Senior Policy Advisor – Environment, Municipal Association of Victoria
A key challenge for local councils in Victoria has been to establish a partnership between state government and local government that effectively supports and recognises the important role that local government plays in Sustainability. The Brack’s Labour government has made high level commitments to sustainability and triple bottom line, but to date have had poor engagement with local governments on sustainability issues. The paper presents an outline of the recent establishment and success of the MAV Local Sustainability Partnership in addressing some of the issues in Victoria.
The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) has established a statewide partnership of councils involved in ecological sustainable development (ESD) /Triple Bottom Line/Local Agenda 21(LA21) initiatives. A successful first meeting of 17 member councils from around the State was held on 15th August 2001 to establish the MAV Victorian Local Sustainability Partnership.
Remember Agenda 21?
A key outcome in the original statement from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Agenda 21 document was the notion of sustainable development being addressed through local government. The Local Agenda 21 component of Agenda 21 highlighted among a number of principles, the importance of communities working towards sustainability within the governance structures of local democracy and community participation through local government. For example:
‘Because so many of the problems and solutions being addressed by Agenda 21 have their roots in local activities, the participation and cooperation of local authorities will be a determining factor in fulfilling its objectives’ and
‘As the level of governance closest to the people, they play a vital role in education, mobilising and responding to the public to promote sustainable development’1
In Victoria over the past ten years, about 15–20 local governments have embarked on local processes to engage with their communities and develop a strategic plan to address sustainability. Much of the work of leading councils in this area has developed on the back of the Local Conservation Strategy (LCS) program of the Cain and Kirner Labour governments of the early 90s. During the 6 years of the Kennett government there was no explicit support or acknowledgment of Local Agenda 21 or environment planning initiatives at the local government level. Despite this lack of State support, leading Victorian local governments have developed innovative approaches to sustainability.
What’s currently happening in Victoria?
However, more recently at a State level there has been an explicit focus on ‘sustainability’ with a number of approaches. The Brack’s Labour government elected almost three years ago had an election platform to create a ‘Commissioner for ESD’ and the government has undertaken extensive consultation on the proposed Commissioner. A final government response to these consultations is still being developed. Additionally the Brack’s government has highlighted the importance of triple bottom line (TBL) approaches and sustainability in the ‘Growing Victoria Together’2 policy statement. The still to be released Metro Strategy is to be a major statement by Government on the future of Melbourne, particularly focusing on the growth corridors of outer Melbourne, the urban–rural interface issues and the issues of integrated planning and transport across greater Melbourne. While these major initiatives have still to be launched, many of the programs now being developed by different Victorian government agencies to address sustainability still do not explicitly acknowledge and provide support of local government approaches to ESD such as Local Agenda 21. In fact, a number of recent initiatives could be argued to duplicate or cut across municipal approaches, and in a sense ‘re-invent’ much of the successful local sustainability work already underway through local government.
Example 1 — EPA led Neighbourhood Environment Improvement Plan
An example of a new Victorian initiative is the 2001 ‘Liveable Neighbourhoods Bill’, that brings into law the concept of the Neighbourhood Environment Improvement Plan or NEIP, based on the core concept of the ‘neighbourhood’ as the defining planning scope. This legislation, driven by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), extends the notion of site based Environment Improvement Plan (EIPs) for control of point source pollution to a broader neighbourhood level.
The Liveable Neighbourhood approach attempts to develop a community driven local approach to environmental management, providing a planning tool that is more responsive to community and to arguments for greater local autonomy and control of planning and environment issues.3
Like Local Agenda 21, the NEIP model seeks to tackle sustainability at the local level by creating a form of local community involvement. However, as with the Victorian residential planning system where a Minister or VCAT (administrative tribunal) can override a local planning decision, the EPA is the final approver and arbiter of NEIPs. While the work in developing an NEIP is undertaken by a local council (or other ‘protection agency’) and though a community process, the plan is still at the end of the day sanctioned or ‘approved’ by the State though the EPA.
The extent to which the resulting plans are powerful tools for addressing local problems will need to be judged by examining the first plans produced, but the underlying assumptions for the NEIP model places a very different emphasis on the local governance principles advocated through Local Agenda 21.
Example 2 — DOI led Area Improvement Program
This recently announced $1.1m initiative from the Department of Infrastructure (DOI) seeks to build local solutions to environmental problems and emphasises partnerships between communities and other stakeholders. It is aimed at rural communities in particular. The AIP program aims to:
‘building on local and regional partnerships and funding practical land-use solutions for rural communities’ and ‘ founded on the objectives of fostering partnerships, landscape conservation, sustainable development (triple bottom line outcomes), and providing for community capacity building’. 4
Figure 1 The range of local and regional initiatives to address ‘sustainability’ in Victoria. Note that most initiatives seek to deal direct with ‘community’ rather than work through local governments. The exception is the Municipal Public Health Planning Framework.
The DOI Area Improvement initiative, as with the EPA Neighbourhood model, seeks to deal directly with community, and positions local government as a support player alongside State government, other authorities, and the private sector. As with the EPA initiative it potentially sits outside or parallel to local government strategic planning, and outside regional catchment planning initiatives, funded through State and Commonwealth contributions under the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP). The aim of the program is: ‘ to produce ‘on-the-ground’ solutions owned by the community and supported by capital investment from private and public partners’.5 However, the link to be made by this new funding stream to both local government priorities and governance structures is unclear. Additionally, it appears the EPA and DOI have produced very similar programs with similar goals without any attempt to link the initiatives.
Example 3 — Catchment Management led Regional Catchment Strategies
At a regional level, the Victorian catchment management authorities (CMAs), established under the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994, are key vehicles for delivery of regional natural resource management.
Developing the links between Victorian local government and regional catchment management authorities (CMAs) has always been an important and vital challenge, but at times has been made more difficult by confusion over respective roles and responsibilities, and some initial tension over the collection of the now abandoned catchment waterway levy. One of the inherent challenges in the Victorian system of catchment management is to effectively link catchment based natural resource planning — coordinated at a regional scale with statutory land-use planning — delivered at a local government scale.
One of the major current issues facing local government across the country is how to engage with regional bodies such as CMAs that are developing accredited regional catchment plans that will form the basis for funding under the NAP. An important challenge is to ensure local government initiatives and local government priorities for capacity building, technical assistance and on-ground works, is supported and aligned with the regional catchment strategies and reflected in the accredited plans for the NAP.
Additionally, the challenge for both CMAs and local government is to engage the broader community in the huge task of natural resource management, to avoid duplication and to ensure regions move ahead together towards more sustainable futures. A growing trend in Victoria is for CMAs to start to embrace broader sustainability issues in their focus. While this is important, local government and the community need to ask whether the ministerially appointed catchment bodies have the necessary integrative and governance structures, and resulting community authority to actually address sustainability in the long term. As with the Victorian government’s various local approaches outlined above, the regional CMA approach neglects the key governance principle of local democracy highlighted through Local Agenda 21.
Objectives of the MAV Local Sustainability Partnership
It would appear that there is a growing tendency for the State Government to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and ignore existing successful local government approaches to sustainability. Additionally, the lack of acknowledgment of the importance of local democracy and local governance structures to inform solutions to local sustainability issues is concerning.
Given the range of competing and seemingly disconnected approaches to local and regional sustainability in Victoria, a key goal of the MAV Local Sustainability Partnership is to increase State Government’s understanding of the successful work being undertaken by Victorian local government in sustainability and Local Agenda 21.
With these issues in mind, the objectives of the Partnership agreed to by the 20 member councils are:
• To promote and support the uptake of local sustainability and Local Agenda 21 programs by local government and their communities in Victoria.
• To develop research, support and resources for councils undertaking local sustainability and Local Agenda 21 initiatives including links to National Local Leaders forum and Australian Local Government Association.
• To increase the awareness within State Government agencies of local sustainability and Local Agenda 21 approaches.
• To build links between local government sustainability programs and relevant State and Commonwealth Government policy processes and programs.
• To explore models for legislative recognition for local government sustainability approaches.
• To develop partnerships including relevant stakeholders such as other councils, State and Commonwealth agencies, business, non-government peak bodies and community.
Key goals for the Local Sustainability Partnership in 2002
• Promotion of local governments legitimate role in sustainability to key government decision makes such as the Premier and Treasurer.
• Development of case studies to demonstrate local government’s role and successes in local sustainability.
• A focus on community and community governance through the development of models for community sustainability indicators.
• The development of partnerships with State and Commonwealth to develop resources for local government — $, staff, capacity building and recognition.
The MAV Local Sustainability Partnership is a newly formed partnership of local governments whose key role is to develop a broader recognition of local government sustainability approaches in Victoria. A key challenge for the MAV as the peak association of local government in Victoria is to advocate not only for recognition for local governments sustainability role and to gather resources to assist local governments carry out their sustainability work, but to underpin this promotion with the basic principles of local governance and democracy which gives local government its mandate. The important principles of community participation and engagement underpinning Local Agenda 21 need to be emphasised and reinforced. The MAV Local Sustainability Partnership has had a successful beginning in 2001 with a strong commitment from member councils, and is looking forward to some tangible successes in 2002.
About the author
Peter Lyon has worked on both Commonwealth and Victorian local government level environment programs. While at the Australian Greenhouse Office he worked on community and local government programs. In the non-government environment sector while at Environs Australia he helped develop sustainability and greenhouse related programs. He has also lectured in environmental policy at RMIT. With degrees in science and social science he is currently completing a Masters of Environmental Policy at RMIT.
1 Chapter 28 Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 1992, Agenda 21:program for Action for Sustainable Development, United National Department for Public Information, New York
2 Growing Victoria Together, the Government’s broad vision for the future, was launched on Friday 23 November 2001 by the Premier Steve Bracks. For more information visit www.growingvictoria.vic.gov.au
3 Government of Victoria (2001b) Second reading speech of Environment Protection (Liveable Neighbourhoods) Bill by Minister for Environment and Conservation, Minister Garbutt, Legislative Assembly Hansard, Wednesday 21 March 2001
4 Department of Infrastructure 2002 – Flyer- Area Improvement Program
5 Department of Infrastructure 2002 – Flyer- Area Improvement Program