Our History

The Early Years

Sustainable Northern Ireland came into existence in 1998 as a collaborative project of NI Environment Link, WWF and the Local Government Training Group. Our objective, then as now, was to promote the adoption of sustainable development principles by local authorities and other agencies of government.

In those early days, the principal driver was Local Agenda 21, an initiative spawned at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Local Agenda 21 was always intended to be a process of agreeing sustainability action plans devised by a council in partnership with its local community, exactly what is imagined in today’s Community Planning process.

By the late Nineties, the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair, had thrown his weight behind the idea, saying, “I want all local authorities in the UK to adopt Local Agenda 21 strategies by the year 2000”. However, little had happened in Northern Ireland to pursue this target, prompting the founding partners to establish Sustainable NI.  

Sustainable NI worked with community groups all around the region, building their capacity on sustainable development issues and motivating them into action. At the same time, councils were drawn into the Sustainable NI orbit through a series of seminars on themes as varied as green procurement to energy auditing. We were also busy promoting funding opportunities and awards schemes as a means of generating more successful sustainability activities.

The Years of Growth

Lottery funding allowed a considerable expansion of Sustainable NI’s engagement with local groups through our community visioning programmes that led to the creation of local community action plans. By the Millennium Year, many councils had become much more engaged with LA21 and were using sustainability thinking in various aspects of their forward planning.

By then, the UK government had published its first sustainable development strategy and an annual progress report; it had also established an independent Sustainable Development Commission to act as its watchdog. In Northern Ireland, some initial thinking on a regional strategy had begun but the impetus belonged to community organisations and councils.

A second global gathering of the world’s leaders, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) would take place in Johannesburg on the tenth anniversary of the Rio event. We staged a major conference in Belfast to gather evidence that would form part of the UN report for WSSD. Following sustained lobbying, NI’s then First Minister went to Johannesburg, giving real political weight to the idea of sustainability within government circles.

By 2002, we were able to publish a review of Sustainable NI’s first four years and secure a written statement of support for LA21 from each of the then 26 councils; at the same time, the Department of the Environment had established a NI LA21 Advisory Group on which Sustainable NI was represented. The department used the counsel of this group in developing its consultation paper on a new regional sustainable development strategy.

We expanded operations significantly when the DoE contracted Sustainable NI to undertake several streams of work for the department – policy support and training, indicators development and communications. We also expanded some thinking when we organised the first of several study tours to Freiburg, Germany’s ‘greenest’ city.

We also staged some significant conferences during this period – one on building a sustainable economy for Northern Ireland, a second event on wellbeing and community planning (thereby pre-empting its actual introduction by a dozen years) and another on food, health and the environment.

 

Maturing and Focusing

After a lengthy gestation, the first NI Sustainable Development Strategy was published in 2006 with legislation coming into force the following year imposing a statutory duty on government departments and local authorities to “…contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.” We conducted a survey among councils to assess their progress. The results painted a bleak picture of regression over the previous five years, with a lack of resources being blamed.

The survey also illuminated an uncertainty about the responsibilities of councils under the legislation so we wrote a suite of guides to help address this issue. We also developed the first version of the Sustainable Audit Matrix (SAM); it would be sophisticated and improved in several more iterations over the next few years.

The on-off political devolution of Northern Ireland proved to have implications for sustainable development policy. With some degree of political stability by 2010, the Executive decided that the original 2006 strategy, having been adopted during a period of ‘direct rule’ did not fit its requirements and published a new high-level strategy with an accompanying implementation plan.  This contained hundreds of targets across all departments and a collective contribution from councils.

The closure of the Sustainable Development Commission in 2011 meant that Sustainable NI became the only organisation in this region to have the promotion of sustainability as its primary focus. With that responsibility, we redoubled our efforts on working principally, though not exclusively, with councils - the agencies best placed to implement sustainability within communities.

We developed more resources to help council officers meet statutory duties, we worked on encouraging a better understanding of the impacts of climate change, we published some research on the availability of community growing facilities, all facets of the sustainable development agenda. In this work, as with many other initiatives, we have always collaborated with partner organisations, drawing on mutual expertise for the benefit of our stakeholders.

From the outset, we have sought to promote the benefits – economic, social and environmental – of the sustainability pathway. Working with colleagues across all district councils has been fruitful and led to many successful initiatives. We were persuaded of the need to establish a vehicle to foster closer communication among council sustainability officers; that led in 2013 to the creation of the Local Government Sustainable Development Forum, which we continue to facilitate and manage.

With a new eleven council regime now well embedded, we will cultivate new opportunities to embed sustainability – in land use planning and community planning, for example - to support councils and communities in the creation of a sustainable future.