LGA sets the pace on green agenda
LAWR's Alexander Catto explores environmental issues with Cllr David Sparks, chair of the Local Government Association's environment board, which has a wide and varied remitSet up in 2004 as part of the restructuring of the Local Government Association (LGA), the environment board has adopted a proactive approach in integrating its main policy making areas of waste, transport, housing and planning.
On the positive front, the board has backed a series of initiatives, from setting up a "virtual waste authority", using IT to project how waste could be managed in the future, to forming links with business, and launching the LGA's Greening Communities campaign, where councils will take the lead on environmental improvements within their areas.
According to Cllr David Sparks, chair of the LGA environment board and leader of the Labour Group at Dudley MBC, the board has an overall responsibility to bring its main policy areas together to deal in a much more coherent way with the whole sustainability agenda. "One of my tasks as chair of the board is to try and ensure that the board is both politically relevant and at the cutting edge of current political debate, so that we are not just in a professional, or technical, cul-de-sac," he says.
There is a review underway of the board's role, but Cllr Sparks expects any changes to be limited to areas such as regulation, which could be moved to the safer communities board which deals with all regulation.
Recent changes in the law, however, are making an impact on how local authorities deal with environmental polluters in particular. The LGA played a significant part in getting the new Clean Neighbourhood and Environment Act, which gives councils much greater scope to deal with problem areas in the community, on to the statute book.
Cllr Sparks says that board had inherited the new act from the previous structure within the LGA, adding: "We followed it through in terms of lobbying in the final stages and we have been totally responsible for publicising the need, within local authorities, to make sure that we use this act to the maximum. It has been a big success in terms of lobbying with the government: it is a testament to how the LGA can work very effectively and it's also a testament to how a government department can respond to an agenda that we put forward."
Turning to the scourge of flytipping, he says: "There is no doubt as far as I am concerned that the powers under the act should help us tremendously.
"Speaking, not so much as the chair of the environment board, but as the individual ward member in Dudley, in my own ward I have had some appalling instances of flytipping that need to be sorted. I think that the individual local authorities need to be very active."
Leading by example
Discussing the recent figures on recycling performance by LAs, which listed the worst authorities and others which performed outstandingly well, Cllr Sparks sees the board's role as helping to promote good examples.
"Our experience, across the board, in every single subject area, every board of the LGA is that disseminating the experience of best practice is undoubtedly the best way of making the fastest possible progress across the broadest possible subjects."
Other pressing issues facing LAs in the recycling area include the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive and the End of Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive. Asked if councils would be better prepared this time than when LAs and ministers were blamed for the "fridge mountain" debacle, Cllr Sparks says that regulations coming out of Europe are being monitored. "So we are supposed to be in a better position than we were previously."
Financing and geeing up the planning process for waste facilities are other topics of concern.
"Funding is a massive problem," he believes, "but, having said that, experience over the years has shown that there are many novel ways of raising finance and bringing capital to bear on the subject. This cannot be, however, at the expense of government money. Government cannot think that the private sector is just going to magically deliver everything. There has to be investment by the public sector."
His view, however, is that "it's not enough for local government just to go to central government for a handout. We don't want handouts. We want to be jointly involved in investing public money in public/private sector deals for our communities."
Challenges of long-term contracts
Discussing specifically the implications of long-term contracts, which can involve billions of pounds, between waste authorities and major private sector contractors, Cllr Sparks says: "It's a challenge for the LGA. There are massive deals that have been done and, when you are talking about major conurbations, like the ones I am mostly involved with in the West Midlands, there is no way you can tackle that without doing mega deals."
Discussing how planning delays and NIMBYism could pose obstacles for developing new waste facilities, he replies: "I have always been acutely aware that there is a great danger in procrastination and NIMBYism in planning. It's not just because it's bad for waste or economic regeneration, but it's equally bad for the planning system itself.
"The planners have done themselves no favours by pandering to NIMBYism. There is a difference - full, meaningful consultation should not be procrastination."
He has also considered the wider issue of political leadership on the environmental front, saying: "I think there's a role for practising politicians to lead their communities in a way that people running pressure groups can't - what we need is persuasion not preaching. The task has got to be to bring as many people on board as possible."
Cllr Sparks says his "top priority remains to try and ensure that the board gels more in relation to the whole question of sustainability and climate change and, within that, in particular areas, and these are not just my priorities.
"In relation to transport we need a step change - we need to acknowledge that the overall situation in transport in this country is a disgrace and it needs sorting. We are going backwards, not forwards. We must have, in particular, more integrated transport.
"On the whole question of waste and the environment we need, first of all, to make absolutely sure that we deliver in terms of clean neighbourhoods, because that's a number one political priority. If we don't do that we get kicked out of office.
"But equally, we have got to have a look at the whole question of waste in terms of climate change, reducing the amount of waste, recycling, and also what contribution can it make to energy."