EU ministers debate urban environment issues

Presidency wins informal Environment Council pledge to make cities a "political priority"

Environmental problems encountered by people in cities across the EU are a "political priority" for action, environment ministers have declared. Meeting informally in Porto, Portugal, over the weekend, the EU Environment Council said this would be reflected in the forthcoming sixth environmental action programme.

The meeting was the first time ministers had talked about urban environmental issues. In a paper prepared for the gathering, the Portuguese presidency of the EU said promoting sustainable transport would be the "most decisive" of all urban issues, while reducing waste generation was a "serious challenge" and the EU would need to "reinforce" its fight against it.

The inclusion of a special mention for cities in the action programme is a concrete outcome of the informal talks, since it was not included in a list of priorities for the programme passed by ministers just last month. In reality, however, the EU focuses little specific attention on cities and the prospects for a much more active role are not bright.

The European Commission has shied away from urban policies and, despite two policy papers on city environments in recent years and repeated encouragement from the European Parliament (ENDS Daily 20 March 1997), has not proposed any city-specific legislation. This has been in part because policies aimed at cities would sooner or later run up against land-use planning legislation, an area in which member states have the right to veto EU initiatives.

Nevertheless, EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström has tried to raise the profile of city environments. One of her first acts in office was to publicise the car-free cities day pioneered by France and now catching on over the rest of the EU. At the Porto meeting, ministers discussed details for the next event, which will take place in 13 of 15 member states in September.

Beyond this, the EU is soon expected to adopt a "framework for Europe cooperation on sustainable urban development," including a budget of euros 12m over three years to promote information sharing on greening cities. The sum is minuscule compared with other EU budgets but ministers nevertheless welcomed the Commission's initiative.

Ms Wallström presented ten sustainability indicators for local authorities (ENDS Daily 14 February). Around 60 towns and cities have already pledged to use the indicators to monitor their environmental progress, the commissioner said.

Follow Up:
Portuguese presidency website; European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111.

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