Agenda 21 - the list of actions to achieve sustainable development for the 21st century - was a key document agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit. Local authorities were encouraged to develop their own strategies in response. But an international deadline to complete this work by the end of 1996 was widely missed.
To date less than half of UK authorities have prepared a strategy, according to the Local Government Management Board (LGMB). Only 194 had submitted any Agenda 21 material by the end of 1996. Just 39% of councils have a full-time Agenda 21 officer - preferring to distribute the responsibilities among existing staff.
Nevertheless, most councils - 70%, according to the LGMB survey - are committed to preparing a strategy. Ben Tuxworth of the University of Westminster, which conducted the research, believes the figure is now nearer to 80% or 90%. "But what they are actually doing is very patchy," he says.
Last year, research in north-west England by consultant Graham Barrow found that over one-third of the Agenda 21 co-ordinators felt that little or nothing had yet been achieved in their councils. Where benefits were identified, they tended to be restricted to improvements in the council's own performance and better communication with local players.
Lack of support from central Government has been a recurring complaint from local authorities, according to Jane Morris, the LGMB's Agenda 21 officer. But she welcomed the new Government guidance - and its 15 December 2000 deadline - as evidence of greater support.
The Government is emphasising the integration of social and economic issues in Local Agenda 21. Speaking at the launch of the guidelines, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said: "We are in the business of making lasting improvements in the quality of life of local people and their children - working to meet environmental and economic and social goals."
This integration may be difficult to achieve. When the LGMB questioned Agenda 21 officers, most felt that its impact was largely restricted to traditional environmental protection areas - such as resource use, pollution, landscape and biodiversity (see figure ).
Similarly, within the councils' own activities, Agenda 21 has made most impact in areas like planning, transport and environmental health. Areas such as social services and tendering fare less well. The LGMB says this is because responsibility for Agenda 21 tends to reside in environmental departments.
The Government's guidance says that Agenda 21 strategies should take account of the needs of local communities and be continuously updated to reflect changing conditions. To do this effectively authorities need to communicate with and involve as many sectors of the community as possible.
Many councils have found this dialogue particularly difficult to achieve and have reported a high degree of apathy, especially from business. That said, improved communication is frequently cited as one of the most valuable products of the process.
The guidance says that commitment from the top is essential - both from councillors and officers: "Everyone in the council needs to know that the strategy matters and that it has corporate backing."
But Mr Barrow found that "a large majority" of Agenda 21 officers in the North West complained of a lack of resources - and 21% said there was a lack of political support. Councils have to fund their strategies from existing budgets. Some components - such as rolling sustainability reviews of policies and implementation of environmental management systems - can be costly initially but should eventually save money.