Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Mendip District Council


  In January 1996 Mendip District Council obtained a grant of £1,000 from the Know How Fund, via the Local Government International Bureau, to make an exploratory visit to the City of Svetlogorsk. A Council Member and two Council Officers had privately funded a visit in September 1995 but this second visit was with a view to exploring the possibility of establishing a properly funded project relating to an aspect of the environment. As it transpired, the call for TACIS City Twinning Projects was made shortly after the visit and the criteria appeared to fit what had been agreed on the Know How visit rather well, not to mention the maximum grant being about twice that of the Know How Fund for local authorities. TACIS City Twinning has now been withdrawn from Belarus for political reasons but, happily, the Know How Fund is continuing to support projects and I am poised to submit an application for Know How Funding.


  Following our preliminary visit to Svetlogorsk in September 1995, Mendip District Council agreed to establish a partnership with particular reference on co-operation in respect of environmental matters. In our view, an established partnership is absolutely crucial for the success of a funded project such as TACIS City Twinning. Some trust and mutual understanding had already been established and this was fortified by a return visit of many of the 23 representative key players from the City to Mendip in April 1996. One further visit to Svetlogorsk then took place before the project formally commenced in January 1997. I would not like to go into a funded project cold without having got to know some of the personalities well in advance.


  I am unable to comment on any general changes.


  As far as TACIS City Twinning is concerned (which is only a minute proportion of the overall TACIS budget) in our experience it certainly is a "people to people" programme but I cannot speak for the mainstream TACIS projects, although I will be surprised if "people to people" is an apt description. Our first project, which is to assist the City of Svetlogorsk Council in the preparation of Local Agenda 21 Strategies and Action Plans, in consultation with the local population, was very much grass roots. The three trainee managers who came to Mendip had contact with a large number of colleagues working for the District Council as well as the local community. They met the press, elected Members and many local people. Exactly the same applies when we spend time in Svetlogorsk with this project. We live with families and there is a very lively interest in what we are doing. There is no frustration relating to procedures or institutional barriers as far as we are concerned.


  We have had extremely good support from the TACIS City Twinning Technical Support Unit and from the task manager, although I have a major reservation about the effectiveness of the Co-ordinating Unit I have dealt with in the field.


  I have been taken aback at the amount of detail which we had to supply in advance to justify our project, especially by reference to final measurable outputs and by how difficult it is to extract money from the Commission. Our project was visited in Mendip from the TACIS Co-ordinating Unit in Paris, it was selected for monitoring which involved a visit of a monitor to Svetlogorsk and Gomel and we were also part of an evaluation process of the programme as a whole. It seems to me (as a entirely positive point) that everything is buttoned down pretty effectively.


  The extensive use of consultants in mainstream TACIS projects does not sit well with the concept of "people to people". Our project consisted of local government practitioners and elected members providing training and assistance for their opposite numbers who have the responsibility to cope with mammoth problems which are of a magnitude that has shocked us all. We have a second TACIS City Twinning Project providing comprehensive training and assistance in strategy preparation relating to an epidemic of HIV in the City of Svetlogorsk. During this second project (which is now half way through) we have involved a number of service providers and experts. The engagement of consultants has been minuscule. There is immense added value to be brought to bear when a whole community is involved with another community, as opposed to relatively disjointed consultants.


  Our experience of NGOs in our partnership city is that they are embryonic, are very few indeed, are very inexperienced and still fall heavily under the influence of civic society. Building up NGO capacity is difficult but absolutely vital. Our experience is that there is widespread environmental awareness amongst the population but, since the collapse of communism, there is not yet any effective mechanism for involving local people. This is precisely what our project has attempted to provide and we are seeing some progress.


  We have no experience of PHARE.


  We have had no experience of this body.


  Engaging in a TACIS project is not for the faint hearted. It involves a huge commitment if it is to be successful and really make a difference. It requires a commitment which cannot be engendered simply from obtaining a consultancy fee. We are convinced, however, that the exercise is worthwhile. There is a massive job to be done and it is not until you have gained just a little experience of civic society in the former Soviet Union that the enormous cultural differences become apparent. Our partnership city is in the contaminated region of Belarus following the Chernobyl catastrophe, which environmental problems have added to the existing problems arising from industrial manufacturing. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has hit Belarus particularly hard as it was where assembly took place for the other regions. People are now concentrating purely on survival and it is an uphill task to persuade some people of the importance of sustainable development and of the comprehensive approach to all the problems which is required. This is something where western European countries can genuinely assist their counterparts and TACIS is a good vehicle for so doing not to mention the legislative frameworks.

  I will be pleased to provide any further information you feel may be useful.

Graham Jeffs

Chief Executive

28 April 1998

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