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Development, Sustainability and Environment

Participation and Representation
by David Large

A Review of Sustainability Here and Now,
part of The Great Debate: Development Sustainability Environment
held at Newcastle Civic Centre on 27 September 2003
Sponsored by Peer Review for European Sustainable Urban Development (PRESUD)

Chair: Viv Regan, Assistant Director, WORLDwrite

Allen Creedy, Project Director, PRESUD, Directorate of Enterprise,
Environment & Culture, Newcastle City Council
James Heartfield, editor Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age,
author The 'Death of the Subject' Explained,

Much work has already been undertaken at international, national and local levels to advance sustainable urban development. In the UK environmental thinking has become part of all our lives. The term 'sustainable development' has entered the mainstream and is used to guide policy at both local and national levels.

In his address to the National Energy Action Annual Conference on 10 September 2003 (see www.nea.org.uk), Charles Secrett, former Director of Friends of the Earth, highlighted the firm commitment to participatory democracy, as opposed to simple representative government, clearly set out in the Rio Earth Summit Agenda 21, 1992. He questioned whether this commitment had been honoured or ignored. In the last ten years has there been any advance from, at best, a John Stuart Mill-style representative political agenda to an active participatory social agenda? He thinks not, terming Local Agenda 21 a pastiche of the ideas enshrined at Rio.

Allen Creedy would not agree with this. For him the participatory agenda is alive, well and flourishing not least through the nine city, europe-wide, Peer Review for Sustainable Urban Development (PRESUD). Allen introduced and took us through the three year PRESUD consultative and participatory programme, due to end with a European Union summit event at The Hague in September 2004. (Rather than list the details here I refer the reader to www.presud.org.) While this sounds impressive we may ask what it actually comes to. Is it truly participatory and, if so, how is it participatory? And, to take an opposing view, do we need participation anyway?

Well, to enlarge upon Derek Bell’s comments from the morning session, opportunities for public participation are felt desirable because they give ownership to those affected, allow a fair range of views to be accounted for, and generally promote justice over injustice. The problems with this appear to be ensuring the participation is genuine (not just a smokescreen), inclusive (reflecting all views within the community), and effective (not just a talking shop). Participation in this full sense is intended to overcome the problems associated with the time-limited nature of representative government, such as short termism. Here, the danger is that by mainstreaming sustainability into existing political systems the problems associated with representative mechanisms are added while the benefits of truly participatory engagements are left out.

Newcastle’s sustainability programme includes participatory events such as today’s meeting, a further PRESUD event with representatives from other european cities to be held in February 2004, as well as an ongoing environmental forum. However, it was not clear from today’s meeting what this will achieve in giving ownership of the PRESUD/Local Agenda 21 programme to the citizenry in an active, participatory way. That said, these events do make a contribution and may well provide something to work with.

Beyond the work introduced by Allen there are many other organisations working for widespread participation in a broad, environmental based agenda. Many of these groups have gathered together in a loose collaboration founded by Jonathon Porritt, Sara Parkin and Paul Ekins under the banner Forum for the Future (see www.forumforthefuture.org.uk). It would be hard to dismiss the activities of all these people and of all these groups, at least not without first examining their positions and their work.

Yet James Heartfield doesn’t believe in any of this. He offered us the choice between a return to the ‘Dig for Victory’ rationed society of the 1940s, and a celebration of the ‘post-scarcity’ consumerism we currently enjoy. He went so far as to say that because we live in a rich society it is very easy for us to live with no money at all. James himself is between payments.

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Buy these books
The Politics of Money: Towards Sustainability and Economic Democracy Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age The 'Death of the Subject' Explained Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle The Skeptical Environmentalist
Our Common Future Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use From Here to Sustainability: Politics in the Real World  An Introduction to Sustainable Development Why the West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam

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© C J M Hewett, 2003