Environment analysis: As the Habitat III Conference draws to a close in Quito, Ecuador, what chances are there of its New Urban Agenda (NUA) finding a way into UK and international law?

Angus Evers, partner at Shoosmiths, notes limited attention being given to UK involvement in the conference, but sees opportunity for measuring and encouraging the impact of the NUA.

What power does the NUA have in real terms?

NUA was adopted in Quito, Ecuador, on 20 October 2016 at the conclusion of the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (known as Habitat III). The UN describes it as an 'inclusive, action-oriented, and concise document intended to guide the next twenty years of sustainable and transformative urban development worldwide'. The NUA is not intended to be legally binding and will only provide guidance - as such it seems unlikely to have any real power.

The NUA is accompanied by the Quito Implementation Plan, which is a set of voluntary commitments by various partners (ranging from government bodies to NGOs and businesses) intended to contribute to and reinforce the implementation of the outcomes of the Habitat III conference and the NUA. These commitments are not enforceable, but are made through an online platform to enable partners demonstrating interest in similar commitments to link with each other, so there may at least be some peer pressure on those making commitments to implement them.

Could a government face any legal action for failing to live up to the ethos of the NUA?

Unless a country's legal system provided for the enforceability of the NUA in domestic law, there would be no means, either in international law or domestic law, of taking legal action against a government for failing to live up to the ethos of the NUA or to implement a commitment made under the Quito Implementation Plan.

Could the NUA be used by citizens to challenge planning decision-making?

The NUA has no legal force in domestic law in the UK, so it could not be used to challenge a planning decision. It is also unlikely that the NUA could be considered to be a 'material consideration' to be taken into account by planning decision-makers. It probably says something about a limited UK commitment to Habitat III that I have seen almost nothing in the UK press about it and the government has made no announcement about the UK's participation in the conference.

To what extent will any deal struck at Quito be hamstrung by national politics?

The NUA inevitably represents a compromise between the different countries that negotiated it and thus reflects their national politics.

Unlike other UN-backed programmes (COP 21 for instance), can Habitat III offer deliverable and measurable metrics upon which its success can be measured?

The Quito Implementation Plan mentioned above provides a mechanism for different types of organisations, both public sector and private sector, to make public commitments. The Habitat III website states that initiatives under the Quito Implementation Plan:

  • should be specific, replicable, action-oriented, funded and innovative
  • must be monitored and subject to reporting on a regular basis
  • should demonstrate the capacity to deliver
  • should be led by partners able to showcase implementation of existing commitments (sufficient level of maturity), and
  • for co-operative international initiatives, they must observe inclusiveness (eg, balanced regional representation)

Although the Habitat III website acknowledges that commitments made under the Quito Implementation Plan are not a substitute for government responsibilities and inter-governmentally agreed commitments, the online platform on which the commitments are made does at least seem to provide a means for monitoring progress with their implementation.

First published in Lexis Nexis.