Sustainable Land Management as a Research Priority

The 2013 Status Conference of the German research programme: Sustainable Land Management (Nachhaltiges Landmanagement) took place between 17th and 19th April in Berlin. The ambitious research programme seeks to develop new innovative approaches to address challenges of sustainable land management in Germany, from an integrated, transdisciplinary approach. It is funded to the tune of approximately €100 million by the Research for Sustainable Development programme (FONA) of the Federal Ministry for Education and Research over the period 2010-2015. Although the conference was internal to the research programme participants numbered approximately 500, representing the full range of funded projects, spanning the physical and social sciences as well as practitioner stakeholders, who play a key role in the transdisciplinary research approach.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the precise meaning of sustainable land management is the subject of significant debate, with multiple disciplinary perspectives and varying stresses on each of the three elements, sustainable, land and management. The objective, however is to develop approaches which are broader than existing practice in the individual disciplines of  land-use planning, property surveying and management, landscape, spatial and environmental planning and directly engage with stakeholder groups.

The research programme itself includes projects based both within Germany and internationally and aims to develop global as well as regional scale perspectives. I was involved, (with Prof. Jörg Knieling, HCU Hamburg) in moderating one session on international perspectives on governance which included papers/presentations from work in Namibia and Brazil as well as northeastern Germany (Session 40 in the official programme here). The international perspectives served to question Eurocentric perspectives concerning ideas of land use and in particular land ownership and highlighted the often complex relationships between customary and statutory legal traditions and practices. The German presentations, brought to light significant contradictions and ‘asymmetries’ in the institutional frameworks governing land-based resource management and protection in Europe. Such asymmetries are found to be particularly pronounced where user groups and stakeholders seek to introduce new sustainable management practices involved closed loop material and energy flows and where ‘use’ and ‘protection’ rationales are combined through multi-functional approaches.

Directly following this session, we delivered an interactive discussion section focussed on the topic of sustainable energy planning at the regional scale, provocatively asking the question of whether energy planning should be considered a task of spatial planning or a form of sectoral planning. A presentation on selected international approaches to sustainable land management (which we are sub-contracted to prepare an ‘expertise’ on) with potential relevance to the question of energy planning provided the key input to the discussion. From this international review it was clear that there are no ‘golden bullets’ and that governance and management approaches need to be developed within the context of the specific region in question, with regard to actor constellations, power relations, knowledge resources and framework conditions set at other scales. Of course this is what the research programme is in a sense trying to achieve with its transdisciplinary integrated approach. It will be very interesting to continue to follow the progress of the research programme and see what lessons are learned regarding both sustainable land management and transdisciplinary approaches to research. At some point it may be fruitful to compare the approach developed here to other experiences of practitioner involvement in applied research programmes, whether within Germany or elsewhere in Europe. Priority 2 projects under ESPON (2007-2013 Programme) come to mind as well as the vast and varied experience amassed under INTERREG to date.

Unsustainable land management and economic crisis: Insights from Spain

In a previous post, I outlined some key similarities and differences between thecurrent housing crises in Ireland and Spain. Many of the underlying economic and socio-demographic structural factors would indeed appear to be striking similar in both countries. A recent paper by Professor Juan Romero (Inter-university Institute for Local Development and Department of Geography, University of Valencia) and co-authors published in Environment and Planning: C, provides further insights from a new institutionalist political science perspective into the governance failures leading to the speculative property bubble and subsequent crash in Spain.

The authors highlight the importance of ‘informal rules’ in institutional processes related to land management and spatial plannning. Following Ostrom (1998) they refer to a ‘second order collective action dilemma’, where shared expectations of foul play on the part of other actors, influences the behaviour of rational actors to the extent that each individual has something to gain from acting corruptly or turning a blind eye to certain practices. Clear parallels to the Irish case, are of course, evident here.

More concretely, the authors note that the official designation of land as ‘fit for development’ through formal planning processes had immeadiate economic as well as legal implications for the landowners and local and regional property markets. Again the parallels to the Irish case, where specualtion over land-use zoning led to serious corruption are strikingly clear. In both cases, the politics of planning and urban development has been significantly influenced by soft institutional factors which have undermined the capacity for land management processes to effectively serve the public interest.

Academic and policy debates on the causes and consequences of the current economic crisis need to consider the soft institutional aspects which have contributed to serious governance failure in land management at local regional and national scales in Europe. The search for and development of new approaches to sustainable land management furthermore requires a critical, comparative evaluation of the faiures of exsiting governance models. These cases can often prove as insightful as cases of good or best practice!

Environmental Policy as a Driver of Spatial Thinking?

A blogpost for The Regional Studies Blog

Researchers and practitioners in the field of regional studies have long promoted spatial approaches to policy, development and the application of public sector resources. In Europe, concepts such as territorial cohesion, place-based approaches and integrated spatial planning all promote spatial sensitivity in policy-making and are critical of the ‘spatial blindness’ of approaches which do not explicitly take the spatial dimension into account. Within the European context, spatial approaches to policy are concerned with spatial inequalities, the spatial impacts of sectoral policies and regional diversity. A central concern is how to work with deal with processes which cross the political and administrative boundaries of nation-states, whether at international or sub-national levels. How do policy-makers deal with functional regions which cross the borders of two or more administrative territories?
Recently, however environmental policy has become a significant driver of spatial thinking in Europe and elsewhere (see recent reports from the European Environment Agency). Through the requirements of Strategic Environmental Assessment for example, policy-makers and practitioners are required to consider the ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ environmental impacts of intended projects and policy measures. It is perhaps within the area of water resource management, however that the adoption of spatial approaches is most advanced. The EU Water Framework Directive introduced in 2000 requires the river basin to be adopted as the principal unit of management, regardless of whether the resulting river basin districts cross international, regional or local administrative boundaries. More than ten years later, practitioners are still struggling to adapt to the requirements of the river basin management approach and the need to ‘think outside the box’ which this implies. Nevertheless river basin management is an important, innovative example of a spatial approach in policy and practice which should perhaps receive more attention from the regional studies community.

Irish Water and the EU Water Framework Directive: More than a Question of Water Charges

First posted on Ireland After Nama

Commentary on the recent announcement of the establishment of a national water company, has, perhaps, understandably focussed on the related introduction of household water charges. The significance of the decision to establish Irish Water goes beyond the issue of water charges (which was signalled long in advance of last week’s announcement). Given the minimal level of detail provided by government on the specific remit and function of Irish Water, it is as yet unclear, how precisely its establishment will impact on the management of water resources in Ireland. Nevertheless, government decisions across the spectrum of water policy have been delayed over the past twelve months pending the formal decision on the establishment of a national water company, a decision which was expected in September last year. In particular, the question of adequate governance arrangements and resourcing for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) has been put on hold.

recent study by the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) on river basin management and spatial planning in Ireland, North and South, found very significant deficits in relation to current governance arrangements and resourcing for  WFD implementation. The study furthermore outlined three ‘strategic options’ for WFD implementation, each involving different institutional arrangements. These strategic options which include reference to the (expected) establishment of Irish Water are reproduced below:

A. Establish the implementation of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) as a function of regional government

Allocating responsibilities to Regional Authorities would establish a clear linkage between river basin management and strategic spatial planning. It would also allow for a significant concentration of resources and expertise at the regional scale and thus development of the required critical mass for effective action, which is not currently available at the level of local authorities. The spatial mismatch between the boundaries of Regions (NUTS III) and River Basin Districts would, however, require a high degree of close cooperation among Regional Authorities. Regional Authorities would also need to act in close cooperation with the water management and spatial planning sections of local authorities, as well as coordinating with sectoral agencies and stakeholders. Imposing an additional layer in an already cluttered and complex governance landscape brings inherent risks which would have to be carefully managed.

B. Centralise implementation responsibility under a new National Water Company/Agency

The current Fine Gael / Labour Programme for Government, includes proposals for the establishment of a National Water Company, provisionally known as ‘Irish Water’.  This is likely to be a semi-public agency that will sit alongside the Office of Public Works (OPW), EPA and others.  This organisation could be established with a clear remit in relation to RBMP implementation from the outset. The recently published report on public sector capital investment indicates that a decision will be made in relation to the establishment of this agency by the end of 2011. It also refers to funding of ‘priority schemes’ in RBMPs under the Water Services Investment Programme (Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, 2011).  An advantage of this model may be a close linkage between river basin management and water treatment and supply policy which may have significant benefits in relation to cost recovery and sharing of resources. Such a model, may, however, favour more traditional ‘hard’ engineering approaches to water quality protection; approaches which the WFD seeks to move away from and are associated with inhibiting the development of integrated cross-sectoral approaches. In particular, a centralised, sector-specific approach of this nature may make the establishment of links with spatial planning more difficult. This model would need to be accompanied by specific measures and additional resources to ensure that that planning decisions are informed by river basin management and water quality concerns.

C. Centralise implementation responsibility under the Environmental Protection Agency 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has significant technical expertise across the spectrum of ecosystem management, water quality protection and pollution control. The agency already plays a key role in the monitoring of water quality under the WFD. This model has the potential to lead to the development of innovative multi-disciplinary approaches to river basin management drawing on expertise, knowledge and data from across the environmental sciences. The disadvantages associated with a centralised model, outlined above, also apply in this case, however. Fostering stakeholder engagement and public support would require considerable additional resources and the development of skill-sets which are not currently well-developed in a technical organisation such as the EPA. The experience of water resource managers in Berlin-Brandenburg points to the challenges for technical organisations associated with a shift to the more participative form of governance which the WFD requires.

D. Further develop and enhance the lead Local Authority model

The preparation of RBMPs in the Republic of Ireland was led by local authorities with a lead local authority designated for each River Basin District. It is evident that local authorities currently do not have the requisite levels of resources required for implementation. With significant allocation of resources to lead local authorities, this model could, however, prove an effective means of coordinating and delivering implementation objectives. This model would involve limited reorganisation of existing institutional arrangements. The spatial mismatch issue would not arise, provided the lead authorities had the capacity to ensure cooperation from across the local authorities within the River Basin District. In Northern Ireland, the value of stakeholders was recognised from the outset; however, there is still work to be done in the Republic of Ireland to bring local stakeholders within the action programmes – for their value as environmental experts in their own right, and as leaders of community-based action and education projects.

Retaining responsibility for RBMP implementation within local authorities would provide opportunities for greater integration with the planning and development process than might otherwise be the case. This coordination objective would need to be supported with specific funding including enhanced capacity in the area of environmental planning.  It would also be possible to devolve implementation to individual local authorities. Again substantial investment of resources would be required in order for this model to perform effectively. Specific provision would also need to be made for coordination across local authority boundaries to ensure coherence at River Basin District level.   In the medium to long-term, enhanced local autonomy may be instrumental to ensuring community acceptance and indeed ownership of local project-based measures which seek to integrate river basin management, and spatial development objectives.

It is imperative that key issues of environmental responsibility and sustainable resource management are not forgotten in the current focus on water charges and the short-term costs to the taxpayer. The ICLRD report which draws significantly on international case studies of good practice details the extent of the challenges involved in moving towards sustainable water resource management in Ireland. These include the development of expertise in specialist areas of environmental planning as well as the challenges of communicating across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries which should not be underestimated given the integrated approach demanded by the WFD. Above all, however, adequate response to challenges posed by the WFD requires strategic leadership and the allocation of a sufficient level of resources through dedicated budgets.  Each of the strategic options outlined above have both advantages and disadvantages. What is important, now, however, is that decisive action is taken to provide an adequate framework for implementation to prevent further deterioration in the quality of Ireland’s water resources.