Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Populating The International Promise Of Agenda 21

There are plenty of reasons for being cynical about the substance of abstract international agreements, but there are good reasons for demanding that the promises made during and after the Rio Summit of 1992 be fulfilled. Jim Carey looks at the opportunities represented by the UK Government’s high international profile on Agenda 21.

Squall 10, Summer 1995, pg. 17.

While 200 occupiers were completing their week long land protest at a disused airfield in Surrey, John Gummer, Secretary of State for Environment, was puffing the UK Government chest at the Commission for Sustainable Development in New York.

The irony of these two simultaneous events lies in the fact that both the land protesters and John Gummer were talking about the same thing - Agenda 21.

The Commission for Sustainable Development is a once yearly meeting within the UN system, designed as an opportunity for nations to report on and discuss their implementation of Agenda 21. It also aims to produce protocols on ways to proceed. It is a testament to how well the UK Government thinks it is doing with its own Agenda 21 implementation, that both the Secretary of State, John Gummer and the Environment minister Lynda Chalker attended the conference.

In a similarly high level Conference on Poverty held in Copenhagen in March, the UK Government kept a low profile, sending only a junior minister as a representative. The headlines all too briefly pointed out: “Major accused of insult in snub to poverty summit.” (The Independent 13/2/95)

Levels of poverty have risen to such an extent in the UK over recent years that Oxfam, who have previously only operated abroad, have decided to commence poor-relief schemes in this country. The UK Government’s record on poverty is poor in itself, leading them to show little interest in accounting for such an embarrassing situation in an international arena. On the other hand they consider there are international good marks to be obtained from being seen as an Agenda 21 prime mover.

“The UK Government see Agenda 21 as an environmental process - that’s quite apparent in the different profile they have played at the Commission for Sustainable Development and the social summit in Copenhagen,” says Tom Bigg, UK administrator for the UN Environment and Development Committee.

Whether or not the UK Government have the right to consider themselves as champions of the environment is very much open to question, John Gummer on the other hand considers Britain to be the “clean man of Europe”.

“When you look at what is being done through Agenda 21 - and in other countries where local Agenda 21 is more tied to social issues and equity - it’s clear it is far more than just environmental protection and maintaining the status quo,” says Bigg.

And so it seems that whilst the UK Government considers it’s environmental record to be good one, it plays a high profile on Agenda 21 conferences and make promises about its implementation. Once these promises have been made, it is then up to campaigns like The Land is Ours, along with non-governmental organisations concerned with both the environment and social equity, to highlight what it is that the UK Government has actually agreed to.

In this way, the large tracts of the Agenda 21 concerned with the relief of poverty and homelessness through community initiatives and low impact dwellings, might then be a promise the UK Government did not know it had made but which it is now obliged to keep.

The promise reads: “Access to safe and healthy shelter is essential to a person’s physical, psychological, social and economic well-being and should be a fundamental part of national and international action. The objective is to achieve adequate shelter for rapidly growing populations and for the currently deprived urban and rural poor through an enabling approach to shelter development and improvement that is environmentally sound.”

So says Chapter 7 of Agenda 21. And there’s more.... “All countries should as appropriate, support the shelter efforts of the urban and rural poor, the unemployed and the no-income group by adopting and/or adapting existing codes and regulations, to facilitate their access to land, finance and low-cost building materials and by actively promoting the regularization and upgrading of informal settlements and urban slums as an expedient measure and pragmatic solution to the urban shelter deficit.”


One of the major demands presented by The Land is Ours group is that favourable planning procedures should be established allowing construction of low-impact dwellings and small subsistence agriculture on self-owned land. At present, caravans, benders, tepees or garden sheds are the subject of strict, and as many have discovered, subjective, planning restrictions. Similarly, the right to live on land and grow your own food, is restricted by discriminatory criteria concerned with the economic significance of the crop you intend to grow. For instance, the residents living on their own land in benders at Tinkers Bubble in Somerset have been told that the thousand apple trees they live with and tend is not economically significant and therefore does not entitle them to live there. They are presently appealing against the ruling.

There are a number of such efforts to get the concept of Tow impact dwellings’ into local planning policy around the country, and perhaps now the time for a breakthrough is imminent. It is certainly the subject of growing demand.

One recent precedent for the implementation of Agenda 21 on a local level occurred after the Planning Inspectorate sent an investigator to examine an appeal by a caravan dweller living on his permaculture garden in Pembury, Kent. The local council claimed that the occupier did not qualify for the planning permission necessary to live on the land and therefore that both he and the caravan should be removed.

However, in language uncharacteristic of usual planning inspectorate reports, the inspector decided the caravan occupier should be allowed to live on the land for a trial period of three years.

The report stated: “The caravan would enable a holding to evolve of a type in tune with the sustainable development approach of both the Government and the county council, in the light of local Agenda 21 from the Rio Conference.”

The decision is undoubtedly an important precedent, highlighting the real-life possibilities presented by Agenda 21. Tom Bigg describes the decision as “very enlightened” and just the sort of local level implementation that Agenda 21 calls for. The fact that a planning inspector makes note of the necessity to “live in tune with the land” is a ground shifting consideration in its own right and a good start on the road to more of the same.

Many cynics have argued that Agenda 21 is just one more abstract international agreement, with the lack of any statutory stipulations rendering it fallible to lip service only. However, as the UK Government plays up its international profile on Agenda 21, it now seems that public reminders of what the agreement promises in terms of community level, low-impact housing, availability of land and alleviation of poverty, might start producing the kind of results John Gummer didn’t have in mind.

“The UK Government have gone quite a long way to setting up the infrastructure for Agenda 21 on a national level, so it should now be possible for people with a particular interest in Agenda 21 to get their perspective across,” says Tom Bigg.

Related Articles

Local Agendas - how protesters, squatters and travellers can work with it - by Anna Makismow - Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995
What Is Agenda 21? - what is this buzzword sweeping through grassroots organisations? by Andy Johnson - Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995
The Roots Of Sustainable Development - Local Agenda 21: doing it anyway. Andy Johnson investigates. Squall 10, Summer 1995.