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The South Australian Partnership for Local Agenda 21 — collaboration for change

Maggie Hine

Local Agenda 21 Coordinator, South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage

Over 50% of all SA councils have made a voluntary commitment to undertake a LA21 with their communities, and others are undertaking initiatives in keeping with LA21 principles. This level of commitment and action has meant that SA has played a leading role in Australia in terms of responses to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit’s call for local authorities to implement Agenda 21 at the local level through LA21 processes.

This success has been entirely dependent upon the collective and cooperative efforts of the Partnership for Local Agenda 21 program partners, the councils, the Local Government Association and the State Government. The road thus far has been a substantial learning process for all concerned. If you are a student of the glass is half full perspective, you would say that much has been achieved. Conversely the student of the glass is half-empty perspective would say there is a long way to go. Both perspectives are correct and the learning continues. It is worthwhile therefore to reflect on how the Partnership began and what the future holds for this innovative program.

The early days — giving shape and meaning to the concept

‘This thing LA21 is like trying to sculpturing fog — how do we do it’. This was a cry that went up in the early 1990’s when local authorities around the world were trying to give local meaning and shape to the broad set of principles and global strategies contained in Agenda 21. The document provided no guidance to councils on how to operationalise it’s strategies and principles in a local government setting.

The fact that local government’s key role in implementing sustainable development was recognised in Agenda 21, was a reflection of the increasing function of local government in setting the environmental and sustainability policy agenda. In the South Australian context in the first half of the 1990’s, councils were facing increasing community expectations and legislative requirements to address environmental and sustainability issues. Yet there was no clear policy and planning framework in place to assist councils to respond to these expectations at a strategic and operational level.

The Partnership for LA21 was therefore established in 1995 by the project partners to develop an agreed framework, which was guided by the global concepts and principles of LA21 but allowed local needs and issues to determine the final detail of how a LA21 is implemented. The program was the first such joint State and Local Government initiative of its kind in Australia.

The lesson learnt is that this flexibility in approach has been essential in establishing LA21 as an accepted process by Local Government. The partnership approach also reflected the fact that the achievement of sustainability is a collective responsibility and requires the commitment and cooperation of State and Local Government.

Throughout the 1995–98 period the Partnership therefore worked with a growing number of councils to promote the uptake and application of LA21. This work included:

  • the funding of an LA21 Coordinator’s position in the Department for Environment and Heritage;
  • the establishment of an LA21 Network as an informal information sharing forum;
  • the production of educational and promotional material;
  • the provision of an advisory service; and,
  • the staging of a series of seminars, workshops, training and awareness raising programs.

While each council’s LA21 experience varied in its detail a set of core principles (listed below) emerged along with a model process to undertake an LA21. The Partnership therefore documented these core principles and model process in the guidelines Local Agenda 21:The South Australian Experience.

Core feature of LA21 in SA context

  • Permanency — long term commitment to achieve ESD
  • Integration — of LA21/ESD principles at all levels of decision making
  • Local Solution to Global Problems — linking local priorities and actions to Agenda 21 priorities
  • Partnership — commitment to work in partnership with community, private sector and other spheres of government

Copy of the full guidelines can be downloaded from the following website:

It is worth noting some general trends in LA21 practice in SA that have emerged as a result of this experience over the last few years. A more detailed discussion of these trends is contained within the document The SA Partnership for LA21:Identifying Future Directions. The document was released in December 2001 as part of an ongoing review and forward planning process for the Partnership.

Copy of the discussion paper can be downloaded from the following website:

General trends

Changing shape — moving beyond environmental dimensions of sustainability

To date a LA21 program has principally been used as an umbrella framework for councils to identify priority environmental issues and develop and implement environmental polices and management plans.

This focus had many benefits, including facilitating the:

  • emergence of the environmental policy officer as a professional niche in local government and thereby increasing councils’ capacity to address environmental issues
  • mainstreaming environmental issues into council’s strategic and operational decision making. The establishment of a plethora of local and regional environmental projects, particularly in metropolitan SA demonstrates this.

More recently a number of councils, have taken their LA21 process one step further and are focusing on the broader environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainability. This evolution is being most clearly demonstrated in the current efforts of councils to fully integrate ESD thinking into its all levels of planning (as illustrated in the various articles in this publication), a practice which is now a statutory requirements under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1999.

Meeting the needs of country councils

In SA there has been a clear disparity between the uptake of LA21 by metropolitan and country councils. This situation does not reflect a lack of commitment but the lack of resources confronted by smaller country councils that cover large geographical areas. In some instances these councils may be undertaking initiatives that are consistence with LA21 but for a variety of reasons are not labelled as such.

The Partnership is working with country councils to support them in their ESD planning. This includes the provision of sustainability awareness training for council staff and councillors, in sessions to be held later this year in Berri, Port Augusta and Mt Gambier. A finding of a recent round of consultations with country councils is that the councils preference is for a regional approach to LA21, as this would overcome the problem of lack of resources faced by individual councils.

A focus of the Partnership efforts over the next twelve months is to work with country councils to secure the necessary support to implement their own LA21 programs.

Improved collaboration — closing the policy loop

A key objective of the Partnership has been to improve the linkages between State and Local Government policy and planning processes and to increase cooperation in program delivery.

This collaborative approach recognises the high level of interdependency that exists between policymaking and program delivery at a local, regional, state, national and international level. A fact that was implicit to the thinking behind Agenda 21. This approach also respect the formative role of local policy making rather than viewing local government as a deliver of policy directions determined by other jurisdictions. Conceptually the Partnership has coined the term ‘closing the policy loop’ to refer to this form of policy integration and cooperation.

LA21: closing the policy

The Water Conservation Partnership Project was established by the Partnership to demonstrate ‘closing the policy loop; in action and to evaluate the nature of the relationships that are necessary in such partnerships and the benefits of this level of cooperation, in terms of improved decision making processes and sustainability outcomes.

For further information on the WCPP visit:

The future

Much has been achieved since the Partnership began in SA. A number of recent developments provide substantial opportunities to build on the solid foundation established to date. These include

  • the statutory mandate for ESD planning and participatory processes provided by the provision of the Local Government Act 1999
  • increased Commonwealth Government activity in supporting LA21.

The challenge now is to capitalise on these opportunities. The staging of the LA21 Sustaining Our Communities Conference provides a timely means to meet this challenge.

For further information on the Partnership and case studies of councils implementation of LA21 visit:

About the author

Maggie Hine is presently employed by as the Local Agenda 21 Coordinator with the South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage. Prior to taking up this position in 1998, she has worked in the environmental management and community development fields in local government and as an environmental campaigner with non-government organisations.

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