EU attempts to green our cities

Proposals for the European Union's latest environmental strategy published this week have been met with a lukewarm reception from campaigners.

The Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment aims to tackle pollution, waste, planning, water and traffic issues in cities around the continent.

It is one of seven environmental strategies planned by Brussels to help clean up Europe’s environment.

But hardliners say it does not go nearly far enough, with its reliance on voluntary measures and the sharing of existing good practice rather than new initiatives.

According to an EU statement the goal of the strategy will be to ‘facilitate better implementation of EU environmental policies and legislation at local level through exchange of experience and good practice between Europe’s local authorities’.

At this stage, that appears to mean setting up an internet portal allowing cities and towns to talk to each other, share good ideas and explain their successes and failures.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Europe’s cities should be sustainable and offer a high quality of life so that people want to live and work in them and businesses want to invest there.

“The Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment works with Member States to help regional and local authorities learn from one another about measures that are particularly effective in improving the environmental performance of our cities.”

The exact remit of the proposed plan is a little confused, as some areas such as waste management and air pollution have already been covered by its sister strategies.

But in concrete terms it means municipal authorities could get access to the EU purse for projects promoting sustainability and the increased information sharing it pushes would mean less time and money wasted ploughing the same furrow as your neighbours.

The strategy has faced criticism from environmental groups, again disappointed by the lack of obligations outlined in the document, which instead relies on non-binding targets and voluntary actions.

“The Commission has shied away from more far-reaching plans for EU directives,” said Kerstin Meyer, policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau.

“The Strategy basically leaves it up to the member states and cities themselves to improve their environmental performance.

“This voluntary approach has not worked in the past. This is why most cities are still facing enormous problems with urban sprawl, congestion, air and noise pollution, derelict land and generation of waste and waste-water”.

The hands-off approach has been welcomed by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, however, which argues that decisions on sustainability are better made at a local level where towns and cities understand their own problems and needs.

“Each municipality knows best how to improve its own urban environment,” said spokesman Jeremy Smith.

“This is why we needed this bottom-up approach.”

The strategy is part of the union’s sixth Environmental Action Programme and will next be on the agenda at the forthcoming meeting of the EU environment ministers.

By Sam Bond

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