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Local Agenda 21 at Marion: cooperation for change

Rowena McLean

City of Marion

The City of Marion’s journey into Local Agenda 21 can be described, in my view, in the words of Paul Kelly’s song — ‘from little things big things grow’. Even though this is the tack often taken there have also been times when big leaps of faith have been made in an attempt to meet the challenges of sustainability.

A snapshot of Marion’s environment now would suggest that we are unsustainable. The encouraging news is that in the past decade Marion has been creating changes to try and turn this current picture on its head.

While there is no set recipe for delivering LA21 in an individual Council, cooperation, commitment, champions and positive persistence through the process have been essential in shaping Marion’s Local Agenda 21 experience.

Commitment, cooperation, champions (organisational, sector and community) towards cultural change for sustainability

It is important to note that the City of Marion had been supporting environmental initiatives sometime before adopting the Local Agenda 21 Program in 1995, out of a response to a growing community interest in environmental issues. It is from this commitment to address specific environmental issues that Council saw the value of developing a framework for Local Agenda 21, as one of the five pilot Partnership for LA21 Councils in South Australia.

Organisational champions: The Environment Officer at the time had a direct line of communication with the Chief Executive (who was supportive of the LA21 program). Having champions to the process at this level, combined with the commitment from the Mayor and Council, provided a positive beginning.

Sector champions: The role and support of the Department of Environment through the Partnership for Local Agenda 21 and the cooperation between the band of small pilot Councils assisted Marion through its teething process.

Community champions: To facilitate the principle of LA21 ‘Council and community working together’, an Environmental Policy Advisory Committee (EPAC) was established with community, staff and Elected Member representation, chaired by the Mayor. This combination of community leaders/experts, staff and elected members required all members to put aside any mistrust of one another, to cooperate, communicate and to commit to a process of creating positive changes.

Commitment to developing a plan of action: EPAC’s charter was to develop a Local Agenda 21 Environmental Policy and Action Plan and provide Council with advice on environmental issues specific to Marion. The plan was drafted by working groups (both staff and community representatives) and completed in 1997 after a lengthy consultation process. The end product was predominantly an environmental plan, the main focuses being: City Administration, Built Environments, Environmental Education, Biodiversity and Water Management. (Some of programs implemented from this plan are shown in the diagram.) It is not surprising that the first LA21 plan is an environmental plan. To deliver the concept of Ecological Sustainable Development (ESD), a new focus on ecology/environment needed to be introduced to balance the existing social and economic drivers already considered by Council within their strategic planning frameworks. Another important element was the introduction of the need to look longer term than the standard three year strategic plan period, an essential component of the LA21 plan.

Creating Cultural Change for Sustainability: A critical ingredient to the implementation of this plan has been the active engagement of staff in developing a shared understanding of the state of the global and local environment and the principles of ESD/Sustainability through training. Most importantly, training enabled discussion on what ESD actually meant for individuals and the organisation. Results of conducting sustainability training to over 200 staff demonstrated a high degree of concern about environmental issues within the organisation and 97% of staff stating that these issues are relevant to their work. Getting our own house in order and leading by example, ongoing support for community action and demonstration to the community of what can be achieved are pertinent ingredients to keeping people motivated towards achieving this long term vision.

Still, at an organisational level, the journey to sustaining a cultural commitment is however never constant — organisational restructures, new leadership, competing agendas, loss of champions — highlight the need for structured, institutionalised approaches to implementing ESD. Similarly, with the community, there was a need to introduce new approaches to engaging their interest and actively involving them in sharing a vision for a sustainable future. This was a major emphasis in the development of the Community Plan 2001.

Figure 2 Projects implemented as part of Local Agenda 21 since 1995

Snapshot of some of the projects implemented as part of LA21 program:

Marion and Mitcham Environmental Education Project

A joint project between the Cities of Marion and Mitcham and the Patawalonga Catchment Water Management Board, this project aims to promote responsible environmental practices of businesses in the Cities of Marion and Mitcham. A total of 3,000 businesses have been targeted.

Environmental management system

City of Marion was the first Council in South Australia to achieve an accredited environmental management system (EMS). The EMS ensures that the Council is able to identify where and how its own activities affect the environment and enable effective controls and procedures to be implemented. This includes compliance with relevant environmental acts and regulations, and adoption of ‘best practice’ environmental management procedures.

Plan amendment reports

The City of Marion recognises the need to improve development planning controls to achieve Ecological Sustainable Development outcomes. The following PAR processes have been initiated by Council to improve the current Development Plan: Residential Design PAR, General Environmental PAR and Edwardstown PAR.

Coastal management

The Coastal Management Strategy (1997) covers management issues for the seven kilometres of unique coastline. The strategy has involved an audit of coastal conditions, management strategies that seek to protect and enhance the coastal environment and an implementation schedule that identifies specific works, projects and further studies to be undertaken.


Biodiversity actions of the Local Agenda 21 Program recognise the need to protect and rehabilitate remnant habitats, support community initiatives, and develop revegetation programs. The City of Marion’s Biodiversity Policy links to all areas of Council operations, including maintenance of parks and gardens.

Water management

Council has been working in partnership with the Catchment Water Management Boards to implement the objectives of the Catchment Water Management Plans, including three major wetland developments and stormwater pollution prevention measures. The City of Marion has also instigated a number of actions to reduce water consumption, for example Aquifer Storage and Recovery demonstrations, Business Water Conservation Demonstration sites and regulating Council’s irrigation systems for optimum water efficiency.

Waste management

The City of Marion has provided a comprehensive waste and recycling service to residents since 1995. Marion’s rubbish and recycling service was the first integrated waste management system in South Australia. The service has met both national and state recycling targets for reducing domestic waste assigned to landfill by 50%. Domestic garden waste is also collected and mulched, composted and sold through Peat Soils and Garden Supplies.

State of the Environment Reporting

The first State of the Environment Report was completed in 1998. The environmental indicators are now being further developed to link more closely to Council’s Corporate Plan.

Positive persistence on pathway towards sustainability

The emphasis of environmental sustainability within the Local Government Act 1999 has provided greater leverage to the implementation of the principles of LA21 within Councils. It is inescapable. In Marion, the principles of ESD are now enshrined in Council’s overarching strategic plans. The challenge continues to find tools to deliver this concept at an individual work area. Local Agenda 21 can continue to drive the principles of ESD in strategic planning and provide extension to community initiatives beyond the role of EPAC. Simultaneously, Marion’s accredited Environmental Management System will be one way of taking the tasks to the individual work area. The key has been to introduce tools to drive the ‘E’ in ESD (balancing with economic and social issues) within the organisation, from policy to day to day decision making. Currently the Community Plan and Corporate Plan are being strengthened to introduce systems to further advance our ability to incorporate ESD into our everyday decision making. Whatever system is used there will continue to be a reliance on those individual drivers and a commitment by all to make it happen.

Figure 2 Integration of ESD principles into Council’s strategic plans

On the road to Jo’Burg — the next steps

On a daily basis we still have a tendency to make decisions which give little weighting to the ecological systems on which we depend. To tackle the challenge of implementing ESD is to accept that there are ecological limits to human activity. To respond positively to the ESD challenge requires fundamental changes to our decision-making processes and the systems that govern us. Some of the positive ways to move forward will include:

• creating a shared vision and understanding of the what is a sustainable future for the City of Marion (both within Council and the community)

• weeding out strategies that conflict and hinder progress towards ESD and build on integrated approaches.

• building institutional arrangements that cement the principles of ESD

• creating partnerships between Councils (eg City of Marion and Mitcham Environmental Education Project)

• extending regional approaches between Councils on shared issues (i.e. Metro Alliance for Cities for Climate Protection in SA, Southern Regional Waste Resource Authority)

• building greater partnerships with state government (for example the Local Agenda 21 Partnership Project and Water Conservation Partnership Project)

• linking budgetary processes to longer term strategic plans (i.e. triple bottom line)

• building on active ways to engage and work in partnership with the community towards shared future directions

• leading by example and demonstration through advocacy and action

• continual reinforcement of the preferred positive future.

To achieve these goals we need to create stronger partnerships and get over the temptation of competing with one another (both within an organisation and between Councils). As our UK Local Agenda 21 partners recently identified, ‘the insistence on primacy of ownership should not be underestimated as a potentially negative force.’

From little things, big things will continue to grow and an even greater number of the big leaps of faith will move us further along the pathway to sustainability. Together with our community our aim is to build on our successes and feel more confident ten years on from Johannesburg in 2012.

About the author

Rowena McLean has been working for City of Marion as the Sustainability Officer since 1999, responsible for the Local Agenda 21 Program. Her previous experience in local government was working in Community Environmental Education. Prior to life in local government, Rowena worked for a number of years in the non-government environmental movement, with both the Australian Conservation Foundation (SA branch) and the Conservation Council of SA.

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