Local Government Reform and Sustainable Development in Wales and Ireland

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Abstract: The system of local government in both Ireland and Wales has recently been subject to major reform. This study considers the extent to which the recent changes to the remit, powers and institutional structures of local government in these two countries have facilitated local councils' efforts to meet the objectives of sustainable development.

INTRODUCTION

'Sustainable development' is now firmly established as an important policy issue of global concern. Local government is considered to have a central role in efforts to achieve this objective - both in the provision of key services to citizens and in educating and engaging local agencies and the public. Local authorities in Ireland and Wales have, however, been slow to respond to the challenges presented by the notion of sustainable development. This has been partly attributed to the weak tradition of local governance in the British and Irish context.1 However, the system of local government in both Ireland and Wales has recently been subject to major reform. This was designed to provide greater autonomy for local councils, develop a new model of local community governance and encourage democratic renewal at a local level. The reform process has also provided the opportunity to place sustainable development at the heart of local government and reinvigorate local councils' efforts to meet this objective. This study, therefore, considers the extent to which the recent changes to the remit, powers and institutional structures of local government in these two countries have facilitated local councils' efforts to meet the objectives of sustainable development.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, AGENDA 21 AND THE CHALLENGE FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT

'Sustainable development' is popularly defined as: 'Development which meets the needs of the present generation without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The aim of sustainable development is, therefore, to ensure 'environmental sustainability' or to provide a mode of development that respects the limits of the environ¬mental resources on which it depends. The challenge of sustainable development is a global one and many commentators stress the need to address the disparity of resource use between developing countries and the developed world, population growth and the economic dominance of multinational corporations.3 Developed nations, however, also have a duty to consider how they can successfully integrate the need to protect the environment with socio-economic objectives. It is arguable, given that the achievement of 'environmental sustainability' is vital to continued human development, that achieving sustainable development should be the overriding objective of all nation states and, therefore, placed at the heart of all government decision making.

'Sustainable development' is a term that has gained particular currency since the agreement at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED), in 1992. UNCED resulted in a set of principles for sustainable development in the form of the Rio Declaration and a global action plan referred to as Agenda 21. Agenda 21 called upon all nation states to provide a national strategy for sustainable development to which the UK and Irish governments responded in a positive manner.5 Local government is identified as a key player in the transition to sustainable development within Agenda 21. This called upon local authorities to produce their own strategy for sustainable development - a Local Agenda 21 (LA21).6 In the UK as a whole, the initial response to this LA21 was considered to be good, but in Wales the picture was less optimistic.8 However, the political profile of sustainable development in Wales gained greater impetus under the process of devolution, further to the Government of Wales Act 1998.9 This included a specific legal duty for the newly created Welsh Assembly to provide a national strategy for sustainable development.10 Much better progress was subsequently reported, in Wales, at the 10th anniversary of UNCED, by which time it had its own national network of sustainable development coordinators.11 In Ireland, progress in respect of the LA21 initiative was also considered to be patchy.12 As the new millennium approached, efforts were made to revitalise the process including the creation of a national network of LA21 officers much like Wales.

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