Memorandum by the Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
(RSPB) welcomes this opportunity to present evidence. The RSPB
is Europe's largest wildlife charity with over one million members.
We manage one of the largest conservation estates in the UK147
nature reserves, covering more than 100,000 hectares.
The RSPB believes that the Government's proposals
provide a great opportunity to achieve modern local government
which can deliver social and environmental benefits. We are actively
working with local authorities and other partners to help achieve
this. The primary focus of this submission concerns the draft
bill's proposals for the reform of the political structures of
local government and the belief that, if they are to fulfil their
objectives, then they cannot be separated from the proposed duty
on local authorities to promote the economic, social and environmental
well-being of their areas.
The Government set out its proposals for the
reform of local government in its White Paper Modern Local
GovernmentIn touch with the people in summer 1997.
This includes Labour's manifesto commitment to introduce a "well-being"
duty to apply to all local authorities. This would, the White
"enshrine in law the role of
the council as the elected leader of their local community with
a responsibility for the well-being and sustainable development
of its area";
provide "an overarching framework
for local government" within which "councils must perform
all their existing functions"; and
be underpinned by discretionary power,
enabling councils to take steps to promote the well-being of their
2. This confirms and reinvigorates community
leadership as the prime function of modern local government and
as such should be the main driver for how local authorities organise
themselves. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Government's
objectives for structural and political reform can be achieved
unless they are set in the context of community leadership. It
is therefore surprising and disappointing that the Government
has decided not to include the new duty in its draft Organisation
and Standards Bill in Local leadership, local choice.
The Bill should be expanded to include the proposed new duty and
the accompanying enabling powers.
3. The duty for local authorities could
follow the model adopted for the Greater London Authority.
This establishes the General Power of the Authority as furthering
the economic, social and environmental well-being of Greater London,
that in exercising its powers it shall promote sustainable development.
This gives a strong strategic lead and effectively integrates
sustainable development objectives across all the Local Authority's
operationsthe very essence of sustainable development.
4. THE WELL-BEING/SUSTAINABLE
The RSPB warmly welcomes the proposed duty.
We believe that local government has a crucial role to play in
delivering sustainable development and that the proposed duty
is vital to fulfilling this role. The maintenance and enhancement
of biodiversity (literally the variety of life on earth) is a
key test of sustainable development. Therefore, this duty could
do much to promote and further local authority biodiversity conservation,
in addition to fostering improved resource management, addressing
social exclusion, etc. Indeed, the lack of access for some communities
to greenspace, nature and quietness is itself one element of social
5. The duty will provide Local Authorities
(LAs) with a clear signal that they must deliver sustainable development
for their communities and take an integrated approach to the provision
and effects of all their services. Some local authorities are
already leading the way, but many are failing to grasp the opportunity
and continuing with "business as usual"hence
the need for a duty.
6. Likewise, the proposed discretionary
power that will enable, "councils to take steps which in
their view will promote the well-being of their area"
would provide a positive tool for innovative LAs to further the
sustainable development of their communities. It would encourage
best practice which could be followed by those LAs that have yet
to enthusiastically embrace this role.
If the non-respondents to the survey also have yet to make a commitment
to an LA21, then the figure could be as high as one third. This
despite Tony Blair's target that LA21 strategies should be in
place in all LAs by the year 2000. This illustrates that even
where a target has been set by the Prime Minister, a significant
minority of LAs look set to fail to meet the necessary standard.
The need for a legislative stick to encourage action is clear.
A duty would help LAs take this target more seriously and to give
LA21 the necessary political and resource backing.
7. The need for a statutory basis for the
duty is clear. A recent survey of local authority LA21 activity
(Autumn 1998), by the (then) Local Government Management Board
(now the Improvement and Development Agency), found that, of the
77 per cent of LAs which responded, over 17 per cent have yet
to make a commitment to produce an LA21
The proposals contained within the White Paper
cover a wide range of areas including community leadership, political
leadership, local democracy, ethics and finance, which together
form an inter-related package for the modernisation of local government.
Clearly the pressures on parliamentary business prevent the whole
package being taken forward at the same time. However, there is
a strong case that changing the political management cannot work
properly if it is divorced from the well being duty.
9. For example, the proposals for structural
reform as set out in the draft Organisation and Standard Bill
include a far reaching agenda of cultural change for councillors
and officers which will require new skills and ways of working
to be developed. These make little sense if they are divorced
from the intended overall purpose of modern local governmentto
take the lead in developing a clear sense of direction for their
communities and building partnerships to ensure a better quality
of life and environment for their areas.
10. A NARROWING
In the debate on the "Best Value Bill"
in the House of Lords (10 May 1999), Lord Whitty stated:
Sustainable development "is probably the
most significant challenge to the current generation of politicians
. . . . We expect authorities to give expression to those principles,
primarily through the process of community planning . . . (the)
new duty will place sustainable development at the centre of community
planning, and in that arena we remain committed to bringing forward
such legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows".
11. Lord Whitty's statement appears to indicate
a significant narrowing of the application of the duty from all
LA functions and activities to solely that of, the so far ill
defined, community planning. This contrasts to the White Paper
which stated the duty "will provide an overall framework
within which councils must perform all their existing functions".
This will then include "a requirement for councils to secure
the development of a comprehensive strategy for promoting the
well-being of their area"
ie a community plan. It is quite clear that the Government's original
intention was that the community plan lie within a framework of
an all encompassing duty on LAs to deliver sustainable development,
not that the community plan itself become the framework.
12. The Government's proposals on community
planning are welcomed. They offer a potentially valuable new tool
which could open up the opportunity for individual communities
to translate sustainable development to the specific needs of
their local areas and find ways of implementing it. The duty,
however, is about providing over-arching strategic direction.
It therefore needs to apply more widely than to just the community
planning process. For example, it is not clear how a sustainable
development duty which relates only to community planning will
interact and be binding upon Best Value.
13. As Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
stated during the Best Value Bill debate in the Lords, "unless
it (the duty) is included as a fundamental duty on local authorities,
I feel that it will always be the poor relation when conflicts
arise as to where their (LAs') first duty should lie".
The most appropriate place to introduce the
proposed duty is as part of a revised Organisation and Standards
Bill. This would mean that community leadership and sustainable
development really are placed at the heart of decision making,
providing the vital over-arching framework and direction for the
process of modernising local government.
29 June 1999
12 The draft Local Government (Organisation and
Standards) Bill appears as an Annex in HM Government (1999)
Local leadership, local choice, Stationery Office, London. Back
HM Government (1998) Greater London Authority Bill, Stationery
Office, London. Back
DETR (1998) Modern Local Government-In touch with the people,
(para 8.11), Stationery Office, London. Back
Morris, J (1999) Chasing the millennium deadline: is Local
Agenda 21 on target? in EG Local Environment News, Vol 5,
No 4 April 1999, Environment Resource and Information Centre,
University of Westminster, London. Back
Official Report of the House of Lords (10 May 1999) Local Government
Bill, column CWH 26. Back
DETR (1998), para 8.12. Back
Ibid., column CWH 27. Back