Sustainability in Austerity: How Local Government can Deliver During Times of Crisis

Gordon Boyce – School of Accounting, La Trobe Univeristy, Melbourne – reviews Sustainability in Austerity for the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal Vol 2 No 1 2011.

Sustainability in Austerity This book is designed to guide and inspire local government bodies in taking action on a range of sustainability and related environmental and social issues. It is a welcome addition to the sustainability literature. Targeted at local government officials and councillors, the book will also be of interest to a range of local community groups that have an interest in the activities of local government bodies. The work is also imbued with a wider general interest through its embracing approach to sustainability; challenging narrow thinking through an interrelated treatment of sustainability and related dimensions of a multifaceted and complex social milieu. This is a welcome corrective to tendencies to separate environmental, social, and economic issues and deal with them in a piecemeal or non-integrated fashion.

The background and extensive experience of the author is evident throughout the book. Philip Monaghan has acted as a consultant, public speaker, advocate, and manager in various economic developments, environmental and social sustainability roles. His experience includes work in the UK local government sector putting into practice the principles that underpin the book.

An extensive collection of case studies provides rich illustrations of what can be achieved. Vignettes, anecdotes, and tips draw on experiences in developed and developing countries around the world. The practical focus of the book is on more than 100 “cost-neutral interventions” that local councils can make. A total of 15 chapters cover a range of activities and issues including:

  • The need to build a business case for projects and proposals.
  • The importance of embedding action towards sustainability in a framework of local democracy and decision making, where communication and openness are central.
  • Managing corporate assets, including financing, procurement, and costing issues.
  • Economic development and planning for local areas, encompassing considerations of land use planning, carbon reduction, and the creation of green spaces.
  • The conduct of waste and environmental services.
  • Managing fleet and logistics (considering ways to reduce travel and transport).
  • Community management.


I was especially impressed with the chapter on community management, particularly its contextualisation of the social dimensions of sustainability and emphasis on empowering, encouraging, and nurturing localism and neighbourhood-level efforts. Facilitating “self-help” is included, but prominence is given to the provision of resources to assist local residents with organisation, speaking up for the voiceless, and “challenging the status quo”. There is a welcome flavour of equity, fairness, and social justice here that is designed, in part, to ensure that communities are not harmed by irresponsible and inconsiderate private sector activity. The importance of education and social cohesion is also stressed.

Overall, the real value of the book is manifest in the sense of achievability that comes through practical examples not just of what can be done, but what has been done in real cases. An upside of the emphasis on cost-neutrality is that it takes away an excuse for doing nothing.

Local government plays a significant part in shaping the way people live their lives, and actions towards sustainability can strengthen local communities. Monaghan stresses the creation of public value not private value, but there is a need for further insight into how to operationalise this as part of the wider “community case” rather than the narrower “business case”. Recommendations for whole-of-life assessment in social, environmental, and financial terms, considering benefits that accrue to society as a whole, go some of the way, as do measures built around the ideas of sustainable procurement and fair trade.
Sustainability in Austerity reminds us of the importance not just of doing more with less, but of critiquing the status quo. Finding better ways to integrate environmental and economic actions requires a broad social framework that prioritises quality of life for all rather than endlessly seeking greater quantities of things for those who can afford them.

Philip Monaghan

Philip Monaghan is a writer and strategist in the fields of economic development and environmental sustainability. He is Founder & CEO of Infrangilis and the acclaimed author of the books How Local Resilience Creates Sustainable Societies (out February 2012) and Sustainability in Austerity (2010).

Buy direct from Greenleaf Publishing and receive a 30% discount until 30th November. Use voucher code AUS746 at checkout.

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