Previous SectionIndexHome Page

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

3 Jun 1998 : Column 481

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

3 Jun 1998 : Column 482

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.

3 Jun 1998 : Column 483

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

3 Jun 1998 : Column 484

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.

Next Section

IndexHome Page