In search of the Arnie army, by Jonathon Porritt and Warren Hatter

19 Jul 07
A new level of ambition is needed if communities are to guarantee their viability in the low-carbon decades ahead. That's why we must find the next Chamberlains, Livingstones and Schwarzeneggers

20 July 2007

A new level of ambition is needed if communities are to guarantee their viability in the low-carbon decades ahead. That's why we must find the next Chamberlains, Livingstones and Schwarzeneggers

Local authorities understand what sustainable development means and, thanks to Sir Nicholas Stern's review, the economic benefits it can deliver. So why do they find it difficult to do?

Actually, there are some good reasons and they are rooted in the very nature of the UK's public sector. We at Forum for the Future have identified the key blockages preventing local authorities from seizing the opportunities this agenda can offer.

First of all, public sector bodies are simply not used to thinking of the 'business case' for sustainable development. By contrast, leaders in many business sectors are now routinely applying its principles to their business model. It is good for business, and they want to be the first to innovate with new products and services, for the sake of the bottom line.

Second, as the ever-extended inquiry by Sir Michael Lyons demonstrated, many in local government struggle with what exactly it means to 'shape' a locality.

What, then, is the 'business case' for SD, as far as local government and their counterparts in Local Strategic Partnerships are concerned? It will never be as straightforward as it is for a firm with a bottom line, but there are some answers to this conundrum.

Surely we can find a way to understand SD for an authority or an LSP in terms of public value. And there is an issue about the true role and function of a local authority. We need to move to a position where the core, overarching duty of each council should be to ensure the future viability of its locality.

Which brings up the issue of placeshaping. Currently, even at its most ambitious, local government has not grasped that the changes needed in the next decades are absolutely fundamental.

Our economy will be a low-carbon economy — there is simply no other choice. So it follows that at a local level, communities and sub-national economies will also need to be low carbon. The business case for SD in local government is that it will enable local communities to define what a low carbon future means.

Who, then, is going to take the lead in shaping low carbon communities and economies? Central government has already made a start, with a range of measures introduced under the aegis of the Climate Change Act 2006. And, increasingly, businesses are taking up the challenge.

But we believe that there is a vacuum and that local government needs to fill it. Two words sum up what is needed now from the sector: leadership and innovation. If councils fail to provide them, then just who will?

Filling the leadership vacuum requires ambition on the scale of the municipal greats of over a century ago. Joseph Chamberlain, that great civic leader, required acts of Parliament to take over the sewerage and water supply in Birmingham to create conditions in which business and communities could thrive.

The same level of ambition is surely needed now. At the moment, Ken Livingstone is providing real leadership on SD in London. But beyond that, all too often we need to look abroad — just think of Arnold Schwarzenegger in California — for inspiring examples of strong sub-national leadership.

Innovation is also at the heart of sustainability, not just because it has a good press but because new economic and social conditions require us to find new ways of doing things.

Local government can innovate, as the Audit Commission's recent report, Seeing the light, demonstrates. Commentators are right to see recent moves towards localism and decentralisation as good for innovation, and equally right to note that local authorities could do a better job of learning from each other.

A widely used example of local innovation is Woking Borough Council's development of renewable power, such as its use of combined heat and power technology. It required financial creativity to set up and has been a runaway success.

So where are the other schemes inspired by Woking? Local government in this country already contains the seeds from which the leadership and innovation that is needed can grow. But it requires a change in the prevailing culture.

If SD is adopted as a core principle from the chief executive of the local authority down, we will be well on the way to seeing it not as a difficulty but as an exciting opportunity.

Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future. Warren Hatter is director of the forum's Public Sector Programme


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