Geography / Geology
School of Environmental Sciences

Governance and regulation in local environmental policymaking

This research project is concerned with investigating the processes that underlie local environmental policy making. International and national policy initiatives stress the local scale and local agencies as being best placed to implement such policies, particularly in relation to integrating environmental policy and economic action. For example, documentation from Local Agenda 21, the EU's 5th Environmental Action Programme and the UK government all stress the local delivery of policy. At the same time there has been a growing interest at the local scale by local authorities, voluntary groups and private-public partnerships in devising policy and initiatives.

Despite this most practitioners would agree that delivering such policy on the ground is extremely difficult. This research project is examining why this should be the case. The starting premise of the research team is that it is not so much that policy or the efforts of policy makers have failed per se, but that there has been a failure to recognise that there are social processes at work which affect policy development and implementation. Drawing upon theoretical work in geography and political economy, we are undertaking in-depth research into local environmental policy making and its relationship with economic development in six local authority areas: Leeds, North East Lincolnshire, Manchester, Lancashire, Cambridge and Waveney.

We are doing this through detailed interviews with a range of practitioners, policy makers, businesses and voluntary groups. While as academics we have an interest in developing the more theoretical side of our work, we are also concerned that the research should have practical implications for addressing the problematic area of integrating economic and environmental policies.

This research project developed out of research projects previously undertaken by David Gibbs and funded by ESRC ('Towards the Sustainable City: Integrating Economic Development and the Environment') and EPSRC ('Towards a Low Carbon Use Economy: Employment Implications for the Sustainable City') and by Andy Jonas on 'Conservation Planning in California' funded by the National Science Foundation. Related work includes a report by David Gibbs on 'Sustainable Economic Regeneration' for the Local Government Association.

Research team

Summary of aims

Our initial proposal was concerned to examine the processes at work in local environmental policy making, especially the integration of environmental and economic development policies. We aimed to see whether a range of actors was forming into distinct 'environmental policy regimes' at the 'local' scale. Our intention was to use a focus on environmental policy to investigate processes of state restructuring and the changing politics of economic development, drawing upon three bodies of literature: environmental policy, particularly ecological modernisation; urban regime theory; and neo-Gramscian regulation/state theory. Our contention was that the environment could be viewed as a particular 'extra-economic' condition of local governance and social regulation, thus allowing us to examine the wider economic and extra-economic (regulatory) contexts in which local regimes coalesce or fragment.

Main findings

Decision-makers at the local scale were drawn from a wide range of actors including: politicians, local authority officers, environmental groups and agencies, and private sector representatives. However, local authorities remain key drivers and deliverers of environmental and economic development policies. The role of business in area-based environmental policy is not significant except on specific issues (e.g., congestion charging, estuary management). Environmental pressure groups are influential, especially where they have significantly penetrated local governance arrangements. Although the environment is a key part of 'good governance', an emphasis upon competitiveness and growth means it remains marginal to economic policy making.

The blurring of distinctions between environmental and economic policy reflects the move away from LA21 to integrated community strategies. There is little evidence that Local Agenda 21 is the principal delivery vehicle for local environmental policy. Although our case studies show some commitment to LA 21, there are many other areas/issues where strategic governance capacities on the environment are being developed locally and regionally.

The concept of 'local environmental policy regimes' needs to be refined. We discovered few instances where local authorities, local firms, government departments, pressure groups etc., have coalesced to create relatively coherent institutional structures for managing economy-environment tensions at the sub-national scale. Rather than fully-formed regimes, we are seeing emerging regimes for environmental governance around specific issues such as estuary management and promoting the sustainable city.

Many of the incentives, constraints and rules governing the local environment are set internationally (e.g. at EU level) and nationally (by various state and non-state agencies) then implemented, responded to or opposed locally. Extra-local influences and actors are of central importance in defining the terms of the debate in local areas. Despite this, there remains something 'local' about the ways that governance operates, the conditions in the environment that are being regulated and the nature of the local economy.

The notion of multi-scalar governance is useful in understanding the articulation of conflicting interests and the development of strategic capacities (a) up and down the territorial hierarchy of government from international to national and local scales and (b) across territorial scales, including the local and regional scales. This concept helps us move away from conceptualising the state and scale as static, hierarchical and functionalist, and allows us to capture the complex dynamics of the scalar relations through which environmental governance is produced.


What we call 'eco-state restructuring' is currently having profound impacts on local economic and environmental governance, and the relationship between these. Broadly speaking, we believe that national and local policy attention to the local environment and the ecology of cities and regions is a key dimension of the search for an 'after-Fordist' spatio-institutional fix.

Although there is a series of extra-local pressures arising from 'eco-state restructuring', the local scale remains important insofar as external regulation acts as a condition for activating or steering local governance. Local variations in environmental policy are therefore not merely the result of the uneven effects of the 'strategic policy selectivity' of the national state. Local contexts and struggles are important in shaping the interplay between economic development and the environment, giving rise to emergent territorial policy regimes.

Early on, LA21 opened up opportunities for local participation and greater democratic accountability. Our project coincided with a shift away from LA21 towards integrated community strategies. LA21 would appear to have been overtaken by developments in Labour's ongoing state modernisation agenda i.e. the inclusion of environmental considerations in Community Strategies and Best Value. LA21 has largely been marginalised within national and local state strategies as New Labour has sought to privilege local and regional economic growth and competitiveness.

Conflict between the environment and economic development is helping to produce new territorial scales of governance and territorialised discourses of the environment. The concept of multi-scalar governance is a useful one in thinking about the scaling of the 'local environment' in relation to wider state structures and policies, and the changing functional relations between and across levels of government and governance.

A mix of extra-local influences and the rise of multi-scalar governance are providing opportunities for alternative visions and strategies for local and regional development. However, while 'environmental' concerns are more central to local political debates, change is still marked in terms of discourse rather than concrete action. We conceptualise evolving forms of local economy-environment relations in terms of the search for a 'local sustainability fix', which is intended to capture some of the governance dilemmas created by the current era of economic and state restructuring.

Funded by the ESRC (Grant number R000237997)

The case-studies
Our study is grounded on in-depth case studies of six local authority districts located in three English regions. These local authority areas (and the regions) are: Leeds City Council and North East Lincolnshire Council (Yorkshire and the Humber region), Manchester City Council and Lancaster City Council (North West region) and "Greater Cambridge" and Waveney District Council (Eastern region). Case-study analysis has been based on interviews with key local and regional policy-makers, activists and stakeholders, together with the interpretation of a wide range of background primary and secondary documents and local press reports.

Click on the links for the full-text report (pdf):


G Bridge and A Jonas (2002) Governing nature: the re-regulation of resources access, production and consumption (Introduction to special issue on Governing Spaces of Nature in the New Economy) Environment and Planning A, 34(5): 759-766.

D Gibbs (2000) Ecological Modernisation, Regional Economic Development and Regional Development Agencies, Geoforum, 31, 9-19.

D Gibbs (2001) The Environment and the Regions: A New Agenda for Regional Development in C Miller (Ed.) The Changing UK Planning System, Hart Publishing: Oxford, 215-229.

D Gibbs (2002) Local Economic Development and the Environment, London:Routledge.

D Gibbs (2003) Reconciling economic development and the environment, Local Environment, 8(1), 3-8.

D Gibbs and A Jonas (2000) Governance and regulation in local environmental policy: the utility of a regime approach, Geoforum, 31, 299-313.

D Gibbs and A Jonas (2001) Regional Development Agencies and the Environment: Emerging Tensions in Environmental Governance in England?, Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 19. 269-288.

D Gibbs, A Jonas, and A While (2002) Changing governance structures and the environment: Theorising the links between economy and environment at the local and regional scale, Journal of Environmental Planning and Policy 4: 123-138.

D Gibbs, A Jonas and A While (2003) Multi-scalar governance and sectoral policy integration in the United Kingdom in W.M.Lafferty and M. Narodoslawsky (eds.) Regional Sustainable Development in Europe: The Challenge of Multi-Level Governance Oslo: ProSus, 155-180.

A Jonas and G Bridge (2003) Governing nature: the re-regulation of resources, land-use planning and nature conservation' Social Science Quarterly, (Introduction to Minisymposium on 'Geographical Perspectives on the Environment'), 84:4, 958-962.

A Jonas and D Gibbs (2003) Changing modes of economic and environmental governance: A tale of two areas in England, Social Science Quarterly, 84:4, 1018-1037.

A Jonas, D Gibbs and A While (2004) State modernisation and local strategic selectivity after Local Agenda 21: evidence from three northern English localities Policy and Politics (forthcoming).

A While, A Jonas and D Gibbs (2004) Unblocking the city: growth pressures, collective provision and the search for new spaces of governance in Greater Cambridge, England' Environment and Planning A, 36, 279-304.

A While, A Jonas and D Gibbs (2004) The environment and the entrepreneurial city: the 'sustainability fix' in Leeds and Manchester' International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28(4).

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