October 18-25, 2004

Commentary: Industry an essential player in the new deal for cities

By: Colin Isaacs
Industry and municipal governments interact in ways that are growing in both importance and number.

Industry generally operates under a form of licence, implicit or explicit, from the municipality where an operation is located. It is a significant source and generator of municipal revenue.

Industry is a major user of, and often a contributor to, municipal infrastructure. Increasingly, industry is a funder of, and partner in, municipal projects. Private-sector operation is becoming a more efficient and effective mechanism for delivery of municipal services in many areas. And so on.

Yet visitors to the World Urban Forum, held last month in Barcelona, Spain, could be forgiven for thinking that industry and municipal governments occupy separate solitudes. Industry and business were almost totally absent from this huge gathering of municipal governments and their senior government supporters.

In a delegation of more than 50 from Canada there were only two from the private sector: Alcan and the writer of this article. This is an especially important issue because the next World Urban Forum will be held in Vancouver in June 2006.

The World Urban Forum (WUF) was created by United Nations Habitat to enable the municipal governments of the world to come together and share their experience. This is an important challenge: there is much that municipal governments can learn from each other, yet the press frowns upon travel, interchange and sharing of experience, especially between municipalities in countries far removed from each other.

WUF provides a legitimate way for municipal government officials from around the world, both elected and appointed, to share experiences and to learn from each other. Session topics at WUF 2004 included municipal finance reform, public-private partnerships, infrastructure, operation of services, governance, and much more.

The private sector was more than welcome to attend and participate in all discussions and many delegates commented, almost always with a degree of surprise, on the lack of private-sector input to discussions.

Of the 4,200 people attending WUF 2004, only 340 came from the private sector. The remaining participants included 586 local government representatives, 45 parliamentarians, 782 from senior governments, 921 from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), 335 academics and researchers and 373 delegates from a range of United Nations agencies, along with representatives of foundations, other development partners and the media.

I believe that a key role of WUF 2006 should be to showcase the relationship between the private sector and municipalities that exists in Canada and to encourage municipal government especially in the developing world to adopt an even stronger relationship with business. Achieving that goal will require much stronger Canadian business participation than was evident at WUF 2004.

The draft report of the World Urban Forum 2004 is available on-line at www.unchs.org/wuf/2004/.

The governments of Canada, the city of Vancouver, and the Greater Vancouver Regional District have not yet designated a lead agency or person for WUF 2006, but companies interested in showcasing the positive interaction between business and municipal government might wish to contact Michael Harcourt, chair of the federal government's External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities (EACCC) at mharcourt@shaw.ca. The EACCC's secretariat is Infrastructure Canada's Cities Secretariat at 613/948-6538.

Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group and publisher of the Gallon Environmental Letter, reviews environment-related trends in policy (government and corporate) and legislation for ELW. Comments may be E-mailed to cisaacs@compusserve.com.

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