Information Territories Democracy Culture Economics

VERY LOCAL DEMOCRACY

" No tyrant need fear till men begin to feel confident in each other. " - Aristotle

 

Why is there increasing concern with the existing arrangements for the democratic management of society?

Why have local communities fragmented or even disintegrated?

Is there a connection between these two questions?

Here we try to further explore democracy (or the lack of it) starting with ourselves as potential citizens.

COMMUNITY AND SOCIETY

In the small human groups of our ancestors the community was the whole society. Today each community is only a part of a much larger society. If democracy - meaning people-power - is to be real, then ultimate control should reside in the lowest tier of decision-making: the local community. (It has been argued above that simply giving each individual a vote in a large society leaves most of us without real power.) The implication of this is that each local community instructs, advises, sends representatives or delegates to, one or more of the wider tiers, e.g. district, town, conurbation, county, region etc. Some of the ways of doing this have been compared in 'Exploring Democracy'.

THE DESTRUCTION OF COMMUNITY

In most parts of England the decline of social community is a fact, notwithstanding the activities of voluntary groups. There has been a long road to where we are now. The class hierarchies of Anglo-Saxon England were still based on mutual obligation and respect - the village moot was an example of active participation in local decisions. With the Norman conquest this was swept away and the common people of England became not only powerless but objects of contempt. This arrogance of power comes right down to the present. A further step in the process was the loosening of social bonds due to the lessening of community-wide economic activities such as bringing in the harvest. This paved the way for the decline of an inclusive social life, a retreat from public to private. Both the culture shock of the industrial revolution and spiteful paternalist 'welfare' accelerated this process. The end product is the rise of the modern 'private person'.

Years of powerlessness have bred degrees of social irresponsibility in all of us. We have become passive receivers of services, accepting things being done for us and to us, not by us. Those in positions of power and influence, elected or not, have become our service providers: the people who know what's best for us. Their power base lies not only in their official positions but in being part of informal networks of power and information that are beyond scrutiny. This can lead to "We know best" arrogance; self-justifying empires; a sense of threat in response to any attempts at local community initiative. The result for us is a sense of being remote from, and having no influence over, decision-making.

Also acting as a block to community life is work! Contrary to mid-twentieth century predictions, work for most people has become more of a treadmill. Modern work patterns mean more time not available to the community: remote jobs; long hours; travelling time. They have also contributed to the decline of the extended family as a support network. These reinforce the private person, detached from the community.

Political parties, formed to influence society and empower social groups, have themselves become highly centralised and part of the managerial society. They are now at best a diversion from, and at worst an obstacle to, attempts by any community to reclaim its power.

THE STRUCTURE OF COMMUNITY

Despite all this, it is possible to build (re-build) local communities that at least some of us can connect to and feel that they own. It often starts with a few motivated people being the seed, setting up some kind of simple structure that others can relate to. Before arguing for this we need to explore some of the elements which make up people in community.

NETWORKS

In our modern atomised society some people are literally that: atoms without any social networks. Most of us are part of at least one informal network (family, friendships, shared interests) through which we give and receive practical and psychological support. By definition these networks make no claim to be democratic or inclusive: they either pre-exist (families) or arise by mutual selection. This only becomes a problem with the so called 'old boy networks'. These give privileged access to resources and to levers of power and influence. This difference between those networks that give no special access to influence and those that are 'well connected' is one of the major distinctions between social groups and classes.

STRUCTURE

The ideology of modern society makes great play of the free individual and freedom of choice. Structure and bureaucracy have become dirty words. Yet structure is vital to all natural and social organisms. Although structure in society may lead to excessive bureaucracy, it is argued here that it is precisely the lack of structure in our social communities that keeps us powerless. Where there are no democratic structures those with the most powerful informal networks will tend to have most influence.

Any structure, a residents association for example, is potentially democratic. It is clear who the members are and the rules can specify that anyone living in the area may join. Most important of all, it is open to criticism or reform in a way that an informal network is not. The structured group can empower its members despite (or because of) the range of types or roles within it. It may do this not only through its collective social voice and leverage, but sometimes by giving individuals the confidence to explore new roles, take on new responsibilities.

 


LEVELS OF GOVERNANCE  -  THE VIEW FROM BELOW


Highly centralised Westminster + Whitehall regime


‘People Nations’ -  limited devolution to Scotland, Wales; none (yet) for England, Kernow

[Devolve! historically supportive]


Failed Regional tier:  unaccountable Government Regions; unloved Regional Assemblies

[Radical allies pursue autonomous English Provinces]


Sub-regional coalitions of Local Authorities bidding to draw down extra powers

[Devolve! active in this arena]


Local Government as we know it: Counties, Districts, Boroughs, City and other Unitaries


‘Double Devolution’: Local Authorities told to devolve some powers/funds to local Areas


>>   CRITICAL INTERFACE OF VERY LOCAL DEMOCRACY  <<


Second tier community power: Parish & Township Councils, Community Alliances etc

[Devolve! backs Community Alliance pilot – see VLD diagram below]


Primary community associations: Residents, Tenants, Faith & Culture groups, Traders etc


Citizens need to hold politicians and officers to continuous account



 

VERY LOCAL STRUCTURES

" Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. " - G.B. Shaw

Three forms that very local democracy can take are: the elected parish council; the local community alliance; the community forum. Each of these have merits and limitations.

PARISH

The parish or township council is permitted in principle anywhere in England except London. It requires an application from a minimum number of citizens to be accepted. Once set up it enjoys formal and legal recognition, defined powers (which are more than generally supposed) and some funds from a small precept on the council tax raised by the local authority (the so-called penny rate). At this level party-political involvement is often minimal. On the downside: most residents remain dis-connected once the councillors have been elected; the population may be too great to form an effective first tier of democracy, since it may span several communities; it is not permitted to influence the tier above it (district, borough or unitary council).

COMMUNITY ALLIANCE

Local alliances of community groups normally match their electoral area (e.g. a ward) and are always a second tier of local democracy. Each primary or first tier body (residents/tenants associations, business associations, cultural or faith bodies, etc.) will delegate representatives to the community alliance. Their voluntary structure leaves them free to criticise and lobby any wider authority. Together with their first tier components they provide a route to individual and community empowerment. They may have no formal recognition; they depend on the voluntary energies of active citizens, which can wax and wane. Where local authorities have established Area Committees - of two or three wards - and where community alliances exist in those wards, there is the prospect of a constructive partnership at this very local level. However, community alliances may also be empowered by their constitutions to stand community candidates in local elections where they consider that partnership has failed.

COMMUNITY FORUM

Community forums normally exist to secure service delivery to their patches. These are often deprived areas and may be traditional communities that do not match present electoral boundaries. Local community groups may be affiliated but the driving energy is from 'coalface' professionals seeking adequate resources to meet local needs.

EMPOWERMENT

The central concept in creating viable communities is empowerment. All social issues come back to the question of who is empowered, where does power lie?

The Devolve! formula:

EMPOWERMENT = THE WILL TO ACT + THE ABILITY TO ACT

  THE WILL TO ACT  requires both  CONFIDENCE  and  RESPONSIBILITY

  THE ABILITY TO ACT  requires both  STRUCTURE  and  RESOURCES

So:  EMPOWERMENT = CONFIDENCE + RESPONSIBILITY + STRUCTURE + RESOURCES

Confidence is made up of individual self esteem and a shared belief that things can be changed.

Responsibility: the missing concept in much social thinking. A responsible group must contain a proportion of individuals willing to accept that responsibility, to give time and commitment, to take a lead. [See next page (Organic Democracy); see Types and Roles Page for a fuller explanation.]

Structure is necessary for all organised life; without it the community cannot act as a whole.

Resources include: time; energy; money (and/or equipment); information - and wisdom*.

[*The collective wisdom of people who live in a real situation every day is usually greater than that of any one individual, especially the remote representative or administrator, however highly educated. The art of democracy is partly to unearth this wisdom.]

It follows that all these dimensions need to be addressed if people in community are to claim their democratic heritage. Note that legal sanction by 'higher' authority is not listed above. Empowerment can only be taken, never given. All the examples of dispensations in the historical record - whether the right to vote or some autonomy for Scotland - are responses by the centre to new social realities and pressures.

The struggles of the future will be between centralists and de-centralists, between Jacobins and pluralists. When the pluralist ideal triumphs there will be many centres of power...all closer to home.

 

A VERY LOCAL EXPERIMENT

Local government in Leicester is renowned for its political infighting and 'strange events', which sometimes make wider news. There are also deeper problems, aggravated by recent changes which have created two types of councillor: a minority become cabinet members; the majority now only have powers to scrutinise cabinet decisions. These things turn people away from social involvement and widen the gulf between the power-brokers and the governed.

SOME ISSUES FACING DEMOCRATS IN LEICESTER

COMMUNITY ALLIANCES & AREA COMMITTEES

[2003 to 2007]  A Devolve! originated initiative. In two wards Community Alliance panels are now up and running. The structure is as described below. There is some success in encouraging new associations in areas where none existed. Although the adopted constitutions provide for standing community candidates if necessary, the course being followed is a 'dialogue of accountability' with the sitting councillors and their allies.

The big challenge for the two existing and any future Community Alliances is to win acceptance as credible community partners. If some powers and budgets are eventually devolved (some Council officers are attempting to thwart this dilution of central control) then a small measure of direct or participatory democracy could become reality. The unique feature of Community Alliances is their chain of accountability back into the community. [N.B. Some other authorities have adopted or are adopting Area Committees - with varying degrees of participation.]

Since the formal creation of an Area Committee for the Area covering these two wards in December 2005 (with a limited budget and no devolved powers as yet) the Community Alliances have continued to encourage participation in AC public meetings. In May 2006 this strategy bore its first fruit with recognition for Stoneygate Ward Alliance as a working group bringing forward proposals for a community resource and advice centre in the ward. The project was recommended by the then Area Committee with some short term funding.


A STRUCTURE FOR VERY LOCAL DEMOCRACY

Based on the developing pilot scheme in a Midlands city.




RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

[May 2007 to July 2009] The May elections brought a change of administration in the city, plus four of the six council seats in the pilot Area changing hands.

By early 2008 this had led to several setbacks for Very Local Democracy.

Yet the Community Alliances network across the two Wards could not be abolished and continued to build partnerships and monitor local decisions.

More recently [2009] the City administration has recognised the need for some community involvement (officially a Government high priority) and is in process of formally endorsing some 'Community Partners' nominated by primary groups (e.g. residents associations) to work alongside elected councillors.

This may in effect give Community Alliance representatives some voice in very local (Ward level) decisions - though the Council Leader and Cabinet Leads still retain final control over budgets and policy. The informal gain from this process of community involvement is that council departments are becoming more wary of riding roughshod over the increasingly organised and vocal community networks. Consultation on (for example) Residents Parking Zones is becoming more real.

Current very local activities include continued support to newer associations and bringing a wide range of partners (including community, business and faith groups, police, councillors, local MP) together to secure inproved youth facilities in the fairly deprived patch.

As the 2011 local elections approach the minds of some councillors will be concentrated. Yet entrenched officer power, along with the political vacuum created by privatised lives, remain the main obstacles to real community democracy and empowerment.

AN ECONOMIC DIMENSION

The democratic dis-empowerment of most people is matched by their economic dis-empowerment. This is especially true in poor inner city areas. One example is entrapment by doorstep lenders at interest rates of up to 800%.

In a response to this one of the ward based Community Alliances described above is making a partnership with the local Credit Union. The immediate aim is to encourage wider use of low interest loans from a fully mutual body owned by its participating members, operated mainly by volunteers and funded mainly by local savers.

If some progress can be made, there is a prospect of developing a co-operative local economy with more internal exchange and reduced 'leak out' of wealth to remote margin takers. This will certainly need good information on the structures and methods becoming available: Very Local Economics is a project whose time has come.

THE WAY AHEAD

We hope that this examination of, and call for, real local empowerment will inspire more concerned people to rethink where their energy is going, and maybe put more of it into their local community - the foundation stone of the better society we dream of. This does mean questioning loyalties to centralised political solutions and the parties that advocate them. We may note that often it is party politics that obstructs and undermines community empowerment, in addition to the problem of the unchecked power of some council officers. In any case social issues will increasingly cross party lines.