Participatory practice in the context of Local Agenda 21: a case study evaluation of experience in three English local authorities

Participatory practice in the context of Local Agenda 21: a case study evaluation of experience in three English local authorities
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  Sustainable Development Sust. Dev.  7,  151–162 (1999) PARTICIPATORY PRACTICE INTHE CONTEXT OF LOCALAGENDA 21: A CASE STUDYEVALUATION OF EXPERIENCEIN THREE ENGLISH LOCALAUTHORITIES Andrew Wild and Robert Marshall* University of Sheffield, UK  This paper examines the different ways inwhich the participatory principles of Agenda21 are being put into practice in the UK, byreference to research in three ’progressive’localities: Kirklees, Leicester and Mendip.The investigation includes an examination of the reasons why a participatory approach isbeing adopted, how the local authorities areengaging the public in Local Agenda 21 (thelevels, methods and scope of participation)and how effective their approaches havebeen. The research reveals that a variety of participatory methods and techniques arebeing employed at various scales. The threeauthorities emphasize a listening and openapproach to the decision-making process,but despite their commitment toparticipation there had been limited successin securing widespread involvement of people, and especially disadvantaged groups,in the process. Key issues to emerge are theimportance of the commitment of keyelected representatives and the need forparticipation to be an ongoing commitmentwith a preparedness to begin with ’wherepeople are at’ rather than to set aspirationstoo high. The implications are that change isneeded in the way local authorities relate tothe communities they serve, but this willplace considerable demands on alreadystretched local authority resources,particularly where positive action is neededto ‘build capacity’. Copyright  1999 JohnWiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.Received 29 October 1998Accepted 2 December 1998 INTRODUCTION A genda 21 has been hailed as the mostimportant document that came out of the1992 Earth Summit. Substantively, itssignificance will be measured by its success indelivering sustainable development. Also import-ant, however, is its commitment to a participatoryprocess of decision-making. As Agyeman andEvans (1994) have argued, Agenda 21 is ’pro-foundly democratic and egalitarian in outlook’, inthat it not only ‘emphasises the need to adoptpolicies and strategies to meet the needs of disadvantaged groups, it also stresses the impor-tance of encouraging such groups to participatein decision-making and the implementation of policy’. It is the participatory nature of the Local *Correspondence to: Robert Marshall, Department of Town andRegional Planning, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK.CCC 0968-0802 / 99 / 030151–12 $17.50Copyright  1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.  Agenda 21 process that is the focus of this paper,which presents the findings of research con-ducted in 1996 into the process by which threeEnglish local authorities attempted to engagetheir local communities in the production andimplementation of Local Agenda 21 strategies.The aims of the research were(i)to examine  why  public participation wasgiven prominence in the Local Agenda 21process,(ii) to establish the  level   of participationadopted (the degree of power sharinginvolved) and the  scope  of participation (inwhat decision arenas were people beinginvited to participate),(iii) to investigate the  methods  used in partici-pation and(iv) to evaluate the  success  of strategies, par-ticularly in securing the involvement of groups traditionally under-represented indecision-making.To provide the richness of detail required a casestudy approach was adopted, concentrating on alimited number of ‘progressive’ authorities. It wasdecided that only a case study approach couldprovide the depth of investigation required. Inany case, comprehensive surveys of all localauthorities had already been carried out, provid-ing an overview of progress in the Local Agenda21 process (Tuxworth, 1996). These, however, did not reveal the  scope  and  purpose  of participation orestablish which groups were being drawn into theparticipation process.  Progressive  local authoritieswere those which, from the evidence available,were embracing the participatory and egalitarianprinciples of the Agenda 21 Agreement and wereinnovatory in their approach to public involve-ment. Three local authorities were chosen:Kirklees, Leicester and Mendip. Semi-structuredinterviews constituted the main method of inquiryand these were held with as many of the keyplayers as possible. These included local authorityofficers closely involved in Local Agenda 21,elected members and representatives of voluntary / community organizations involved inthe participation process. In addition, the mainresearcher attended, whenever possible, meetingsor activities within the locality. ANALYTICAL FRAMEWORK In order to evaluate approaches to communityinvolvement in the case study authorities it wasnecessary to construct an analytical frameworkagainst which to assess methods and structures of participation. This took the form of a typologybased upon four dimensions of the participatoryprocess: levels of participation; scope of partici-pation; techniques and decision-making structuresand who is being involved. Levels of participation  concern the degree towhich power is devolved. Arnstein’s (1969) lad-der of participation still retains its value as a wayof categorizing approaches to communityinvolvement ranging from ‘manipulation’ and‘therapy’ on the bottom rungs (merely publicrelations exercises involving no real devolution of power and, therefore non-participatory forms of citizen involvement) through to ‘delegated power’and ‘citizen control’ on rungs seven and eight,which involve degrees of empowerment of com-munity groups through the principle of delegatedauthority. Arnstein’s ladder deals explicitly withpower but the ‘level’ of participation is not theonly issue to be considered. As Thomas (1996,p 171) observes, participation ‘may be accordedconsiderable significance but perhaps over adefined range of issues’. An important dimension,therefore, is the  scope  of participation – the scaleand significance of the issue in which the public isparticipating. Both Wilcox (1994) and Young (1996) give attention to this issue and Young alsohighlights the importance of the  stage  at which theparticipation process comes in the policy-makingprocess; if some decisions have already been takenor certain positions are fixed before participationtakes place then this will also influence the scopeof participation.Different levels of participation require differ-ent  techniques  for encouraging or facilitatingparticipation. Wilcox (1994) in focusing on thisissue reduces Arnstein’s eight levels of partici-pation into five and identifies appropriate pro-cesses, techniques and stances as can be seen inTable 1. These different levels and methods of participation each imply a different relationshipbetween the local authority and the public anddifferent  decision-making structures . The first twolevels – ‘informing’ and ‘consultation’ – do notrequire significant amendment to existing political A. WILD AND R. MARSHALL Copyright  1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.  Sust. Dev.  7,  151–162 (1999) 152  structures since the responsibility and power of decision-making is retained by the local authority.However, ‘deciding together’, ‘acting together’and ‘supporting community initiatives’ require thelocal authority to devolve some of its decision-making responsibility and consequently someform of additional decision-making body isneeded to augment the existing structure of elected representatives. There are potentiallymany forms these structures might take – neighbourhood councils, partnership committees,community councils, community action groupsand so on. The decision-making structure is animportant aspect of power devolution because itis the formal framework within which communityempowerment takes place.The levels, techniques and structures provide aguide for categorizing examples of communityparticipation in Local Agenda 21 but they do notelucidate to whom decision making is beingdevolved. The intention of the Agenda 21 agree-ment is that the process should achieve broadpublic involvement, going beyond those groupswho routinely involve themselves in localdecision-making. The principles of the agreementespouse an essentially neopluralist view of localdemocratic relationships in that, while acceptingthat power should be broadly retained by electedrepresentatives, public participation shoulddirectly seek to overcome inequality of oppor-tunity to influence decisions by deliberately seek-ing to give a ‘voice’ to those normally excludedfrom the process.In summary, therefore, the discussion hashighlighted a number of dimensions of publicparticipation which provide a framework forexamining community participation in LocalAgenda 21. There is the  level   of participation, ameasure of the degree of power sharing; thereis the  scope  of community involvement, a measureof the extent of community influence; there arethe  methods and decision-making structures  beingemployed in the process and, finally, there is theissue of   to whom power is being devolved  , the extentto which community participation is reinforcingor challenging existing inequalities of power andopportunity to influence. In the discussion of thecase study findings that follows, these questionsare addressed. In addition, an attempt is made tosummarize the context of the Local Agenda 21initiatives including the background to theirdevelopment, the definition of sustainable devel-opment being used and the ‘values’ being placedupon participatory practice. THE CASE STUDIES Kirklees Kirklees has been at the forefront of develop-ments in environmental policy since the publica-tion of the  State of the Environment Report  in 1989.Undoubtedly, political support at senior levels hasbeen an important factor in the development of the local authority’s stance on environmentalissues. In 1990 Kirklees published the Kirklees Charter for the Environment  and, in September1991, it set up an Environment Unit with a brief to ‘co-ordinate the environmental policies and Table 1. Levels of participation and appropriate techniques.Level / stance Information Consultation Deciding together Acting together SupportingTypicalprocessPresentation andpromotionCommunication andfeedbackConsensusbuildingPartnershipbuildingCommunitydevelopmentTypicalmethodsLeaflets, media,videoSurveys meetings,exhibitionsWorkshops,planning for real,strategic choicePartnershipbodiesAdvice, supportfundingInitiatorstance‘Here’s whatwe aregoing to do’‘Here are ouroptions, whatdo you think?’‘We want to developoptions and decideactions together’‘We want tocarry out jointdecisions together’‘We can help youachieve what youwant within theseguidelines’Adapted from Wilcox (1994, p. 15). PARTICIPATORY PRACTICE Copyright  1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.  Sust. Dev.  7,  151–162 (1999) 153  activities being developed by Kirklees Councilmany in partnership with local businesses andcommunity groups’ (Kirklees MetropolitanCouncil, 1994). In 1992 the Council adopted theFriends of the Earth (1989)  Environmental Charter  for Local Government , which led to the productionof the Kirklees Environmental Action Programme,intended to ‘green’ the activities of the Council’s38 ‘service areas’.In the early stages of the development of itsenvironmental policy Kirklees gave priority to‘getting its own house in order’ and to awareness-raising activities. This work expanded, however,into more participatory approaches and this wasreflected in its approach to Agenda 21 where fourpilot area initiatives were launched in DenbyDale, Holme Valley, Colne Valley and SpenValley. The pilot areas were established in April1995 ‘to try out new methods of working withlocal people to make decisions about their neigh-bourhood’ (Kirklees Metropolitan Council, 1996). As pilot initiatives, a conscious decision wastaken to encourage diversity so that differentapproaches could be assessed for their strengthsand weaknesses. The first year of operation con-centrated mainly on raising awareness andstimulating local communities to becomeinvolved.The four projects were co-ordinated by differ-ent agencies. Two (Denby Dale and Spen Valley)were being co-ordinated by Kirklees CountrysideManagement Service. Holme Valley was co-ordinated by the Authority’s Social ServicesDepartment while the fourth, Colne Valley, wasmade the responsibility of the Colne Valley Trust(CVT), a Rural Development Trust established in1990 to assist in the regeneration of the valley.The projects were overseen and monitored by aPilot Areas Support Officer. At the time of thefieldwork much of the work was still focused onawareness-raising and capacity building but avariety of projects had started. These indicatedthat a broad definition of sustainable developmentwas being adopted, incorporating social andeconomic as well as environmental emphases.Projects being actively supported includedconventional ‘environmental’ schemes such ascountryside management, but also more inno-vative projects such as co-operative organicfood production, revitalization of green spaces onlocal authority housing estates, an environmentalinformation ‘telephone hotline’ and a locally gen-erated feasibility study for a community centre.Environmental awareness-raising initiatives weremoreover seeking to encourage local people tosee their neighbourhood environments in a tem-poral framework (through, for example, visioning)and, in the Colne Valley, the name ‘Agenda 21’was initially abandoned in favour of WHAM – what happens after me?A number of motivating forces for the com-munity participation element of the programmewas revealed. The desire to improve com-munications between communities and the councilwas apparent. Other motivations were instrumen-tal in nature so that, for example, awareness-raising was seen as a necessary prerequisite forachieving public acceptability of politically diffi-cult decisions. Two linked matters were apparenthere. First, there was recognition of the existenceof public mistrust of the local authority and publicinvolvement as a means of reducing this disaffec-tion. The second was acknowledgement of thefact that achieving sustainable development willinvolve difficult political choices and environ-mental awareness-raising would help to buildsupport for potentially unpopular decisions.Other objectives though were important.Although participation was seen instrumentally itwas clear that public involvement was also valuedfor its own sake: ‘creating communities in whichpeople feel involved and committed’ (KirkleesMetropolitan Council, 1995). Emphasis in theinterviews was placed on the need to reach out to‘under-represented’ groups and the importance of developing community responsibility for localenvironments. Levels of participation Given the diversity of approaches adopted it isnot surprising that participation was occurring atseveral levels. The many awareness-raising initia-tives were largely ‘informing’ exercises, althoughin some instances, such as the ‘vision to action’project in Colne Valley, awareness-raising wasa precursor to more practical involvement.‘Deciding together’ was operating in two councilestates in Spen Valley (the community centre andrevitalization of green spaces proposals). ‘Facilitat-ing community initiatives’ and ‘acting together’were also involved. For example in Denby A. WILD AND R. MARSHALL Copyright  1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.  Sust. Dev.  7,  151–162 (1999) 154  Dale, the pilot areas project constituted a partner-ship with the Parish Council which, amongstmany other things, administered an environ-mental grants scheme – providing financialsupport for locally generated initiatives thatfulfilled the requirements of a ’sustainabilityassessment’. This sustainability assessment wassubsequently adopted authority-wide in theKirklees Environmental Grants Scheme. Techniques and structures A diversity of techniques and methods werebeing utilized. An important feature of theapproach has been that in most cases the pilotprojects worked through established groups, pro-viding greater opportunities for agendas to be set,not by the initiator, but by the participants.Visioning had in some instances been used inpreference to other consultation techniquesbecause ‘people normally feel constrained by theirview of what is possible. . . visioning is a way of raising awareness  and   broadening horizons’(personal communication, Pilot Areas SupportOfficer). The Colne Valley area was distinctivebecause this was the only project co-ordinated bya non-local authority agency. The CVT felt thatits separation from the local authority offeredadvantages and disadvantages. It possiblyavoided the public suspicion that local authoritiessometimes engendered in the public. On the otherhand, the lack of a clearly visible status presentedproblems. The public was sometimes unclearabout the status and role of the CVT. The CVTalso faced the perennial problem of resources andespecially recruiting volunteer labour. Scope of participation The pilot areas have been given considerablefreedom by Kirklees Council to develop their ownagendas and initiatives and this is reflected inthe diversity of projects initiated or supported.Despite the relatively free rein accorded to thepilot areas, the Council retained overall control,not least in terms of funding. Within the pilotareas, therefore, quite a wide degree of delegatedpower was vested in local communities  but  thescale of influence was relatively small both interms of geographical jurisdiction and in terms of the issues which can be confronted. A tension wasidentified between open-ended participation tech-niques that try to find out what people want, andthe possibility of raising unrealistic expectations. How effective?  The overwhelming view of those interviewed wasthat the pilot areas had not been in operation longenough for it to be possible to evaluate success.Notwithstanding this view, there was an under-lying feeling that progress in actively involvingpeople had been slower than anticipated andsome disappointment at the extent to which ithad been possible to involve disadvantagedgroups. Involvement of local businesses hadalso been difficult to achieve. Despite these dis-appointments there was optimism and justifiablegratification at the successes which had been won. Leicester Leicester, like Kirklees, has a well establishedreputation for advancing the cause of environ-mental sustainability. As in Kirklees, Leicester’scommitment to the environment has been drivenby political support from senior levels. It isimportant to place Leicester’s approach to LocalAgenda 21 within the context of earlier workcarried out as Britain’s first Environment City(designated in 1990). The formative years of the Environment City  experience were built aroundspecialist contributions from the public, voluntary,private and academic sectors. The council estab-lished an Environment City Board consisting of senior decision-makers drawn from the differentsectors along with eight Specialist WorkingGroups (SWGs) which brought together expertsto address the eight themes of built environment,economy and work, energy, landscape and ecol-ogy, society and community, transport, waste andpollution. As Newby and Bell (1996, p 101)observed, ‘at first, the SWGs were seen as thedriving force of the initiative, and indeed a rangeof successful (if mainly small-scale) projects weredeveloped by them. However, it became clearthat they were part of a jigsaw of solutions notthe whole picture’. It was recognized that LocalAgenda 21 required additional elements apartfrom those which had emerged from the  Environ-ment City  approach. The first was the need forcommunity input involving a broad cross-sectionof the city’s population. The second was a broad-ening of the approach to give more emphasis to PARTICIPATORY PRACTICE Copyright  1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.  Sust. Dev.  7,  151–162 (1999) 155
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