Exercising Democracy

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Today marks one of the biggest democratic events that those living in the UK will face in their lifetime. Those living in Scotland have had the opportunity to exercise their suffrage. Today’s referendum has the potential to reach 80% turnout. Where apathy is usually cited for low turnout, it is perhaps more indicative of citizens’ lack of influence in day-to-day politics and entrenched party politics. The referendum has shown that when people do have an influence in outcomes they want their voice to be heard.


In the last few months, one of the most striking things about the impending referendum has been the number of people on the streets, at home, in cafes and pubs, debating and rallying about how their respective positions will secure the future of the country. Such deep-level discussions are very rare, except for those folks that are politically engaged on a regular basis. It’s been great to see people debate their visions, and share their hopes and fears.


But the referendum has also brought into question one of the most historical and influential political systems in the world. In a certain sense, the referendum is holding that system to account.  Furthermore, the debates generated have gone into very meaty issues: economics, currency, taxation, nuclear issues, among many others.


If citizens are considered worthy to change the national direction for their country (and affect those beyond the border), surely we can also implement initiatives that enable citizens’ to become involved in local democracy in a meaningful way?


As the Commission for Local Democracy’s Interim Report showed, the size of local councils in Scotland are exceptionally large compared with several European neighbours. The UK as a whole is considerably centralised national governments exert exceptional levels of control over most matters. The ability for local councils to generate revenue is severely limited, and consequently so is the amount of money they have to spend.


Were local councils given greater autonomy then potentially greater initiatives could be implemented that allow citizens to participate. It is also possible that in planning terms, local communities would have a way of articulating their preferences and generating proposals for public spending using locally generated revenue. So rather than having a planning system that communities are trying to defend themselves from unwanted developments (the so called NIMBYs), how can we generate something that is proactive and reflects the community’s wishes?


There are many options (see also participedia). But one of the more popular initiatives internationally is participatory budgeting which enables local residents (e.g. community council, ward or region) to decide the priorities for local authority public works spending. So depending on the amount that is available this can range from issues such as sorting out potholes, improving local parks maintenance, or – at an extreme case – constructing a new school. New York City has been one of the most high profile cases where this has been implemented in the last few years. What is important though is that the citizens and local authorities need to shape it to their own systems and practices; there is no one size fits all panacea.


Because communities are cash poor and large scale developments (schools, housing developments, community renewable energy schemes) require millions of pounds, community proposals are extremely rare. Creating a way of generating public funds that enable citizens to decide how that money should be spent would give people that sense of discovery and ability to actively shape their community. Currently this is extremely challenging, if not completely impossible.


Such schemes are also a way of holding local authority spending accountable and making them transparent. Perhaps preventing controversial PFI schemes, for example. It also offers hope that developments can come from the residents within the community not just external developers.


The ideas presented in this blog are not just planning related, but bring the nature of our local democracy into question and merit debate. If we’ve done it for the referendum, why don’t we get it started for our local communities and local government?


Author Graham Martin

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