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The government, via its main sustainable development website [1] , is advising community groups to get involved in their area's 'Sustainable Community Strategy'. If you take a look at your average local government website, I may be wrong about this but I suspect you might come across a plain old 'Community Strategy', but very rarely would you come across anything either simply named or otherwise anything like a 'Sustainable Community Strategy'. As yet there seems to be very little information, at least for community groups, from the government's 'Community Action 2020' programme, about how such a transition is being put into effect. So if the rhetoric is a little ahead of the situation on the ground, how might Community Strategies be transformed into Sustainable Community Strategies? How might the dull, grey caterpillars be transformed into vibrantly colourful butterflies?

For me the first thing is to get the community involvement right. It's not the bits of paper, the Strategies, what councils or their partners say they will do, that matter most. It's the underlying processes, the partnerships themselves and what they actually do.

It would be no bad thing if Local Strategic Partnerships were renamed as Local Strategic and Sustainability Partnerships. This would send a clear and unequivocal message, not least to the bureaucrats, that sustainability must also be about the strategic. That the strategic must also be sustainable.

For me the best Local Strategic Partnerships are those that have not remained content to be largely invisible to their local communities, but have properly and fully embraced the idea at least of genuine community involvement. Weren't Community Strategies brought in to be the strategies of the community, rather than the bureaucrats?

If so, the Agenda must also be the community's agenda, or a Citizens' Agenda, not just the Agenda of the bureaucrats, something which Local Agenda 21 at its best explicitly recognised.

This means that the actual day to day, and individual meeting, agenda of LSP's must be open to influence by the local community and specifically those local stakeholders who are interested in, passionate about, and champions of sustainability.

Notice I say 'influence'. It's perfectly reasonable for competing interests to want at least influence over busy and competing agenda. But keeping sustainability or community interests forever in the wings, and viewed as subservient to the interests of bureaucrats, or even irrelevant, is simply not sustainable.

So the next question is how can local sustainability interests, stakeholders and champions be supported? Doesn't every area, every local authority District, need or even deserve, a local forum for sustainability? A forum to grow, nurture and sustain a mature, self-confident consensus?

And doesn't that forum have to be supported with at least some real resources? Isn't it ideal if those resources are independent of the local bureaucrats that the local sustainability forum might on occasion have to challenge as a 'critical friend'?

Is it ever possible that the bureaucrats could move away from their fears and focus on the 'friend' part of that phrase rather than the 'critical' part'? If that were possible, if sustainability interests were allowed and enabled to have real and systematic influence on local and strategic decision-making, then the phrase 'Together We Can' might have a fair chance of coming to mean much more, to many more people.

Phil Green, October 2005

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