This paper draws upon the DISCUS (Developing Institutional and Social Capacity for Sustainable Development) research project, co-funded by the European Commission. The project was undertaken during 2001 - 2004 and involved an in-depth study of 40 European towns and cities in order to understand the institutional and social factors and conditions that might contribute to policy 'achievement' or 'failure' in local sustainable development policy and practice. Based on the findings of this research it proposes a conceptual framework for local sustainable development, linking the concepts of institutional capital, social capital and governance to provide a model for understanding the governing of local sustainability. The research shows that in those cases that exhibit sustainable development policy achievements, there are also greater levels of civil society activity and knowledge regarding sustainability issues, and high levels of institutional capacity. Confident local government is crucial to the development of institutional capacity and to institutional learning. One aspect of this is local authorities being equipped to address the longer-term issues and to have a strategic vision for a sustainable future.