- Embedding Sustainable Development into the new
government processes & strategy for the South West region
Sustainability South West Conference, Weston Super Mare, March 2nd 2009
Sustainability South West have been a major contributor to the South Somerset Sustainable Community Strategy, their presentations to working groups and inciteful commentary on our working papers have lifted the work up to a higher level. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk briefly about the local issues around integrating sustainability.
The trick is in the title - there is an art in involving and integrating the very local communities we find everywhere we look in the world. There may be scientific techniques and political processes, but the art is in the way the tools and techniques are deployed and the attitudes and aspirations of the people involved.
South Somerset Together is the local strategic partnership for the District of South Somerset - not a cute name, but the "together" says it all, sustainable worthwhile community development will only succeed if most, and preferably all, public, private and voluntary organisations deliver time, money and emotional commitment.
The road to commitment is long, and needs to be straight. One of the most difficult things for a body such as a District Council to do is to engender trust in long term consistency. This is due in part to the 4 year political cycle, and the potential for 180 degree shifts in policy and practice, but also due to the inherent distrust many residents have in local and central government. "They" are not expected to be doing things for the benefit of the community without a personal or political agenda that has self-serving components that may overwhelm the apparent social utility offered as the public face of any policy.
To counter the knee-jerk reaction to a policy announcement there needs to be a frame of reference within which to set the policy and evidence of follow-through - not once - not twice - but every time, and over a long period. The Gary Player adage of the more I practice the luckier I get holds equally true in this circumstance.
South Somerset has built the frame of reference of sustainability over many years. Even so we cannot rest on our laurels, and we have not done enough. Despite individuals' best efforts we are only scratching the surface of globally vital issues. We cannot succeed without widening the accord from District Council level - upwards to government and to transnational initiatives (including the South West Climate Change Action Plan 2008 - 2010 that has many specific short term actions to create a long term directional shift), but critically downwards to each and every person in our community and in every other community across the world. As a member of the South West Cohesion Steering Group I can confirm that excellent work is clearly being done at transnational level to address that strata of issues, but we need to work right down at the grass roots as well.
In doing so we need to see things from others' view point. In South Somerset we have a decade and more of tradition in enabling others to do, rather than doing to them.
The Somerset Trust for Sustainable Development was initially funded with a grant from South Somerset District Council and has grown itself into an internationally respected and self-sustaining leader in sustainable development.
Image by yellow book ltd via Flickr
The trustees of Ecos Trust (as it is now called) over the period since 2000 give a clear indication of how consistency plays a part, but also how having world class experts locally makes for a virtuous circle - Charles Couzens, David Gordon, Simon Fairlie, Julia Hailes and many others. My predecessor as District Councillor in my ward, Lucy Durnan, continues to be a resolute campaigner and advocate of sustainability. Its that consistency and commitment that provides the underpinning to a deliverable integrated sustainable strategy, but its only the framework. There needs to be a rich fabric woven from many many people's own efforts. Baroness Miller, a former leader of the Council continues to spearhead environmental issues nationally.
Within the Council we have been very fortunate to have expertise from Keith Wheaton Green. In 2005 the South Somerset HydroPower Group were recognised by the international Ashden Awards for their development of a collaborative micro hydro development down the rivers of Somerset and into Dorset - Keith deployed a few hundred pounds of SSDC money, but a huge amount of faith, commitment and effort. The Ashden Awards showcase UK and International projects - in 2005 SOLEC from India won an award for their very low cost small photovoltaic systems that have brought light to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Kanatarka, perhaps suggesting that our UK approach of high cost all embracing systems are self defeating compared with the affordable locally made units in India.
2005 was also the year that the District Council won the first of 3 successive Beacon Awards for community engagement "Getting Closer to Communities". It was when the tag line 'Enable Partner Deliver' was coined that has become the mantra for all of the corporate activity of South Somerset District. It is significant that the Beacon coordinator was Saveria Moss, who is now the Local Strategic Partnership coordinator and the senior manager from the District Council was Vega Sturgess, now corporate Director for Environment and lead officer for the new SSDC Corporate Plan. Consistency of intention and delivery.
The very close relationship between the Local Strategic Partnership and the District Council is cemented by Helen Rutter who is employed by the District Council as Community Development Manager and also dedicates about 1/3 of her time to overseeing the Local Strategic Partnership. From top to bottom, and throughout our many partners' organisations there is a commitment and a continuing follow through of intense involvement.
At the County Council through local community officer Vicky Breeze (who we first met when she championed the Biodiversity Action Plan) and on up to Lord Cameron, well known to environmentalists, and Chairman of the Somerset Strategic Partnership there is a commonality of purpose and a consistency of commitment.
Recent highlights are the completion of ratification of our Sustainable Community Strategy to 2026. The Local Strategic Partnership is being bold in its targets (even Charles Couzens thought so...) strongly supported by Joe Burlington of South Somerset Climate Change Action Group who when he joined us was, I suspect, a bit suspicious of being on the inside and losing his objectivity but I hope he does not feel that now!
Our strategy has been developed over 2 years. Most of that time was spent working up from the many Parish and Community Plans that have been painstakingly created by many of our 121 parishes and towns. There is no substitute for local involvement, but I am convinced the quality and level of engagement owes a lot to our continuing support for local community engagement, so that people really believe us when we say we are listening!
The Local Strategic Partnership has been running for about 8 years. It started by doing necessary projects and sharing resources and ideas with partners. We have evolved into a very tight knit group of 30+ senior people from public sector, community groups and the businesses in South Somerset - and the reason we all keep turning up is its worth our while. Each organisation puts in senior time, delivers support, effort in kind and money. The result is a self perpetuating group who give what they can and get what they need.
Examples of projects completed and work programmes under way can be found on our website
We are now entering a very exciting phase. The District and County Councils have consistent, interlocking Community Strategies, our District Council Corporate Plan is driven by the needs of the Community as expressed in the Sustainable Community Strategy and there are a number of projects under way with a very sustainability feel about them. Partners use the Sustainable Community Strategy as an evidence base for their internal plan developments.
The local business association is undertaking a green business initiative educating and mentoring 80 South Somerset businesses in Waste Management and Minimisation, Energy Efficiency, Water efficiency in manufacturing processes and Green management systems and environmental policies. The aim is for the organisations to take specific measurable steps to reduce their carbon footprint and improve environmental conditions as a direct result.
The Local Strategic Partnership will run a major local event at the Yeovil Innovation Centre in the summer. This event will publicly launch the South Somerset Sustainable Community Strategy by raising awareness of the sustainability agenda with everyone in the district. It will provide information and practical expert advice on what can be done individually and collectively about the “big” issues including Climate Change mitigation and adaptation through reducing CO² emissions, generating heat and power from renewable sources, further reducing waste to landfill, sourcing food and products locally, etc. The event will be geared to the general public, with presentations, information and activities suitable for all including children, families, businesses, etc. In another example of long term joined up thinking our unique Somerset Waste Partnership now delivers a higher percentage of waste for recycling than anywhere in the country - after a 10 year continuing programme of development.
One of the major avenues for action on sustainability is the Transition Town movement. Both Somerset County and South Somerset District have made commitments to Transition and in South Somerset specifically our Corporate Plan requires officers to provide active and substantive support to the growing number of local Transition initiatives. The Transition Town movement exemplifies the local involvement but international significance of sustainability. Ever since Rob Hopkins and his students in Kinsale kick started local social consciences a wave of mainly young people has risen up (at least in South Somerset) who are passionate about the environment and want a better world to live in for them and their children.
In 1992 I was very fortunate to be involved in a Club of Rome inspired program that culminated in a 'Declaration of Barcelona', whose key message was "there are underlying and growing fears about what may result from changes underway in European society. Many individuals are afraid of losing their jobs, fearful of losing their freedom because of the loss of confidence in current political institutions and frightened of losing their identity" - that message was an echo of Kurt Waldheim's 1975 address 'The international system of economic trade relations which was devised 30 years ago is now manifestly inadequate for the needs of the world community as a whole. The charge against that order is that in the past it worked well for the affluent and against the poor. It cannot now even be said it works well for the affluent."
Who would disagree in 2009 that the thoughts of 34 years ago and 17 years ago are any less true today? At every local point in the world there needs to be a commonality of purpose to transition to a new model, one of lower consumption, higher social conscience, non-destructive food production and alternative sustainable fuel supplies. We need to embed sustainability into everything we do, and government both local and national have a fundamental role to play.
What are my does and don'ts?
Do involve every willing person at every level, but don't force them into a one size fits all model. Let people contribute in their own way.
Do arrange meetings and events at different times of the day or evening and in different locations and settings.
Don't assume anyone understands acronyms, national policy or even why local decisions have been made
Don't judge or criticise individual comments - give them all due weight in collective research
Don't give up
But above all take advantage of opportunities
- like the one the recession is giving us. If Airlines are willingly cutting 10% or more of their flights from the schedule lets fight to keep them cut.
- if insulating homes can create work for local installers lets reduce the % heat lost from our homes to such an extent that Nuclear Power is not necessary
...and I am sure we could all add our own. Lets make sure we do.