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Collaborative partnerships for sustainable outcomes

Darryl Low Choy

School of Environmental Planning, Griffith University


The state and health of the global environment have been the subject of intense public and scientific debate since the 1960s, triggered by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), and a number of other early writings including SCEP (1970); Ward and Dubos (1972); Institute of Ecology (1972); Meddows et al, (1972). World attention to these potentially deteriorating circumstances has grown over recent decades as witnessed by a series of international initiatives, including, the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, the 1980 World Conservation Strategy (WCS), the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Report), and the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The ‘Road from Rio’ leads to the 2002 Earth Summit III after the Earth Summit II review of 1997.

This paper examines a number of responses to the subsequent call for closer scrutiny of the emergent issues of environmental concern at subnational levels — defined as regional and local scales. This paper argues a particular role for local government as the bottom tier of legitimate governance in these emergent cooperative partnership arrangements.

Towards a sustainable scale of planning

The first serious consideration of the need to address the world’s environmental issues at the subnational level emerged from the 1980 World Conservation Strategy (WCS). It argued that countries must establish a framework for achieving the objectives of the WCS through both the national level and ‘one or more subnational levels (provincial, state, municipal) …. or … several levels, depending on the division of government responsibilities for planning management of land and water uses’, (IUCN, 1980: s8). This was later reinforced by the Brundtland Report which was one of the first major international studies to recognise the importance of the subnational approach for addressing sustainable development objectives including the potential role of local government (WCED, 1987).

By the early 1990s, the subnational level was seen as an important scale for future cooperative planning, management and action. ‘Caring for the Earth’, considered ‘local governments are key units for environmental care … (with) … responsibilities including land use planning, development control, water supply, waste water treatment, waste disposal, health care, public transport and education’, (IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1991: 60). The growing importance of the subnational focus with local government involvement was projected into the international arena by its highlighted treatment in Agenda 21, (UNDSD, 1999; IGC, 2000). Receiving separate chapter status (Chapter 28), and along with Chapter 27 (dealing with NGO’s), some commentators believe that these two chapters represented ‘two of the most important chapters in the entire document’, (Rogers, 1993: 220). Agenda 21 acknowledged the importance of the local government level to achieving sustainable development objectives, noting that ‘local authorities are important in shaping environmental infrastructure, planning and policies because their governance is ‘closest to the people’ … (they) … have a vital role to play in achieving the objectives of Agenda 21 … (and) … consultation, cooperation and coordination among local authorities should be established or enhanced … ‘, (Grubb et al, 1993: 139). This was supported by Chapter 8, which dealt with the topic of ‘Integrating Environment and Development in Decision-Making’. It advocated ‘delegating planning and management responsibilities to the lowest level of public authority consistent with effective action’, (UNDSD, 1999; IGC, 2000).

These views were further reinforced by the 1996 Habitat II conference which sought commitments from national governments for their encouragement of ‘cooperation between local authorities, to strengthen the networks and associations of local authorities’, (UNCHS, 1996).

Towards subnational cooperative partnerships

By the early 1990s the focus of international attention had broadened to acknowledge the need to work towards an integrated cooperative planning approach at subnational levels. ‘Caring for the Earth’ acknowledged the constraints and inadequacies of institutional arrangements for effective environmental management at national levels. It argued for an integrated approach to sustainable environmental policy that would require the introduction of institutional transboundary cooperative mechanisms, including the establishment of ‘collaborative policy forums which bring together representatives from government, environmental groups, business and industry, indigenous people and other interests’, (IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1991: 66). It saw the implementation of national sustainability strategies directly through regional and local planning, such that ‘national plans should be extended by regional and local land-use plans … a joint project of government and the people who live in a region’, (IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1991: 66).

The last quarter of the last century has witnessed particularly strong and growing international level advocacy for a cooperative focus as well as for a subnational level approach. This has given rise to a number of important issues, including:

• Calls for a stronger interventionist approach in the planning process to achieve the desired outcomes of sustainable development. This raises the question of the degree of statutory backing required to achieve these objectives as opposed to a voluntary approach amongst participating stakeholders. It also brings into question the appropriateness of the cooperative Vs coordinating Vs collaborative approach.

• Essentially, effective cooperation has been supported for a range of activities including: collaborative research; information sharing, monitoring and other ‘plan making’ activities, BUT it has been less successful when it has come to commit to ‘plan implementation’. The challenge becomes how to achieve sustainable outcomes through voluntary cooperative arrangements for plan implementation.

These issues need to be addressed within the context of circumstances articulated by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development report in relation to the forthcoming Earth Summit III which acknowledged that ‘the world has changed enormously since the 1992 Summit’, (UNCSD, 2000: 1). It noted the major impediments to the implementation of Agenda 21 as ‘the lack of systematic and shared understanding of what the obstacles are’, acknowledging that these obstacles may be: financial; a lack of peace; capacity; education; transfer of knowledge and technology; lack of sufficient differentiated data; or lack of participation of relevant stakeholders. It further stated that ‘one problem with this is that addressing obstacles is an analytical rather than a visionary process’, which will require a thorough preparatory process prior to Earth Summit III in 2002, (UNCSD, 2000: 17).

The Local Agenda 21 experience

The Local Agenda 21 (LA21) initiative arose from the mandate provided by Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 for local government involvement in environmental planning for sustainable development. However, the Chapter did not specific what a LA21 was, nor the process to be utilised to derive a LA21. Lafferty and Eckerberg believe that this was omission by design in order not to be too prescriptive in view of the wide variety of local governments with varying degrees of capabilities, capacities and political systems. They believe that individual local authorities should interpret and ‘relativise’ Agenda 21 to suit their local conditions and problems. They concluded, ‘this type of interpretation has, in fact, served to deter a more positive and active approach to the idea of Local Agenda 21’ (Lafferty and Eckerberg, 1998: 3). The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) has primary carriage for the promotion of LA21. It was also responsible for preparing the draft Chapter 28 for UNCED.

ICLEIs LA21 program promotes a ‘sustainable development planning’ approach with the aim of broadening the scope of factors considered in municipal planning and decision-making within the context of the legal, technical and financial constraints upon municipal activities, (ICLEI, 1996). ICLEI has identified these constraints to include: political jurisdiction; limits in legislative or constitutional authority; the professional standards of key management disciplines; technology; and financial resources. One of their seven planning principles acknowledges the importance of ‘partnerships’ — alliances amongst all stakeholders established for collective responsibility, decision-making and planning (ICLEI, 1998). In this manner the cooperative sustainable development planning at subnational levels is anticipated to occur. To this end, ICLEI undertook a Model Communities Program (MCP) involving fourteen local governments throughout the World to trial LA21 planning approaches.

The Model Communities Project experience

Experience from two of the fourteen MCP case studies demonstrates a vast difference in approaches and outcomes.

Johnstone Shire in Far North Queensland undertook LA21 planning as part of its formal statutory town planning review process during the first half of the 1990s (Low Choy and McEachan, 1996; Low Choy, 1996; Low Choy and McEachan, 1997). The reviews of the Johnstone Shire’s experience demonstrated that its Council could not achieve its desired LA21 outcomes unless it:

• changed the culture of its internal organisation and staff;

• imbedded the policies and initiatives and action into its statutory planning mechanisms and similar legitimate inputs into its decision-making processes; and

• sought cooperative arrangements with adjacent local authorities and other principal stakeholders in the region.

It was also apparent that Johnstone Shire could not achieve its regional-scale LA21 outcomes without the cooperation of adjacent local authorities and other principal stakeholder groups in the region. It needed to embrace a number of voluntary cooperative partnership, including membership to the following examples:

• Northern Queensland Afforestation Program Joint Board (NQAPJB): a formal Joint Board of ten local authorities formed originally to operate within the Community Rainforest Reforestation Program which was aimed at mitigating the impacts of the declaration of the Wet Tropics World Heritage area. Its principal focus now centres on assisting member Councils in undertaking natural resource management tasks on a regional basis, namely vegetation management; pest management; and farm forestry. By its own conclusion, the NQAPJB cooperative initiative achieved results well beyond those that may have been possible by individual local authorities if they had acted alone. It provided a cooperative mechanism that allowed smaller, particularly rural councils with small rate bases, to reach environmental management standards they would otherwise never have achieved alone (NQ Joint Board, 1999).

• FNQ2010: a cooperative regional planning exercise, which seeks to manage future growth through an agreed Regional Framework for Growth Management (RFGM). The RFGM, comprising a regional vision statement, a set of integrated regional goals and a regional structure plan, commits all participants including the main group of eight local authorities to an agreed and consistent approach to landscape and environmental management for their region (FNQ RPAC, 1998).

None of these regional cooperative initiatives are based on a specific LA21 approach. However, they have embraced a cooperative partnership approach to the planning and management of regional landscapes and involve local government as the primary agent of management. As these initiatives have yet to enter a full implementation phase, it is difficult to assess if they can achieve the integration sought for comprehensive sustainable development planning.

Manus Province in Papua New Guinea undertook its version of LA21 planning outside of the statutory planning process and with a strong focus on establishing basic human needs at the local level. Its ‘bottom up’ approach to strategic services planning with its high degree of community ownership, involved a province-wide survey to establish the Basic Minimum Needs (BMNs) of the population. Twelve BMNs were identified including, (in priority order): shelter; spiritual development; medical care; family life; peace and harmony; population and family planning; water; food; communications; money; education; and land. These priorities were incorporated into Manus’ Integral Human Development (IHD) policy that was subsequently incorporated into the Province’s Five-Year Development Plan.

The IHD policy and the province-wide BMNs survey are good examples of the Manus community government system at work in partnership arrangements, involving all levels of the community in the planning and decision making process. One of the strengths of the Manus government structure is the well developed system of consultative mechanisms which exist at all levels from the local village and ward level, through the community government level to the provincial level or Lapan Assembly (Legislature), (Low Choy, 1997).

Manus Province had the advantage of being a regional level administrative unit where there was a concentration of resources (albeit minimal), intellectual understanding of the planning and management processes in operation, and the ability to negotiate on behalf of the lower levels of governance with the national government, NGOs, and external agencies. The studies that it sponsored were at provincial (regional) level and were appropriate for the development of LA21 policy. Ironically, the greatest challenge for the Manus Provincial government is to maintain its well-developed system of governance against the proposals of the PNG national government to centralise power and redefine the authority between the various tiers of government.

Amongst a number of findings from both LA21 case studies, conclusions relevant to the themes of this paper include the need to seek:

• greater attempts to engage a broader section of the community in both planning and implementation;

• incorporate LA21 outcomes into statutory planning processes; and

• to address local issues within the context of the regional level.

• These conclusions have been echoed by Lafferty and Eckerberg (1998) who reviewed LA21 planning in the UK as well as by ICLEI (1998).

Regional-scale Local Agenda 21

The application of the LA21 principles and procedures to the regional level has been suggested, although the Australian examples do not specifically refer to LA21, instead they refer to Regional Conservation Strategies, (ALGA, 1995; Brown, 1997). The joint (regional) model can involve two or more local authorities developing a strategy at the regional level (Robson, 1992). She notes that successful ‘will depend on existing inter-council links and an existing culture of resource sharing and cooperation’, (1992: 15). Very few cases exist where this concept has actually been put into practice specifically under the LA21 banner. One example is the Ballarat regional strategy, undertaken in 1990, which was a cooperative effort by seven local authorities based on their existing Economic Development Board. A comparison of the issues addressed in the conservation strategies completed by twenty-three Victorian municipalities, including the Ballarat region, demonstrated that it was one of only a few to address ecological principles and issues (1 of 3) and sustainability (1 of 4). However it did not address any issues unique from other municipalities (Robson, 1992: 43). The major advantages advanced in favour of the regional approach are cost sharing, actions can match the boundaries of the environment and issues (eg a catchment), and cross-boundary issues can be effectively addressed. Disadvantages include problems with coordination, cooperation, and implementing across diverse councils and groups (Robson, 1992: 14).

The Regional Landscape Strategy approach

The Regional Landscape Strategy (RLS) is a principal initiative of the SEQ2020 RFGM cooperative regional planning exercise for South East Queensland (SEQ). It is a partnership between the Federal, State and local governments, industry and business interests, community groups including indigenous, conservation, social welfare and professional interests. The RLS seeks to protect regionally significant open space currently in public ownership (16% of the region) and volunteered parcels of private lands (84% of the region). It promotes long-term outcomes for the region’s landscape and its communities based upon the following principles: equitable partnerships; community empowerment; whole-of-government approach; long-term local and regional planning; valuing rural communities and the rural character of the region; respect for traditional, historic and current landowners; on-ground projects with local management input; and transparent and participatory planning and management process.

A key aspect of the RLS and the manner in which it seeks to achieve its objectives centres on the extensive range of partnerships (horizontal and vertical) that it has established. Appendix A provides an indication of the nature and extent of these current partnership arrangements (RLSAC, 2001). As Table 1 illustrates, the RLS has developed an extensive array of partnerships with all nineteen local authorities and their Regional Organisation of Councils in the SEQ region; the principal state agencies with open space responsibilities; and all major community groups with an interest in planning and policy development for open space, outdoor recreation and conservation and associated aspects. These partnerships are in a range of bilateral and multi-lateral joint ventures involving for example: resource and landscape management; development of planning and management guidance; planning studies; policy development; and education and awareness programs.

Table 1

In terms of the themes of this paper, the lessons learnt from the RLS experience to date includes:

• Long Timeframes: Conventional planning approaches, political time horizons and community perceptions of landscape management have traditionally been of a short-term nature. However, the RLS experience has demonstrated that changes to the regional landscape are long term and requires a planning and management approach that can account for the long term perspective — in essence, a strategic and an adaptable management approach;

• Stakeholder Trust: Stakeholder expectations need to be cooperatively managed to fit with the intra and inter-generational processes required to build sustainable community support for the regional management of their landscapes;

• Partnership and Collaboration: The RLSAC is the forum for key stakeholders to be involved in the planning and policy development for the protection of the region’s open space. The Committee has built partnerships initially in non-threatening contexts, eg. projects on RLS properties, later extending to regional projects such as the development of local government guidelines for the protection of regional landscape values; and

• Coordination: The RLS, having no legislative basis, is dependent on the voluntary contributions of those who manage and use the landscape. Without the coordination of their contributions there is no strategy and current problems of fragmentation and ineffectual isolated activity, are likely to remain. The RLSAC has the critical role of identifying opportunities and leading processes for coordination and cooperation of regional open space management in the region. (Low Choy and MacDonald, 2002)


The case studies reviewed provide examples of responses which have put into practice the international calls of the last three decades for addressing the global environmental challenges at subnational scales based on the lowest level of legitimate governance with planning and management responsibilities and capabilities. The case studies have confirmed that there is a strong and positive role for local government involvement in landscape and environmental planning and management. They have further confirmed that the emergent environmental issues of regional significance can be adequately addressed by regional coalitions of existing local governments collaborating in voluntary cooperative partnerships, either amongst themselves, or in broader-based partnerships that include other levels of government and business and community interest groups. These cooperative partnerships are of both a vertical and a horizontal nature.

There is amply evidence emerging that we can establish Collaborative Partnerships for Sustainable Outcomes.


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About the author

Darryl Low Choy is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Environmental Planning, at Griffith University, Brisbane. His main teaching responsibilities and research interests are in catchment management, cooperative regional planning, regional open space planning, environmental management in local government (including Local Agenda 21 planning), and community based planning at catchment and regional scales. He has worked on a number of recent state planning and environmental management initiatives. He currently chairs the Queensland Government’s Regional Landscape Strategy Advisory Committee.

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