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This is a draft paper, not for citation in this format!
policy making and strategic environmental assessment
at HUngarian local governments
Draft Research Paper (August 2003)
by Gábor Szarvas Gábor, International Policy Fellow
The following is a draft text that has been compiled by August 2003 during the first part of the International Policy Fellowship research. This is an attempt to summarise the information collated so far. However, this paper by no means should be considered complete or comprehensive at this stage. The main purpose of this paper is to indicate where the research has got to at this stage.
Managing local environment has always been a key aspect of local policies even before environmental problems gained large scale attention in the 1980s. It has, however, not been long ago that environmental decision support and management tools, such as impact assessments, environmental planning, programming, and management systems started to play more significant role in local policies. Long term planning and the implementation of systematic tools have been strongly supported by the development of the sustainability agenda.
Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is commonly defined as the application of environmental assessment to policies, plans and programs. More specifically, it is “a systematic, on-going process for evaluating at the earliest appropriate stage of publicly accountable decision making, the environmental quality, and consequences of alternative visions and development intentions incorporated in policy, planning, or programme initiatives, ensuring full integration of relevant biophysical, economic, social and political consideration” (Partidario, 1999).
The concept of SEA builds upon the idea and practice of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which since its introduction in the 1970s has been applied worldwide as a tool to support decision-making on environmentally significant projects. The application of SEAs has been promoted by international initiatives, such as the UNECE negotiations on an International SEA Protocol, as well as the EU Directive 46/2001 “On Environmental Assessment of Certain Plans and Programs”.
Current international SEA practices tend to be based on modified EIA procedures and methods, and involve a linear process of identification, prediction and evaluation of environmental impacts (Sheate et al., 2001). However, this approach has been criticised for its assuming of a straight-forward, rational decision-making process, which is often not the case in actual policy-making. (see e.g. Nilsson and Dalkman, 2001). It has been pointed out that the links between environmental assessment and the decision-making process are crucial to the effectiveness of SEA (Therivel and Partidario, 1996).
Alternative approach to SEA therefore suggests that strategic environmental assessment should fit policy making in order to be effective for, as well as successfully adopted by policy-makers (Nitz and Brown, 2001). Advocates of this approach, therefore, emphasise the fundamental need for understanding the policy making process and establishing the opportunities and means for SEA to contribute to it.
As a result of the international initiatives, and more importantly of the eastern enlargement of the European Union, SEA is expected to become more and more applied in Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, as well. The success of SEA application is, however, dependent upon the way it is applied, which in turn depends upon the preparedness of these countries and their policy-makers and practitioners for a meaningful adaptation of the method. An important element of the preparation is conducting well-founded and relevant studies on policy practices in CEE. In conducting such studies one should avoid mistakes of former studies of EA systems, for example, that relied upon formal, static, partial and context-insensitive criteria (Cherp and Antypas, forthcoming).
Local governments play a significant role in national environmental policy processes. This role consists of the complex tasks of implementing national (and international) policies, as well as formulating local policies and regulations. These complex roles and responsibilities in the environmental field of local governments are best summarised in Chapter 28 – entitled ‘Local Authorities in Support of Agenda 21’ – of Agenda 21, the key document accepted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992:
“Local authorities construct, operate and maintain economic, social and environmental infrastructure, oversee planning processes, establish local environmental policies and regulations and assist in implementing national and sub-national environmental policies.”
Notwithstanding, local governments face a number of problems and challenges in fulfilling these complex roles and responsibilities. These include political problems of decentralisation and local democracy, as well as constraints in human, natural and financial resources. Furthermore, these problems occur in different shape in different locations, there is also a continuous evolution of both the problems and challenges, as well as the role of local and national governments in dealing with them (EEA, 1997).
Due to the complex tasks they face SEA is a particularly relevant tool for local and regional governments. Local governments make strategic decisions and set out plans for various aspects of local development, which all need to consider local needs and conditions. In addition, certain strategic plans at the national level (such as the National Development Plan in the EU, which is also being prepared in accession countries, such as Hungary) build upon local and regional development plans, hence decisions at the sub-national level can have significant impact for national policies.
In this regard, the way of and the extent to SEA applied at the local and regional government level is particularly important for both national environmental policymaking and local environmental management.
However, SEA is not the only environmental decision support tool applicable at local and regional level. Environmental management systems, programmes, action plans, auditing, and eco-budgeting have all been developed and applied to a varying degree at local governments. Yet, these tools are often developed and implemented independently and have rarely been considered within an integrated framework of environmental management.
2 THE ENVIRONMENTAL ROLE AND FUNCTIONS OF LOCAL GOVERNMENTS
The environmental aspects of local government operations can only be understood in light of the general roles and functions of local governments. These roles and functions, however, depend on the time and location of local governments considered, and are subjects to different political views and scientific discussions. It is beyond the scope of this study to explore in detail the various aspects of these views and discussions; however, some general considerations are given here based upon a review of some key literature on the subject.
2.1. Theoretical models of local government operations
The name ‘local government’ suggests that it is about ‘locality’ and ‘government’. The locality element refers to the settlements, which are geographically defined human infrastructures built on natural conditions and where human activities concentrate (Csapóné, 2001 and Enyedi, 1999). Government relates to the practising of power, managing public affairs, which in modern times are linked to issues of democracy (Bánkuti, 1999). As Grey (1994) suggests government also implies in a political sense a certain level of ‘autonomy’, and most local governments have independent legal and political status.
With regard to the general roles of local governments in theory, Leach and Stewart (1992) identified three aspects of ‘justification’ for local governments. These include political (e.g. diffusion of power, political participation), economic (e.g. allocation, stabilisation and distribution) and socio-geographic (e.g. mediator of community competition and conflict) considerations. McNaughton (1998) considered three fundamental issues, which define the development of local governments: culture and tradition, efficiency and democracy. Soós (2001) identified four general duties of local governments: 1. policy-making and target setting, 2. policy implementation, 3. community service, and 4. realising democracy.
General discussions on British local politics in the late 1990s emphasised certain elements of local government theory, which is useful to mention here. McNaughton (1998) highlighted three dominant issues around which the main political trends and processes evolved: devolution, decentralisation and democratisation. These issues also recur in several publications on local politics internationally (see e.g. Blair, 2000, Soós 2001). Theoretic discussions on the administrative functions of local governments focused on the evolution from ‘direct service provision’ as a principal function to ‘enabling’ or ‘facilitating’ the services (Leach and Stewart, 1992, McNaughton, 1998, Corrigan, 1999). These discussions highlight the existing and possible differences in approaches to local governance at both local and national political levels.
Another pattern of local governance is that elected local government is just one of the many agents and actors involved in the local political and management process (Batty, 2001). These other local actors include public and private sector agencies, quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (QUANGOs), businesses and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
2.2. Local government environmental functions
The environmental role of local governments internationally has evolved through time. In the early 20th century in Europe, the main concern of local government was with public health and sanitation problems associated with rapid industrialization and urbanisation (Gresser et al., 1981; Ashworth, 1992). In the 1940s/ 1950s, the emphasis was on land use planning and post-war reconstruction (Barrett, 1995). The 1960s and early 1970s saw a heightened environmental concern in many countries with greater local government involvement in pollution control (Barrett & Therivel, 1991; Ashworth, 1992). From the 1970s and 1980s local governments started to function also as local environmental agencies. Since the late 1980s and especially since the Rio Summit in 1992, the environmental role of local governments has become even more multifaceted.
A practical structuring of the complex environmental roles and functions of local governments are provided in a UNEP Training Kit (2002) on municipal environmental management. From an environmental perspective the Kit identified three dimensions of local governments: political, administrative and of the community. The political dimension refers to decision-making and the practising of power at the municipal level. The administrative dimension represents the responsibilities and tasks of running and managing the municipalities’ infrastructure and social functions. The community dimension highlights the importance of local governments in representing and protecting the local community’s interest.
Arguably, one of the principal purposes of environmental management at local governments is to integrate the environmental concerns into all dimensions of their functions and operations (Erdmenger, 1998). This is fundamentally not different to the purpose of environmental management at business organisations.
The international context within which local governments operate is reviewed in the next chapter.
2.3. International policy and practice of environmental management at local governments
2.3.1. The international polciy context
In the 1990s a number of high-level international conferences were held on sustainable development related issues. These conferences shaped the international policy environment and catalysed a similar process of policy development at the regional level (EEA, 1998). They also provided context and rationale for local authority action on sustainable development. Arguably, the two most significant international conferences were the Rio Earth Summit and Habitat II.
The United Nations’ Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), popularly known as the ‘Earth Summit’, was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Earth Summit resulted in five official documents: Rio Declaration; Agenda 21; Biodiversity Convention; Climate Convention; and Forest Principles.
Agenda 21 has a particular resonance for local authorities as it recognised them as key players in the sustainability debate (Mittler, 2001). It has been estimated that almost two thirds of the actions in Agenda 21 require the involvement of local government (Grubb et al., 1993).
Agenda 21 devoted an entire chapter (Chapter 28) to local authorities as a result of active involvement by groups such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), the United Towns Organization, European Commission delegates and others. The key message of Chapter 28 is that it called upon all local authorities/municipalities world-wide to draw up and implement local plans of action (Local Agenda 21) for sustainable development, in partnership with all stakeholders in the local community.
Certain scepticism was raised about the real value of Agenda 21, given that it was not legally binding (Layard, 2001). Critics also argued that key obstacles to Agenda 21’s implementation remained; including the focus on ‘the South’; and disregarding the changes in national economic sovereignty as well as the role and responsibility of transnational corporations (TNCs) (EEA, 1998). Despite these shortcomings, Agenda 21 has had a major impact as it has provided a framework for discussion on sustainable development, and holistic approaches and integrative strategies, as well as initiated unparalleled action at the local level (see e.g. Rees, 1999).
Officially known as the Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (the first conference being held in Vancouver in 1976), Habitat II was organized to raise public awareness about the problems and potentials of human settlements, and to seek commitment from the world’s governments to make all locales of human habitation healthy, safe, just, and sustainable (UN 1996). Habitat II focused on the issues of provision of adequate shelter and livelihoods and the creation of sustainable human settlements. Habitat II launched the UNCHS’s ‘Best Practices Initiative’, an idea taken over from the European Commission’s Sustainable Cities Project (see below). Two final documents were issued at the conference: the ‘Istanbul Declaration’ and the Habitat Agenda. The 15-paragraph ‘Istanbul Declaration’ reaffirmed the commitment by governments to “better standards of living in larger freedom for all humankind” The Habitat Agenda: the World Plan of Action was, however, more substantive and directly relevant to agenda-setting and policy-making for local authorities as urban managers (EEA 1998).
There were certain criticisms made about the documents stating that they were actually not operational plans. As Cohen (1996) stressed “while the term ‘sustainable development’ was mentioned repeatedly, little progress was made in suggesting how it could be operationally applied to urban areas.” Also the Habitat II Conference can be regarded as ‘supplementary’ to the Rio Earth Summit since it put human needs at the centre of sustainable development and gave less attention to environmental issues (Satterthwaite, 1997).
2.3.2 The environmental functions of local governments in European practice
In current international practice, there is a great variation in the political and administrative set up and operation of local governments. Most of this variation stems from the varying state structures, ranging even in Europe from centralised unitary states such as the UK to federal states such as Germany. A 1994 comparative survey of environmental structures in local and regional authorities, conducted by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), provided a comprehensive overview of these variations around the following topics: finance, competences, responsibilities, partnerships and democratic processes (CEMR, 1994). The following paragraphs summarise the key findings of this European survey.
The lack of finance was commonly perceived to be a major stumbling block to undertaking or improving environmental management at local government. There are greater variations in the legal competences and constitutional standings of local governments. The constitution lays down the competences of local governments in several countries, which include in Germany and Denmark, for example, competences for public affairs, local affairs and issuing regulations in their jurisdictions. In other countries, such as the Netherlands, specific municipal or local government laws govern local authorities.
According to the survey, most European local authorities share some statutory service responsibilities such as: street cleaning, water supply, sewage and waste collection (but not always disposal and recycling), housing, police, fire brigade, parks, cemeteries and crematoria, cultural and recreational facilities, lighting, local roads, public transport, some educational, health, and other social services. However, there is considerable diversity in other areas, including traffic management, energy efficiency and conservation, toxic-waste disposal, land-use planning, air quality, promotion of eco-efficient products and services, groundwater protection, protection of water bodies, and economic development.
Partnerships, administrative style, openness, and relations with local social and economic actors are characterised by the level of application of mechanisms such as open information policies (e.g. toxic registers), strong public ‘right to know’ laws, public hearings on developments, legally binding public referenda on contentious issues. According to the survey there was a significant internal variation at a pan-European level. Countries such as Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands had applied more of these instruments, however, local governments in most countries were yet to follow these leading examples.
The survey also identified significant variations in democratic processes, including political traditions, state-society relations and customs of decision-making. These variations were identified to be responsible for the development of different national and regional environmental priorities. Priorities ranged from in Greece: the battle against pollution, the establishment of more confident NGOs, and the struggle to prise open municipal structures were identified as priorities, through in Italy and Spain: the need for coordination of initiatives, demands for decentralisation, awareness raising and public participation, to in Germany and Austria: responding to issues of diversity, economic security and North-South relations. Notwithstanding these differences in emphasis, certain cross-cutting themes appeared to be common to all: implementation and monitoring, gaining political support, connecting with communities, achieving policy integration and synthesis.
3 LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT IN HUNGARY
The following sections provide an introduction to the local government system in Hungary as well as to the main environmental issues Hungarian local governments face.
3.1. Local government in Hungary
There are two levels of local government in Hungary: the municipality and the county. Municipalities are the basic units of the system and are organized by settlements, which in Hungary include villages, cities and cities with county rights. The middle tier of local government, consists of nineteen counties. The capital city, Budapest, has special legal status and has a two tier structure itself.
There are no hierarchical relations between the two levels of local government. According to Article 42 of the Hungarian Constitution, the fundamental rights of all local governments are equal. County local governments neither are superior organs to municipalities, nor do they have supervisory authority over them. The difference between the two levels lies in the administrative tasks delegated to each. Municipalities provide local public services to their settlements; counties have a subsidiary role in that they provide public services that settlements are not capable of performing, as well as those that have a regional character.
Municipal governments have broad responsibilities in service provision as set out the in the Act on Local Governments (1990). They can undertake any local public issue not prohibited by law provided that it does not jeopardize the fulfilment of obligatory functions and powers. Thus, local government tasks are distinguished as mandatory and optional.
Parliament and legal provisions determine the mandatory functions and powers of local governments. The principle functions of municipalities are set out by the Act on Local Governments. Mandatory tasks prescribed by the act include the provision of healthy drinking water, kindergarten education, primary school instruction and education, basic health and welfare services, public lighting, local public roads and public cemeteries, and the protection of the rights of ethnic and national minorities.
A local government freely may undertake optional tasks determined on the basis of the requirements of the population and financial means available.
The Act on Local Governments, however, delegates more functions to local governments as general tasks. These include among others local development and land use planning, protection of the natural and built environment, drainage of rainwater and wastewater, local public transport, cleaning of public areas and provision of local energy supply.
Cities may be obliged by law to provide additional public services. The Act on Local Governments states that municipal governments may be authorized by parliamentary act to provide specific public services and to attend to other local tasks. Such obligations may be determined on the basis of the size, population or financial capabilities of the settlement. For example, cities must maintain fire brigades, technical rescue services and a wider range of social welfare services than villages.
Some major cities are conferred special legal status by the Act on Local Governments; these are the ‘cities with county rights’. The government of a city with county rights is a municipal government that also discharges the functions and powers of a county government. Its local government may form districts and may establish district offices.
According to the 1990 Act on Local Governments the county is defined as local government with a subsidiary role in local services provision. The county performs tasks that municipal governments are not obliged to provide, but its obligations are not enumerated specifically by the act. Additional public services of a regional character may be conferred upon the county by parliamentary act. In practice the main function of counties is maintenance of institutions providing public services, such as hospitals, secondary schools, museums, libraries, theaters, et cetera.
The capital of the country, Budapest, has a two-tiered system consisting of the self-government of the capital and those of its twenty-three districts. The municipal governments of the capital and its districts have independent functions and powers. The district governments independently fulfil the functions and powers of municipal governments. The government of the capital fulfils mandatory and voluntarily assumed municipal government functions and powers that affect the whole city or more than one district, as well as the those related to the special role of the capital within the country.
In practice the tasks and services provided by the two levels are not differentiated. On the basis of agreement, district governments may undertake—or the capital may delegate the organization of—certain public services that fall under the scope of functions and powers of the capital’s government, as long as the financial resources necessary for the fulfilment of such services simultaneously are identified.
Table 3.1. Structure of Hungarian local governments by type
Local government types
Districts of the Capital
Cities with County Rights
TOTAL all levels of LG
Over half of Hungarian local governments have fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, and account for 8 percent of the total population (Table sdf). Other than the Capital, which has a population of about 1.9 million, only 135 cities have more than 10,000 inhabitants, with a total of 4.1 million inhabitants. Together, Budapest and cities with over 10,000 inhabitants account for about 60 percent of the population.
Table 3.2. Structure of Hungarian municipalities by size
Size of municipality
No. of municipalities
Percentage of municipalities
Total population (x 1000)
Percentage of population
3.2. Local environmental policy context
The municipal public sector is an important contributor to water and soil pollution. Municipal waste pollution of surface water is high (in Hungary, surface water in need of treatment exceeds eighty percent). In addition, the rate of suitably treated water is the same in the case of both industrial and municipal wastewater—about forty percent. Municipal wastewater discharge originates from households, institutions and industrial facilities; untreated wastewater discharge from these sources in canalized areas causes significant surface water pollution. The majority of sewage either is unpurified or is purified inadequately. In Hungary the ratio of biologically treated municipal wastewater is 42.3 percent, while that of advanced treated municipal wastewater is 5.9 percent. Especially the capital and large towns lag behind in treatment (1998). Illegal wastewater release into the river system is not a rare event.
Ground water pollution caused by the populace mainly is due to a lack of sewers; thus, households use the desiccation method. While 96-97 percent of the population in Hungary lives in areas with public water supply systems, 91.1 percent of the total number of dwellings have in-house water supply, while those with public sewerage only comprise 47.6 percent of the total. Pretreatment processes in industrial plants are often nonexistent, and another source of pollution is surface rainwater that is conducted back into drinking water reservoirs.
Municipal solid waste discharge is another polluting activity. About three million tons of waste generated is deposited in an orderly or legalized manner. More than 2,600 disposal sites are available for 3,155 local governments, two-thirds of which are in authorized locations, but only slightly more than 300 sites have the organizational and technical infrastructure to ensure appropriate treatment.
The number of sites in which there is organized collection of waste materials is estimated to be 1,000. The waste material of about 2,000 settlements is transported to abandoned quarries or to forest rims. Fifteen percent of disposal sites are regional and serve 100 settlements altogether.
The majority of disposal sites contribute to the pollution of ground water due to the absence of technical protection, especially nitrate contamination. The components of precipitation are absorbed by the soil and seep into the groundwater supply. Especially strong contamination results if waste material is placed in landfills near the ground water level without using proper technology. Waste disposal sites located near hydroelectric power stations represent a particular threat to water quality.
In Hungary, most of the potable water supply is derived from ground water, and the majority of such sources already comply with EU directives. However, arsenic contamination is a problem in certain areas, though this is believed to be a natural component of raw water. Bacterial and nitrogen contamination represents a more serious problem in other parts of the country, relating to both infiltration and inadequacy of chlorine residuals.
The key policy documents with regards to local environmental policy in Hungary fall into two main categories. The first consists of generic legislation establishing the generic tasks and responsibilities for local governments. The second group includes specific pieces of legislation prescribing particular duties and/or implementation means in the field of environment.
As discussed above the general duties of local governments are prescribed in national legislation. The 1990 Act on Local Governments prescribed only a few specific mandatory tasks for local governments, which did not specifically include environmental protection. However, the Act delegated several general duties to local governments, including “the protection of the natural and built environment”.
The main environmental legislation is the 1995 Act on the Environment. The Act required local governments to create municipal environmental programmes (MEPs), as well as to regulate its main environmental duties through local ordinance. The Act also provides for local governments to establish dedicated local environmental funds to finance environmental projects.
Most specific environmental requirements were developed in the field of waste management, as well as of water and wastewater. The key driving force in the development of the Hungarian regulatory was the EU accession process.
There is well established structure of environmental responsibilities among the various levels of government. The main task of central government is to ensure appropriate legislation and establish national programmes for environmental protection. The main responsibility of regional government authorities (environmental, water and health authorities) is to monitor and enforce legislation. As such, regional authorities monitor mainly the activities of the private sector (in particular, industry). Municipal governments are responsible for local issues, such as sewerage and waste management, and deal mainly with the public sector, or low risk private organisations, such as retailers and the service sector. (For example, air emissions from household appliances and from boilers with capacity lower tha 140 kWh are overseen by local governments, whereas the control of all other sources of air emissions are the responsibility of the regional environmental authorities.)
The 2000 Waste Management Act delegated local governments several specific responsibilities. The was developed in line with the 75/442/EEC Directive on Waste and provides a framework for action in the field of waste management in Hungary. The Act made municipal waste management a mandatory duty for local governments. In particular, according to the Act, local governments have to determine and regulate the means and conditions of the collection of municipal solid waste, including the duties of residents, as well as the conditions for service providers. Local governments will also have to prepare local waste management plans. The Act refers to waste segregation as a potential method which local governments can make mandatory within their jurisdiction.
The disposal of municipal waste to landfills was regulated by the Ministery of the Environment Decree No. 22/2001, in accordance with European Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC). The Decree introduced strict requirements concerning the opening and operation of municipal landfills. Importantly, the Decree also required detailed environmental investigations of all existing landfills to determine remediation and clean-up needs. Considering that most existing landfills were created and owned by local governments, this regulation had important implications for them.
By far the largest costs of implementing the EU Environmental Acquis are associated with attaining compliance with the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC). Government Decision No. 2168/2000 and the modification of the 1995 Act on Water Management established the basis for implementing the Directive in Hungary. The scale of the problem required that a National Program for Wastewater Canalisation and Treatment was developed and central funding was allocated to its implementation. Nevertheless, according to the legal requirements, local governments are ultimately responsible for the provision of adequate collection and treatment of municipal sewage in all settlements with a population equivalent of more than 2000.
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