worked with amateurs, activists from particular pressure groups have combined with generalists from the political class, and the fact that age, class, gender, physical or mental capacity or ethnic origin has been no barrier to participation.

Much has depended on the willing involvement of local government officers, who have given so generously of their time, much of it voluntarily. I pay my respects to my local authority, Stroud district council, and to Gloucestershire county council, which have had a lot to do with the success of Vision 21. All in all, that has shown how it is possible to build consensual relationships, and, if managed properly, how powerful they can become.

Enough of the plaudits. What did Vision 21 set out to achieve, and how can its outcomes be measured? To start with, six big issues were identified as the key challenges facing the county: first, to enhance the physical environment, biodiversity and natural resources; secondly, to introduce new value systems that reflect the importance of the quality of life and environment, rather than simply monetary considerations; thirdly, to embrace the new economy and new ways of working that value the formal and informal sectors; fourthly, to adopt new decision-making processes and structures that promote power sharing, co-operation, local participation, empowerment, democracy and an holistic long-term approach; fifthly, to increase awareness of sustainability and improve access to the quality, scope and aims of education, information, communication and monitoring; lastly, to bring about widespread behavioural and attitudinal change.

The means of meeting those challenges were set out via a series of major conferences, campaigns, local consultations and events. The on-going work was carried out through eight working groups, which covered the following sectors: natural resources and countryside; the built environment; energy, transport, waste and pollution; health and social issues; the economy and education; community and involvement.

The working group agenda followed three different stages. First, where are we now? Secondly, where do we want to be? Thirdly, how do we get there? While the context was essentially local and regional, national and global contexts were always referred to where appropriate.

Several underlying themes arose through the work of each group: the importance of rural dimensions; the need for vision; changes in employment and livelihood; critical environmental balance; the dislocation of supply and demand for natural supplies and the increasing role that conservation would play; and how important community values would be for solving problems.

What has been accomplished? In terms of measurable outcomes, the very fact that Vision 21 has continued to grow and evolve five years on speaks volumes. The true value will be seen with regard to how it is assimilated into structure and local plans, new modes of activity affecting the arts, recreation and people's quality of life, ensuring that future generations are active citizens, and raising the general level of awareness through communication of ideas and educational advancement. Most of these will take many years to come to fruition, but many of us in Gloucestershire feel that a valuable new beginning has been made.

Major stepping stones were laid, which could be seen from a series of publications. "Sustainable Gloucestershire—a general handbook"—which gives an overview of what has happened—and "Sustainable Gloucestershire—an agenda for urgent action for local government" are two worthy of mention, but there are others. The regular editions of "21 Today" newsletters are worth emphasising. Wider communication with both the general public and specialist constituencies has been a crucial element and aim throughout Vision 21's deliberations.

Additionally, a major conference was held on "Accommodating Gloucestershire" which took the housing debate forward and allowed for a perceptive discussion on how much, where and what type of housing should be provided for the county. I have had recourse to this in am earlier Adjournment debate. Other conferences are planned for transport and the local economy. Vision 21 has also launched many practical projects. Three taken at random are a sustainable parish regeneration project, a sustainable energy centre and a rickshaw taxi service—we have everything in Gloucestershire.

Finally, the programme has spawned some community initiatives, including the community planning conference in my town of Stroud. This involved a massive investment of people's time and effort, spread over both weekday evenings and weekends. Its remit was to look to replan the town of Stroud and its immediate environs with practical ideas such as providing a new cinema, regenerating the town centre, setting up the community health forum and greening up the urban area.

As someone who witnessed this at first hand, I can say that the quality and input given on a voluntary basis by many hundreds of individuals gave me hope for what could be accomplished by such an exercise. It is linked, where appropriate, with other community initiatives, especially a credit union, a local exchange trading scheme and incipient co-operatives. This groundwork provided the basis for part of a succesful bid for single regeneration budget funds, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions was able to announce on her recent visit to Stroud.

By looking elsewhere, we can put all this into context. I was pleased to receive a letter today from the corporation of London, which asked me to mention some of the excellent things that it has been involved with. I know that it is one of many authorities which have taken this on board seriously.

I am indebted to the Local Government Management Board—which regularly investigates and evaluates the progress of Local Agenda 21—for the information it has sent. The LGMB has shown that, despite the difficulty in collating the information, there is a great deal going on across the country—much of which we can be inspired by. As it said in its executive summary: Significantly, there is evidence that Local Agenda 21 is staring to play a role in enhancing local democracy and ensuring community involvement in local decision-making processes. It goes on to talk about local government using Local Agenda 21 as a vehicle for change in community participation, and new democratic structures arising accordingly. The LGMB shows how far local government has gone in terms of eco-management and audit schemes, and how much environmental awareness has been assimilated into this activity.

The LGMB is very explicit in identifying the many pluses—with some minuses—in terms of how it sees Local Agenda 21 performing so far. It also points out many lessons that can be learned and measures that can be introduced to help the process on its way. I am sure that the Government will take close notice of this, and act accordingly.

From my perspective, what has been the Government's response to the process? As I said, they have produced a number of important documents that are well worth highlighting. Vital to the process is the fact that Labour is willing to place sustainable development at the centre of what it is trying to do—whether in production and consumption, in building communities or in managing the environment and resources—by adopting radical new means of engaging in democratic structures, and by working in partnership with a range of different stakeholders.

Pleasingly, the Government have set 2000 as the target date for all local authorities to sign up to Local Agenda 21. In itself, that is an important move. They have placed clear obligations on all local authorities, prescribing action checklists and providing help in evolving strategies that move from the theoretical to the very practical. They have also signalled their willingness not only to listen but to act, and to use a range of tools, such as introduction of best value, to effect necessary change. Similarly, they will provide the nexus of new policy initiatives in transport, housing and social policy.

There are some criticisms of Local Agenda 21 that the Government will have to take on board. Some of the process, for example, seems to be rather introverted, and can occasionally be described as a talking shop. Nevertheless, if the process is allowed to follow its proper course, it will be very valuable in informing communities, and ensuring that people have a proper say in how they want their society to evolve.

What can the Government do to help? With so much already happening and appearing to go so well, it may seem churlish to ask them to do more. However, in seeking advice from those with whom I have worked in Vision 21, a number of points have been raised.

First, how can Local Agenda 21 enable active citizenship, without burying people in more bureaucracy? That is a real issue, and there is a need to fund research into and the dissemination of enabling structures, focusing especially on how local authorities can contribute to such structures. if that is to happen, the LGMB, the Government offices for the regions and the Local Government Association should be asked to work with grass-roots activists from Local Agenda 21—thereby helping to create a better understanding of the bidding process, which often militates against smaller organisations and local partnerships. Often, such bodies cannot get into the running, or waste enormous time resources on futile bids.

Secondly, how can local authorities' overload be reduced? The deluge of sustainability-related legislation and regulations—although valuable in its own right—is beginning to put local government under pressure, as each change demands an evaluation and response, and incorporation into existing policies. Authorities might be helped in adapting if there were a way of redefining the changes so that emphasis was placed on the process rather than on fixed outcomes.

Thirdly, how can help be given for community development and for capacity-building and parallel organisational development? There is a belief that insufficient effort is being placed on developing the whole organisation by meeting identified training needs, and on how such training could be used to encourage better collaborative working at lower skill levels and in higher-order skills, such as by developing new approaches to audit, evaluation and planning processes.

Finally, there seems to be some weakness in how Local Agenda 21 might be translated to the regional level—which, because of the Government's intention of devolving responsibility to the regions, could be so important.

I could make other points, but, as I know that the Minister would like to reply to the debate, I shall end there.

11.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this debate. Sustainable development is central to the Government's policies. As this debate has shown, and as many hon. Members will know from their constituency work, sustainable development grass-roots expression—which is Local Agenda 21—is thriving across the country, not least in Gloucestershire.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work of the Local Agenda 21 steering group, with its wide membership of nongovernmental organisations, of community, education and business groups and of central and local government. I pay tribute also to the many local authorities, and their communities, which are contributing to the United Kingdom's growing reputation as a world leader in implementing at local level the commitments of the Rio Earth summit.

As we have heard tonight, Local Agenda 21 recognises no political divides among parties, tiers of government, NGOs, businesses, the rich, the poor, the young, the old, volunteers, employees or ethnic groups. It is a policy that links us all to a joint determination to improve the way in which we live; it is a way of translating concern about our environment into action; and it is a way to ensure that each and every individual can have an effect and can make a difference. I hope that we can use tonight's debate to encourage those communities which are not yet fully committed to the process to get stuck in.

The terms "sustainable development"—and, indeed, Local Agenda 21—are puzzling to many. People do not immediately understand what the concept means, or get excited by it; but the concept underlying the phrases—that of ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come—is one that the public fully support and that can provide plentiful and enthusiastic resources into which local authorities can tap.

As a Government, we are committed to getting people involved in the national debate to determine our new sustainability strategy. Now that we have come to the end of the consultation period on the debate, which was launched in February in "Opportunities for Change", responses are flooding in: we have already received more than 4,000 responses, and 500 more detailed comments.

In that document, we proposed a new and integrated way of thinking about choices right across Government and throughout the country, so as to build, for the present and for the future, a modern and fair society that is founded on a strong economy and a healthy environment. We need to bring together the most important economic, environmental and social objectives, so that we can set in train social progress that recognises the needs of everybody, while at the same time effectively protecting the environment, using natural resources prudently and maintaining high and stable levels of economic growth and employment. We also need to monitor achievement, through target setting and devising meaningful indicators that keep track of progress; and to report that in a way that is clear, comprehensive and meaningful to a wider audience.

As part of our initiative to encourage people to understand what sustainable development means and to contribute to the national effort to achieve lasting improvements, we are keen to encourage people to play their part in creating a more sustainable world. Schemes such as "Doing your bit" and Eco Cal, the computer gadget with which Going for Green is involved and which measures the greenness of individual life styles, show all of us how we can help the environment by reducing pollution and saving energy.

We know that people are concerned about the environment and global warming, and that they want to do something about it, yet many do not appreciate how much their personal use of energy causes global warming. Many are also sceptical that their individual action is important, but it is. The schemes aim to bring home the message that individual actions do count and that the public can make a big contribution to protecting both their local and their global environment. Simple things, like sometimes walking or cycling rather than always using the car, cleaning the car with a bucket and not a hose, or heating only enough water in the kettle for a cup of coffee, all help.

Our research shows that, after seeing "Doing your bit", people were more likely to mention as environmentally friendly turning the television off instead of leaving it on standby, switching off unnecessary lights, and keeping the car tuned. The main messages they picked up were to reduce car use, use less energy and resources and stop pollution. They also picked up on the need to save the environment, fight global warming and do something positive; and the fact that environmental pollution can aggravate asthma.

I am delighted that so many local authorities are taking up the challenge set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the United Nations General Assembly special session in New York last June, when he called on all local authorities to have a Local Agenda 21 strategy in place by the end of the year 2000.

In January, at a Local Government Association conference in London, my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment launched a guidance document, which we had jointly produced with the LGA and the local government management board, to show why and how to produce a local strategy. I am glad to say that it is proving very popular: we have already issued 10,000 copies of "Sustainable local communities for the 21st century" and are having to print more.

Over the next few weeks, each of our Government offices in the regions will be holding a seminar to offer practical guidance on producing and implementing effective Local Agenda 21 strategies. They will be targeted in particular on those local authorities that have yet to develop such a strategy, but there will be workshop options for councils and authorities to work at more advanced stages. We believe that, if sustainable development is to become a reality, the concept must become part of the structural processes of planning within the organisation. That means creating commitment and understanding at all levels.

Actions of groups such as Gloucester Vision 21 take the sustainable development campaign right out to the local level. The dynamic Local Agenda 21 strategy is about creating a vision for a community's action plan to produce a lasting improvement in the quality of life for all, and then deciding how to implement it, review it and update it. It means identifying the major priorities for long-term action for that community, and then working with and through local groups by harnessing their resources and enthusiasm to deliver action to help meet those priorities.

It means measuring and reporting on progress, and being honest about areas where more needs to be done—perhaps where the community is not behaving sustainably. It is about raising awareness about what everyone can do: business, trade unions, voluntary bodies, central and local government, families and individuals.

My hon. Friend rightly praised the work of Gloucestershire's Vision 21. That local project is somewhat unusual in being co-ordinated by a local charity—Rendezvous—but it has won the full participation and support of local authorities in the county.

It shows that there is no single template for success, but that Local Agenda 21 is strongest when it grows from a base of local commitment and enthusiasm. Indeed, the Gloucestershire model will be just one of a number of varied approaches to producing Local Agenda 21 strategies, which will be highlighted in the new guidance being produced by the Local Government Association in the early autumn.

Equally commendable work is taking place in many other places. Obviously, I have not time to mention them all, but some inspiring examples are given in the Local Government Management Board's review of the first five years of Local Agenda 21 in the UK and in the case studies that we are jointly funding to disseminate best practice. For example, in Reading, the borough council has teamed up with the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Community Education Development Centre to focus on achieving community empowerment. Training, collaboration and increased access to local decision-making processes are empowering local people and groups to deal with quality-of-life issues that are identified locally.

Plymouth's young person's Agenda 21 encourages the young people of Plymouth to make themselves heard in the local decision-making process. There are 32 members from 15 schools, aged from three to 15. The project builds leadership and communication skills, and enables members to be more proactive in their local environment.

The Building Blocks project in Hackney, co-ordinated by Groundwork, aims to improve the well-being of people living in housing estates across Hackney. Partnerships with residents and tenants' associations have developed strategies for involving young people and improving housing estate environments.

The Bradford business and environment support team is a widely acclaimed model, which shows how a local authority can reduce the cumulative environmental impact of the small business sector. It is promoting sound environmental management, making the small business community in that area much more sustainable.

There are also community enterprises—which I am glad my hon. Friend mentioned—and initiatives such as local exchange and trading systems. People are doing something about organic food, cycling, recycling, self-build and energy projects, and there are pioneers such as the Centre for Alternative Technology. Those offer inspiring glimpses of a new path, in which the social and environmental strands of sustainability. far from being opposed to each other, each hold the key to the achievement of the other. There are other leaders in developing local strategies and indicators in Lancashire and west Devon.

At the end of his speech, my hon. Friend called on the Government to respond to some specific issues. I am delighted to be able to continue in the collaborative and co-operative spirit that he set. We share his concern to promote active citizenship. Our proposals in the local democracy and community leadership consultation paper are aimed at producing precisely that reinvigoration of local democracy.

The most successful Local Agenda 21 schemes are helping to achieve just that, by promoting discussion groups and other means of achieving dialogue with local people, and encouraging collaborative projects with all sections of the community. We must certainly keep in mind the need to keep grant systems as simple as possible, while ensuring that public money is allocated fairly and properly, and that we spend resources in the most effective way. We welcome any suggestions for achieving that.

Our proposals for improving local government are also designed to meet my hon. Friend's point about improving the delivery of public services. I cannot promise that the amount of legislation and the impetus for change will reduce, because, since we are a new Government, there are many things that we need to change—and our manifesto commits us to that. We recognise, however, the upheaval and work load that such change can bring, and are alive to the need to set up new frameworks and systems that help deliver our policies at national and local level in the most effective way.

Best value aims to encourage local authorities to find ways in which to deliver services at the quality and cost that most effectively meet the aspirations of local people. I believe that Local Agenda 21 offers the means for councils to take a corporate and holistic approach to the delivery of services, and to encourage effective training and staff management programmes throughout the authority. That meets my hon. Friend's third call, for capacity building.

As for my hon. Friend's final point about helping to develop a regional identity for Local Agenda 21, I am pleased that our Government offices for the regions are now getting much more involved than they were in the past. Sustainable development objectives are being built into their management strategies, and into the agreements they have with central Government on the services they provide. As I have already said, they are holding seminars over the next six months or so to offer practical guidance on producing and implementing effective Local Agenda 21 strategies.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, Britain will never be a modern, forward-looking country if it is a place whose beauty, character, air and rivers are polluted, defaced and contaminated. Building a modern Britain means seeking new solutions to new social, economic and environmental challenges—not just so that future generations have a planet that is still habitable, but so that all of us going about our lives today can improve our quality of life. That will include working with business to ensure that our companies and industries can take advantage of the huge opportunities that markets for new technologies offer.

That is all about recognising that we will succeed only if we work together. Individuals, businesses, communities and central and local government must all act if we are to meet those significant new challenges. I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating this important debate, and I wish him and the Local Agenda 21 strategy in Gloucester even more success in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Twelve midnight.