Local democracy is important: but will we vote for it?

It’s a good time to talk about local democracy – whether the type you vote for, the type you get involved in, or both – and so I’m looking forward to the Create a Council event in London tomorrow evening.

The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) – which represents parish and town councils – argues that that “if local people are elected by their community to influence and make decisions that will affect their own area, it will have significant impact on improving lives throughout the capital”.

In their media release of October 17 NALC suggest the engagement of people after the recent riots, in helping clear up their neighbourhoods, could be supported by new, small, local councils.

The creation of new local councils in London would give communities a voice and this in turn could help address some of the underlying causes of the recent London riots. Local councils have already been created in urban areas such as Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford and Milton Keynes and have helped address social issues caused by deprivation by providing community leadership and brokering relationships with Government at large.

Localism and the Big Society have been much heralded and discussed by the Government and the Prime Minister himself, prompting much debate from Whitehall to town and village halls. What better way to ensure local ownership of decisions, control of assets and to get people involved in their area than to genuinely give power to the people.

Of course, electing representatives is just one way of engaging with the civic sphere.

NALC quotes with approval Stephen Fry’s tweet “For a raft of ideas on how to live a happier, local life grab the members benefits of Your Square Mile” – and then argue that local councils go one step further than the YSM offering. I’m not sure where YSM stands on local London councils, but earlier this year they were promoting the ideas that membership of the YSM mutual could help create 8000 local democracies. More recent coverage here.
The recent Pathways through Participation research explored how and why people get involved, and broadly concluded that people follow their enthusiasms, as Simon Burall summarises here. What also came out in the interviews, was that people do not like being told to get involved by politicians, which is perhaps why Big Society didn’t work well as a call to action, but awards do.
There was a lively Guardian-hosted online discussion last week on whether local democracy is in crisis, where Simon again underlined that most people are turned off by any association of engagement with politics.
Will Perrin, who left a senior civil service job in Whitehall to set up Talk About Local, promoting and supporting hyperlocal websites, was scathing at the start of the debate:

Local engagement structures are jarringly out of touch with the communications practices and life pressures of the modern citizen. Possibly only the courts and parliament have a greater whiff of the C19th about them.

In Kings Cross we have used a very basic website for many years now to help people access, understand and engage with local politics to make their area better. It’s run by citizens following things they are interested in and the council takes part. We discourage party political slanging and bad behaviour. http://www.kingscrossenvironment.com/

Will argues that tinkering with structures won’t make much difference: you need to follow where people are going, and for many that is online. He and others agreed that neighbourhood plans and budgeting are going to be an important focus for local discussion and decision-making. As I found the other day, talking to Richard Edwards, participatory budgeting is one way to both engage people on local issues and increase voting.

What’s certainly clear from research and discussion is that traditional consultation processes are widely distrusted and are ineffective; few people will turn out for traditional meetings organised by councils, or take much interest in their formal ways of doing things.

So: old-style structures and processes don’t involve people. But if people do get involved, someone has to make decisions, and the closer the decision-makers are to local issues, the better. I’ll be interested how NALC propose that we get the best of both participative and representative democracy, and hope that we’ll hear from the the Queen’s Park campaign for a community council, who seems to be having a good go at creating an engaging mix.

One comment

  • October 24, 2011 - 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I love local democracy, but I do struggle a bit to see how introducing another layer in London will help get things done. London’s councils aren’t always keen on devolving power, especially to people who disagree with them.

    The key equation is: for a given amount of local energy would you get more done if deploy that energy:
    (a) running for council yourself
    (b) trying to create a new layer
    (c) getting a community organiser in
    (d) to driving the top two local issues/campaigns?

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