Example: LA21 B

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Local Agenda 21 Processes (in the UK and elsewhere)

(Local Agenda 21 Processes B)


ISSUES: equity, strong partnership, community participation, improving people’s quality of life. Environment + social issues+ economic issues = sustainability. 


GOALS: Developing and implementing an action plan, based on shared visions, for local sustainable development 


PARTICIPATING STAKEHOLDERS: Local authorities, civic society, NGOs, community-based organisations, business etc.


TIME FRAME: Initiated Earth Summit 1992 - ongoing





Type: Partly awareness raising/informing, partly planning (not really a monitoring process)

Level: Local/regional, sparked off by an international process


Procedural Aspects:

Designing the MSP

The process has never been designed around a single template – as a result ‘a thousand flowers have bloomed’. Some have become genuine attempts at better community planning, others little more than environmental awareness exercises. The UK Local Government Management Board (now Improvement & Development Agency) issued guidance – Local Agenda 21: Principles and Process. A Step by Step Guide (1994) but this was not really about process design. In fact, virtue was made of the fact that all LA21s were all going to be different – which is one of the problems for evaluation. The consultation procedures were often designed by people looking upwards, rather than starting at the grass-roots – which was why much consultation did not break out of the traditional mould, i.e. it did little to empower people or communities, it carried on the ‘business as usual’ approach.

ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) has, over the years, run a variety of MSPs, for example the European Local Agenda 21 Roundtable Programme. Stakeholder representatives are identified through networks/ICLEI database and wide-ranging participation -faith groups to business, from women to youth to local authorities. (Meeting 3 was on conflict resolution, Forthcoming meeting being planned (not yet announced) on water). Participants are identified as ‘experts’ involved at the European level or concerned with urban sustainability. This can be a broad swathe of people e.g. churches, elderly people, cyclists – depending on the issue. The roundtable is essentially a brainstorming , with results now disseminated by web (for economy and effectiveness). Usually try to get host city to make a declaration or recommendation.


Identifying the issues to be addressed in an MSP

Local Agenda 21 – the process of developing local policies for sustainable development and building partnerships between local authorities and other sectors to implement them – is a crucial part of the move towards sustainability. LA21 is a continuing process rather than single activity, event or document. There is no single ‘tick-list’ of things you must do or cover for Local Agenda 21. Instead the process involves a range of activities, tools and approaches from which local partners, including the local authority can choose according to local priorities and circumstances.


Identifying relevant stakeholders

Process varies enormously. Within 2-3 years of LA21 starting, there was information available to guide anyone who wanted to have serious input from, and dialogue, with a range of stakeholders but many processes remained based within the local authority, relying on their mailing lists. The traditional way of involving people was to ask them to participate.

The stakeholders were largely defined by Agenda 21.

In their analysis of LA21s from around the world, WEDO state that the "cases clearly demonstrated that to a large extent there has not been an explicit approach to gender in most countries as part of LA 21; however, they showed there is ample room for development of such an approach" (WEDO 2000). The report goes on to identify barriers to women' s participation and strategies to overcome them.


Identifying MSP participants

Many local authority processes initiated by asking ‘known’ people to attend a launch conference. Those that do have the opportunity to become involved in further discussions, working groups etc, those that don’t are often ‘lost’ to the process.


Setting the goals of an MSP

Set internationally by Agenda 21. There was some confusion as to whether it was about community empowerment or about a programme of better environmental management. This lack of clarity about the purpose of LA21 is not surprising given that it was a fundamentally new approach to local development with no established procedures, and it was not a statutory duty. The original aim, as set by A21, was a local plan for sustainable development that would focus on key issues in that document, including poverty, health and livelihoods as well as resource and environmental issues.

Goals did develop and process moved into a dialogue situation. Those that said it was a consensus building process hadn’t asked the right people to be involved. Very few Local Agenda 21s have done realistic or credible work on consensus building but that’s not to say that there isn’t a substantial consensus.

Conflict – Consensus: The basic principles of LA21 call on councils to achieve ‘a consensus’ with their community. This led to increased interest in consensus and mediation techniques by councils, backed by active promotion from local government support organisations. However many NGOs and community networks remain sceptical about consensus, seeing it as compromise by another name. A number of flawed or inconclusive exercises provide evidence to support this view, as does the way in which some authorities have set the frameworks for consensus building exercises in ways which meant that areas of conflict have been concealed rather than openly discussed and resolved.

Evaluation: Right from the start, there were questions as to what impact LA21 might have. This led to interest in local indicators to track progress.

It is probably too late to successfully evaluate LA21 ….a lot of the very rich seam of material has probably been discarded or ‘fallen down the back of filing cabinets’. In 1997, some NGO agencies (Church, 1997) supported the ‘3 Ps’ model which poses insightful questions:

Process: Has the process of consultation been designed so as to ensure that all stakeholders had a genuine opportunity to take part and have an input?

Projects: Are things actually happening in the locality as a result of the LA21 process?

Policies:  Are the policies of local authorities and other affected bodies changing as a result of the LA21 process in ways that support moves towards sustainable development?

Participants have had endless opportunities to check back but there are real questions as to whether this ever happened as effectively as it might. People within working groups tend to become a member of that group, rather than a representative of an organisation … and if they checked back, they tended to do it with the organisation they had come from, rather than their broader constituency. People don’t know how to do this properly. And often people end up representing an artificially large constituency, e.g. an environmental group representing the community sector (where in a large city they could be faced with contacting several hundred groups they have no knowledge of).

Legitimacy issue: NGOs and Councils frequently claim to speak for local people but often there is little legitimacy for this claim. Some NGOs may represent the broad long long-term interests of local people but claims by participative groups to be representatives for specific communities are often founded no nothing more than wishes and anecdotal evidence. The most positive approaches are where each viewpoint has acknowledged the other and has agreed on the need to link these different processes in a well-defined and transparent manner. Dialogue like this takes time to build.

Community empowerment has to be a pre-cursor to more issue-focused work if that work is to be sustainable over the long-term. Much local action is only effective up to a certain point, after which institutional and political problems prevent this action from achieving its full potential.


Setting the agenda

The best LA21s were open processes using the initial stages to see what expertise people had and what they wanted to do. This was how many processes changed from just being purely environmental initiatives. For example, the issue of equalities came up early in the London Borough of Redbridge’s process and it has developed into one of the few LA21s with a meaningful statement and subsequent action on this. Reiterates the point that to have issues raised on the agenda is not enough – there has to be some response leading to positive change.


Setting the time-table

Timetables are usually set by the local authority, and latterly set to coincide with revised target of having a LA21 strategy in place by end of 2000.

ICLEI is co-ordinating local government preparations and input into RIO+10. One element is a worldwide survey of LA21 in practice (survey process underway, co-ordinated by Toronto Office, in association with CSD, and with collaboration from Capacity21/UN Development Programme. There will also be a Best Practices Report. And work to ensures authorities have an appropriate ‘voice’ and representation.


Preparatory process

Multitude of approaches but standard technique is to have an initial conference, use of working groups and some kind of cross-sectoral body monitoring it all. This might be a Steering Group, or in the case of Redbridge, an ongoing Panel which represents all sectors, rather than individual issues. Many programmes, when questioned about what they might do differently on this issue, reply that they would make more strenuous efforts to widen the steering group to involve other key organisations so that ownership, representation, and the platform for action is widened.

In many LA21s the involvement of various sectors – notably business, or an institution such as an Education authority - has tailed off as the process has got underway.

Stages can therefore be described as a public participation exercise, agreeing a more detailed vision, and specific actions plans in response to the needs identified. This process can take 2-4 years for trust building and partnership working to evolve.

A frequent comment is that the participation work always takes more time and persistence than originally expected.

Creating better dialogue: Round-table format (as defined by Canadian experience): not one-off meetings; composed of senior representatives of govt, business and environmental interests; active at a range of scales, and non-hierarchical, and meeting on terms of equality i.e. not ‘owned’ or dominated by any one partner.

Strong Partnerships: Experience from ICLEI member, Puerto Princesca City, Philippines demonstrates that even communities that have suffered severe environmental degradation in the name of economic development can reverse the trend and become a role model for sustainable development, as long as a strong partnership is developed between the local government and its citizens. People power made a difference. While the Puerto Princesca Watch originated as a special task force unit under the office of the mayor, it eventually grew into a multi-sectoral movement also involving the air and police force, joining forces with civilian volunteers to apprehend perpetrators of marine and forest-related crimes. Amongst lessons learned for smooth process and programme implementation is the need for strong political will coupled with broad-based support from all key sectors.


Communication process

Primarily face-to-face contact, meetings, newsletters, publications and events. Less reliance on electronic means (due to timeframe when LA21 initiated) but this is picking up now. A mixture of participation routes works better than one medium; together they provide a mixture of credibility and creativity.

Other tools for creating involvement include: visioning, planning for real, village appraisals, parish maps.

The better ‘designed’ processes had independent facilitation, especially for external meetings. The atmosphere of LA21 initiatives has ranged from “ Can do” to “ Must do”, depending upon the local authority person co-ordinating it. This is a key point for most of the LA21 processes - the professional involved does an enormous amount to ‘shape’ the atmosphere of it. This is something that needs to be explored in some detail – success depends upon it. Identical processes in different Boroughs/neighbouring towns can have hugely different rates of success; often down to just one key person.

Power gaps exist by the very nature of the process. Recent evaluations (Young & Church, University of Manchester, 2000) suggest that in very few places have the power relationships changed as a result of LA21.

Participation – representation question: With any interest in participation comes concern from those in authority about real or imagined – loss of power (Abbot 1996).

In many cases the total failure of MSPs to involve different disciplines is a significant failure. They are clearly more democratic than authorities going out, saying ‘this is what we are going to do…as a lesson in democracy, LA21 has been very good at mobilising white, educated middle-classes. Its nature – jargon-laden, lots of meetings taking place in people’s relatively rare spare time, and a requirement (to be effective) of knowing how local authorities work – leads it to people who are well educated, employed etc. This issue lies at the bottom of most LA21 problems – and is exploited by Chief Executives who label them as “middle-class chatter-shops” which is unfortunate as it ignores some of the very good work that has been done.

Numerous opportunities to review issues, and often an annual conference is used.


Decision-making process: procedures of agreement

Often sketchy, ill-thought out and relatively few LA21s had co-ordinated ‘ground rules’. They might have a day where a facilitator brought into the process stresses the need for ‘ground-rules’ but on many occasions, they have been forgotten by the next Committee meeting (because people are human).

Comment: Local Agenda 21 hasn’t been fully and objectively analysed and it shows many of the flaws in MSPs.


Implementation process

A classic case is if one sector leads an MSP, all the other sectors look to that process to implement the results rather than taking on ownership themselves (very rarely does it happen). Occurs partly as a result of the huge power gaps because local authorities have a huge role as guardians/stewards of the local environment.

One internationally-recognised example of LA21 implementation is the MAMA-86 Drinking Water in Ukraine project which brought together community activists from different parts of the country, representatives of other stakeholder groups and government officials to facilitate an integrated approach to discussions on water quality and its impact upon health. Communication work on these issues and public participation underpins their work. MAMA 86 (a grass-roots NGO set up after the Chernobyl disaster) uses international forums/agreements (e.g. events associated with Agenda 21, WHO Conference on Environment & Health, CSD etc) to publicise its work. It believes this tactic increases the role of NGOs and major stakeholders and the possibilities for co-operation with foreign partners in implementation of A21.


Closing the MSP

LA21 was never intended to be a process with an indefinite future: Chapter 28 of A21 set an initial target of 1996 for production of plans. In UK revised target of 2000.

Some still ongoing and evolving with new agenda to ‘mainstream’ sustainable development; some closed; some just collapsed and died when a local authority withdrew funding, or LA21 staff posts not filled, or due to lack of political commitment, or when something else comes along to grab attention e.g. Community Planning (part of Modernisation of UK Local Government). Note that many of the innovative tools under development to assure greater democracy have been used by LA21 initiatives previously. It has been suggested (Christie 1999) that LA21 practitioners should be happy to stand back and not insist on taking credit for their own innovations.

Comment: It is difficult to think of LA21s that have just ended (Manchester pulled the plug when NGOs walked out). Other local authorities have handed over the responsibility for running the process to an external body e.g. Gloucester (could be seen to be devolving ownership but cynics also say this lets the authority off the hook if the process goes wrong.


Structural Aspects:


Local authorities often assume overall facilitation and enabling role.



Varying ways and level of reporting.


Relating to not-participating stakeholders

Other stakeholders do know about the process because it is theoretically open to anyone. The lack of people ‘buying’ in to LA21, the lack of publicity and comprehension by the media meant it became hard to get publicity out. LA21 is full of jargon – it doesn’t ‘speak’ the language of people on the street. Most haven’t engaged people; LA21 is seen as something designed to empower the middle classes. But the best ones have set targets for public awareness and made all efforts to reach out to different stakeholder groups, often the traditionally hard to reach. Specific areas of concern have been the under-involvement of black and ethnic minority communities, poorer or disadvantaged communities, youth and the aged. “Non-involvement of such groups is a common failing of participative processes that have developed with little forward planning or policy” (Taylor 1995).

Strengthening civil society can be seen as a process of building social capital, of building confidence, and trust between citizens and institutions. Extremely relevant to local councils, who are often mistrusted by their local populations. Much work done through LA21 processes directly relates to building social capital.


Relating to the general public

Using mass media to convey messages is far more effective than other means.

Many far-reached claims have been made for LA21 processes, but there is no doubt that “tens of thousands of people have taken part in a process that developed both their environmental awareness and their perceptions of how such issues are related to broader social issues. In the best cases, there has been capacity and confidence building, and the creation of new local structures that seem to be self-sustaining……LA21 has opened up new ways of working nationally, locally and even globally: what is less clear is how far it has helped deliver the key objectives of Agenda 21" (Church 2000).


Linkage into official decision-making process

The LA21 MSP isn’t linked to an official decision-making process so as a non-mandatory process it is all the more remarkable that it has gone so far. But as a non-mandatory process, there is a question as to how much it will deliver. Perhaps its influence on other processes will be a more important and lasting legacy. While many individual LA21 initiatives have been disappointing in their failure to deliver what was expected, there has also been some extremely good work done and the best initiatives have certainly provided very valuable information on how sustainable development can be taken forward at the local level.



Different funding arrangements depending upon situation. Mainly local authorities who as facilitators, do have an ongoing role in initiating, running and implementing LA21 processes.


Additional Information

ICLEI involved in a number of MSP related projects.

1. One very specific project –a region in Germany where ICLEI reps go to assist. Ongoing –will last 2-3 years. Now evaluating work to date

2. Evaluation of Local Agenda 21 in Europe – the LASALA Project will provide an overview of what is going on in Europe and will help LA21s self assess their actions, also offers training on Internet.

3. Research underway on a number of issues finding out facts and conditions and pre-requisites for urban sustainability, and seeing how LA21 can contribute to employment action plans (launched February 2001)

4. Roundtable formats – dialogue between stakeholders

All these programmes aim, on different levels to engender urban sustainability and action plans.

International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) web-site: www.iclei.org


[ information gathered as of 16 February 2001 ]


Contact Minu Hemmati and Felix Dodds for further information.