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Power to the parish


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  • 1. © James Borne Power to the parish The University of Plymouth’s Dr Gregory Borne considers the need for parish council engagement to move past ‘symbolic politics’ towards sustainable development… T here is little doubt that the idea of sustainable reinforce a global discourse that highlights the continuing development is here to stay. The upcoming United problems of diminishing and inequitable distribution of Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in resources. They demonstrate a level of commitment by Rio1 will once again discuss what sustainable development world leaders to address these problems and motivate means to the world as it takes as its primary focus the moral and ethical sentiment. This is an ongoing academic institutional framework of sustainable development and a and political debate. However, the focus here is the green economy in the context of sustainable development integration of sustainable development into local politics. and poverty eradication. A counter on the website indicates Regardless of the positive outcomes of global conferences the number of days left to the conference, with the slogan the term remains contested and ill defined, and it is little ‘days to the future we want’. And it is exactly this sentiment wonder therefore that national and local governments that embodies the fundamental tensions within the idea have difficulty in articulating the concept into effective of sustainable development. This tension is highlighted in frameworks and programmes aimed at addressing real the simple question: ‘the future that who wants?’ world problems. Furthermore, this lack of definition is Sustainable development is a notoriously slippery term – it compounded by the perceptions at the local level that is difficult to define, and therefore difficult to implement. sustainable development is a top down imposed agenda. It has been accused of being a contradiction in terms, an It is perhaps the perception of sustainable development oxymoron, and a term so fuzzy that it means anything to that it is a top down, imposed framework that makes it everyone and so is useless as a guiding principle. difficult to translate into the more local context. With this said I am a strong supporter of the idea of In a time of austerity, where local problems seem more sustainable development. Whatever the outcome of Rio+20, acute, policies imposed by the international community – international events such as these raise awareness and the United Nations, European Union, Organisation of1 Public Service Review: Local Government and the Regions: issue 20
  • 2. Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) etc – the closest level of government to the community. Forcesseem far removed from the everyday lived experiences of are in motion to increase the power of parish councilsthose people in local communities. It is exactly this in order to form direct community engagement andcommunication barrier that needs to be overcome and consultation with community members on the future ofaddressed and this will be the front line of integrating the their local environments. The Open Public Services Whiteprinciples of sustainable development into the local policy Paper (2011) and the recent review of this paper (Marchframework. This is important because as well as being a 2012) emphasise the importance that town and parishconcept that has arisen from a global problematique, the councils play within their local communities.concept, properly articulated and developed, encouragesholistic policy development as well as concepts of equity The advantage of empowering the town and parish level ofand inter-generational equity. An unfortunate side effect, local government is the visibility of the outputs ofor even a direct result of local government’s need to programmes developed. At this level the idea of symboliclegitimise their own policies and programmes through politics with regard to sustainable development is dispelledexternal pressure to integrate sustainable development, because of the immediate and direct impact of the policiesmeans that the end result can be cosmetic and ineffectual. developed. Research conducted in Devon and Cornwall adds weight to this assertion. The research, amongst otherWith that in mind, over the past decade national, sub- things, explored what sustainable development meant tonational and local government have driven forward members of town and parish councils, and what they saysignificantly to embed sustainable development into their is the best way of integrating this concept into their localpractices. However, a review of policies and programmes communities. There was support for the principles of thefrom an international basis suggests that policies based concept, an integrated approach including environmental,on sustainable development are more symbolic with a social and economic factors, ideas of equity and community.high level of political currency but little real world impact. As expected however, there was confusion over how toWhilst there has been significant progress, for example translate these ideals into real outputs, as well as frustrationwith programmes drawing on Local Agenda 21, there is with principal authorities and national government atstill a lack of salience at the community level. opaque and mixed messages with convoluted or non-With the aforementioned rather gloomy assessment in existent lines of communication. As such, there is an urgentmind, the UK has one of the world’s most well-developed need to provide guidance and support for sustainablesustainable development strategies, and the challenge of development to this level of government.devolution and the achievement of a Big Society in whateverform that may take, will depend very much on its effective If handled effectively with the correct guidance and support,transmission and integration with local government. with an appreciation of diversity, there is a real opportunity to use sustainable development as a guiding principle, andThe recent Localism Act will also stimulate discussion on implemented at the local community level move past thewhat sustainable development actually means to local idea of symbolic politics for real and positive change.communities. A very visible example of this has been thedebates that have surrounded the changes in the National There does of course need to be a continued analysis of thePlanning Policy Framework. The framework document policy context for sustainable development; in otheruses the term sustainable development over 50 times and words, the framing of the policy and the structural andemphasises the need for a ‘presumption in favour of societal context. The real danger is that without the analysissustainable development’. The final document has now of the context of the policy and the lines of communication –been more broadly accepted but only time will tell the particularly between the principal authority and theimpact this will have on the built environment over the community level – there will be continued confusion, acoming years. lack of coherence, and fractured and disjointed policies and programmes that do not address community issues.There are a number of other areas that may be directlyapplied to sustainable development governance at the There is a real opportunity to make sustainable developmentlocal level, but the crux of this discussion is how we work using the parish council as a conduit through whichovercome the idea of a symbolic politics, how we get past local communities can respond to the challenges and riskspolicies that only pay lip service to creating a sustainable of the 21st Century.development when in fact, they are continuing along the 1 www.uncsd2012.orgsame ‘business as usual’ lines. Dr Gregory Borne MRICS MIEnvSC FRGS CEnvTo this end I focus on the importance of one area to which Lecturer Public Management and PolicyI am able to bring my own insights from extensive University of Plymouthresearch over the past few years. This is the devolution of Tel: +44 (0)1752 585727power to town and parish councils that has been made in a number of government documents. There are Twitter: @gborne1over 10,000 local councils in England and they represent Public Service Review: Local Government and the Regions: issue 20 2