Public participation contributes to the endeavours of public authorities to protect the environment. Environmental policy and decision-making should not be restricted to the concerns of authorities alone. In order to promote effective public participation the public need to be aware of the means and methods of participation in environmental decision-making processes, and in the solving of environmental problems.
Public participation can be a source of additional information and scientific and technical knowledge to the decision-makers.
Public participation should not be seen as purely a matter of fulfilling certain procedural formalities. As far as possible, the content of decisions should also reflect the public input, and especially the input from members of the public whose rights or interests are particularly affected by the decision-making process under consideration.
The promotion of public participation in environmental matters requires the transparency and the accountability of public authorities, thus improving their credibility and strengthening support for their activities.
Policy-makers rely heavily on legislation, technology and fiscal instruments to instigate remedial measures. Much attention is focused on taxes and fiscal incentives to encourage change. Innovative technologies are being advocated to reduce end-of-pipe emissions and solid-waste disposal. In addition, laws and regulations have been enacted and standards set in many European countries. Nevertheless, despite good intentions, a growing body of evidence indicates that, unless these means and measures are complemented by others based on public education, communication and citizen participation, they do not achieve the stated policy goals and objectives.
The [1998 Arhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters] spells out the public authorities duties towards the public at large and covers such areas as water, air, soil, chemicals, human health, land-use planning, genetically modified organisms, etc. Its provisions lay down specific requirements in terms of openness and transparency, so setting an example for strengthening democracy throughout the UN/ECE region and beyond.
As stated in principle 10 of the [Rio Declaration on Environment and Development], "environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level". Public participation is important at all levels of environmental policy-making: setting objectives, selecting instruments, implementation and monitoring. However, in order to achieve sustainable development, public participation also requires the willingness of citizens and their ability to take responsibilities.
For public participation to be effective, certain fundamental practices must be adhered to. These are: (1) the provision of clear, timely, relevant, objective and accurate information; (2) an indication of the areas requiring decisions and relevant policies, legislation and agreements; (3) adequate notice and time for public review; (4) the careful consideration of public input; (5) feedback on the nature of comments received; and (6) respect for all interested publics.
The precise conditions of participation are all-important in achieving genuine public involvement and avoiding tokenism. The main requirements for effective participation include: (a) opportunities for early and ongoing involvement of the public in the decision-making process; (b) adequate and timely notification of the concerned public; (c) public access to information relevant to the decision-making process, with active dissemination of certain key information to the concerned public; (d) due account taken of the public input; (e) reasoned decisions addressing all substantive arguments raised in the participation process; (f) transparency in the decision-making process, including a public record of all submissions made to or meetings held with decision-makers; (g) training of officials in ways of supporting public participation; (h) a supportive infrastructure for involvement of the public and NGOs, including measures to overcome financial obstacles to participation; and (i), long-term capacity-building to strengthen NGOs.
Launching the new [UK Guidance on Enhancing Public Participation in Local Government] (October 1998), the Local Government Minister challenged councils to make use of the guidance in three broad areas: [innovate]: to explore new ways of engaging with communities more effectively [eg] by citizen panels or interactive web-sites; [be inclusive]: research has shown that there are sections of the community, such as young people and ethnic minorities, which are particularly hard to reach. Everyone has a right for their voice to be heard and this guidance gives some ideas on how this might be achieved; [act now]: and not wait for legislation.
2. Environmental decisions require public participation and involvement in policy making at all levels to keep government agencies and officials responsive and accountable for their decisions and actions. Political reforms should both limit and make transparent the influence of corporate lobbies and campaign contributions. Corporations should be held accountable to a code of conduct based on principles of social and environmental responsibility.
3. Public participation is a key element in improved environmental management. Policies implemented without the full participation of stakeholders, particularly the poor and socially-deprived groups, have proven largely unsustainable. However, many citizens still lack a feeling of ownership with regard to national environmental legislation and management.
4. Public participation in decision taking is vital. This guidance will help give councils a toolkit for assessing what may work, what will not and how current arrangements might be improved. This guidance recognises the rich diversity that exists throughout the country. Instead of being prescriptive in how councils go about developing participation strategies it promotes flexibility and approaches which are right for local situations. Participation needs to be an ongoing process that is fully integrated with the core activities of councils - not just an add on.