Decentralizing decisions to the lowest appropriate level

Devolving decision-making authority
Promoting subsidiarity

Competent local structures need to be present to achieve successful multi-party involvement in local project implementation. Ideally local structures should be locally led and take local decisions on what, and when, non-local organizations and resources should be brought in during project implementation. Information on what is being done at local level should be systematically passed to regional and national bodies, and back, in an endeavour to keep as many of the parties as possible informed about the work in progress, but decision-making must be promoted at the local level.

The subsidiarity principle is intended to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen and that constant checks are made as to whether centralized action is justified in the light of the possibilities available at national, regional or local level.


In some places, there are national and regional barriers to effective local implementation. In order to encompass fully the use of local partners in implementing projects, and to achieve sustainable improvements, more devolution of responsibility and resources to the local level is required.

Centralized structures can be effective in policy formulation and in national and regional planning, but they are rarely effective in local project implementation. Both an absence of understanding of local circumstances by the external body and a sense, within the recipient community, that a solution is being imposed from outside, with a commensurate loss of community interest, can conspire to undermine local projects.

This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Particularly within the framework of planning and implementing water projects, Agenda 21 recommends applying the principle that decisions are to be taken at the lowest appropriate level, with public consultation and involvement of users.

Article 5(f) of the 1999 Draft Protocol on Water and Health to the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, states: Action to manage water resources should be taken at the lowest appropriate administrative level.

Within Europe, the European Council (December 1992, Edinburgh) defined the basic principles underlying subsidiarity and laid down guidelines for interpreting Article 5 (former Article 3b), which enshrines subsidiarity in the EU Treaty. Its conclusions were set out in a declaration that still serves as the cornerstone of the subsidiarity principle. The Treaty of Amsterdam has taken up the overall approach that follows from this declaration in a Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality annexed to the EC Treaty.

Many states have drawn up National Environmental Health Action Plans (NEHAPs) and are now preparing to implement them. A NEHAP defines the national framework but, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, its successful implementation requires the majority of actions to be undertaken at the local level. This may be achieved in a variety of ways. The formal development of local environmental health action plans (LEHAPs) is one way of doing this. Another is to use existing systems and plans such as local development plans. Within existing systems, implementation of the NEHAP by local authorities may give additional impetus to their work on local Agenda 21 issues and the Healthy Cities network (although some of the problems addressed in NEHAPs are rural rather than urban). The integration of plans and initiatives at the local level will bring similar benefits to those from integration of plans at the national level, and many components of a NEHAP may be carried through under the auspices of another plan: these are other examples of a win-win situation.

Decisions and actions to manage activities relevant for transport should be taken at the adequate administrative level and as closely as possible to the citizens.

The principle of "subsidiarity" permits the European Union to incorporate specific actions at local, regional, national and European level allowing European Union structures to support and intervene where those levels need to be complemented, especially to respect Community or international commitments. Moreover this principle is accepted voluntarily by the EU Member States and avoids conflicts of competencies, supporting the principle of solidarity in a pragmatic way.


Shifts are taking place in the structure of society toward a renewed emphasis on decentralization of political and technical decision-making systems. Already many groups derive their livelihood from non-consumptive activities and non-market modes of exchange. These shifts meet people's aspirations and needs. Such institutional trends should be positively encouraged. Decentralized decision making and accountability help to link costs to benefits and thus improve efficiency. Decision makers who are local can be more flexible and responsive to the needs and preferences of their constituents and also citizens are better qualified to watch over local entities than over central ones.

Counter Claim:

In smaller municipalities especially (where it is sometimes difficult to find in-house the breadth of competence required for some projects, such as those involving preventive environmental medicine, public health engineering or specialist public information dissemination) that national and regional organizations have an important role to play by providing additional technical and operational capabilities.

Type Classification:
F: Exceptional strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions