Local zeroes

In spite of good intentions, says Jonathan Foster of Atkins, local authorities are failing to manage their own environmental impact

Local authorities have a major role to play in protecting the environment. Over the last five years, however, their focus on environmental issues has been in decline – and today, many are failing to address the environmental impact of their operations. Such are the conclusions of a research study undertaken by Atkins this year, involving heads of environmental services from 100 local authorities in England.

In 2000, things looked very different: at that time, the vast majority – over 90% – of local authorities in the UK had published or were in the process of producing a Local Agenda 21 Strategy. While these were ostensibly about promoting sustainable development, the reality was that the majority of Local Agenda 21 Strategies in the UK focused primarily on environmental issues.

Today, Local Agenda 21 is no more. It has been subsumed, to a greater or lesser extent, into the Community Planning system of John Prescott’s ODPM, and the focus on the environment has been lost. Instead, performance monitoring and management are the key issues for local authorities. Best Value

Performance Indicators (BVPI) and Comprehensive Performance Assessments (CPA) provide the performance management yardsticks by which the effectiveness of a local authority’s service delivery, forward planning and community engagement are measured.

Back on the agenda

However, the environment is, once again, becoming a hot topic. Revised assessment criteria for CPA in 2005 have a clear environmental focus through the Environmental Service Block and the current suite of BVPIs includes a range of measures to monitor operational performance in a number of areas of environmental activity, including waste, energy and planning. In addition, the Government is seeking to re-ignite the Local Agenda 21 programme via the Local Action 2020 initiative announced in its revised strategy for Sustainable Development. These strategic incentives are augmented by an increasing array of environmental legislation and statutory obligations, as well as global pressures to address issues such as climate change.

Atkins’ research showed that while 69% of local authorities have an adopted environmental policy, only 14% have an environmental management system (EMS) to manage their environmental performance and set targets for improvement. Furthermore, while 25% of local authorities are considering developing a formal EMS, 57% neither have nor are considering one. These figures are for all local authorities in England, although there are variations between types of authority. As for district councils, a comparatively large percentage – 41% – do not have an adopted environmental policy.

Excuses, excuses

Pressure is clearly building, and, as we have seen, a number of authorities are already pursuing the environmental management route. So what is holding the others back? The top arguments identified by the research were as follows:

  • The need to focus on mainstream service delivery;
  • Environmental management is not a priority;
  • Cost;
  • Environmental management is not a statutory requirement;
  • Lack of buy-in at senior management level;
  • Lack of experienced and/or qualified staff; and,
  • No clear business case to pursue environment.

  • Fundamentally, local authorities are facing legislative and priority overload. Put simply, there are insufficient resources to deal with new and emerging issues, and environmental management is seen as a low-priority luxury item with no clear link to the local government agenda.

    Challenges ahead

    The research shows that environmental management in local government is still in its infancy. While the Local Agenda 21 programme resulted in a broad range of environmental activity, this has been in decline for a number of years, due to a shift in priorities. Much of the expertise associated with Local Agenda 21 has been lost and local authorities are struggling with the concept of sustainable development.

    Pressures for local authorities to address the environmental implications of their activities are increasing.

    If the sector is really to start addressing the situation in full, however, central government must make explicit the link between sound environmental practice and the local government agenda.

    This needs to be backed by appropriate training, information and advice, so local authorities can lead the way in tackling local and global environmental problems.

    For more information visit www.atkinsglobal.com.

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