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The Millennium Development Goals will remain an impossible dream unless local governance is wedded to better global stewardship, argues Philip Monaghan FRSA.

'Eco cities', urban 'place-making', and the 'big society'; what do these things have in common? The answer is they are all concepts of sustainable settlements (low carbon, more equal and prosperous living) that are likely to be doomed to failure. But why? Because these concepts are based on local self-determination and this remains fragile if not connected to resolving trans-national governance problems ranging from reform of the international banking system through to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Vice versa, global efforts to move beyond GDP as the primary measure of development or to adapt to climate change can be undermined by weak local leadership.

Seminal thinking over the past four decades from Schumacher's  Small is Beautiful (in the 1970's) to Resilient Planet, Resilient People by the recent UN High-Level Panel Global on Sustainability have gone some way to highlighting the point, without quite being able to square this circle.The bottom line is that we live in a complex and interconnected world. Opting-out of the system at the household or national level is simply not a viable option.

Take for instance, the proliferation of credit unions or other alternative forms of responsible lending that aim to help regenerate poor neighbourhoods. These communities are not insulated from the failings of global market mechanisms. If we do not reign in the credit ratings agencies, as a first step towards sorting out the financial ecosystem, then firms like Moody's, Fitch and S&P will still have the power to make nations go bust. When they downgrade the credit worthiness of countries like Italy and the United States, the cost of borrowing goes up. This slows the pace of recovery from the recession, but more than this it hurts the poor the most.

Another illustration is the rise of national strategies on the green economy, be it for reasons of energy security, competing in the $5 trillion cleantech marketplace, or the huge costs of extreme weather. Like is the case in the UK, these policy roadmaps can often focus on what central government will do and what is expected of business, without making much (if any) reference to the vital role of city majors and other municipal leaders in the great transition.

After all, from Amsterdam to Toyama, it is local government which is responsible for flood defence, retraining the local workforce in green skills, and spatial planning that supports fossil free public transport and district heating. Indeed these urban centres are increasingly the innovators in these fields to the extent that their thinking is way ahead of government strategy. For example, California has set the nation's highest renewable energy target or ecosystem services in Quito to counter water scarcity. Any fractured approach to decarbonising a country's economy is simply bad news for everyone. Worse still, a lack of collaboration wastes finite resources during a time of austerity.

In summary, we cannot have a strong nation if we do not have resilient local places. And if we want local places that are resilient we need to sort out some big international problems too. Identifying the key leverage points and then making the smartest interventions requires an understanding of this complex system.

With respect to the credit rating agencies, this means addressing the power imbalance and getting big money working for the public good, As a first step, this must involve rating each of the raters according to the transparency of their decision-making, competency to operate and avoidance of conflicts of interest, as well as looking at alternative models of delivery, such as establishing a new independent national or international rating body. To work this UK action needs to be part of a transnational effort with similar reformers from Europe to the US, to ensure there are clear and consistent global rules.

In terms of transition to a green economy, the government should recognise the vital role of local authorities in its national strategising. It can also support local authorities to achieve even more; ranging from helping to unlock pension fund investment in low carbon regeneration projects, through to requiring the electricity industry to work with local authorities on district energy planning.  By doing so, everyone wins;  it enables the public sector to do more with less, the UK to bounce back from an economic downturn and for the nation to boost its resilience to future shocks and surprises.

Philip Monaghan is Founder and CEO of Infrangilis. Philip’s new book How Local Resilience Creates Sustainable Societies was published by Routledge on 27 February 2012.


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