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Newsletter, June 2006

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Does VOICE signal the demise of the Parish Council?

In his previous role as Minister of Communities and Local Government, David Miliband talked repeatedly about “double devolution”. The idea is that central government should devolve power to the town halls and that the town halls should continue to pass power down to the neighbourhoods.

This has led to some political finger-pointing with the claim in some quarters that central government has actually reduced the power of the town halls, but we think that the more interesting part of the debate is about the lower-level empowerment of local communities.

In any engagement exercise we find that many people do have a strong desire - and sometimes feel that they have a right - to influence the decisions that affect them. When elected members are involved in the debate this can lead to a fundamental divergence of views. In a room full of people debating a planning issue, local residents sit forward in their chairs and demand that their voices are heard, while the few elected councillors rather awkwardly mention that actually they were elected to make decisions like this. Where does the power lie, with the people or with the elected representatives? Which is appropriate in this case, participative democracy or representative democracy?

We think this depends on whether the issues are national or local.

At national level there are a great many issues that need to be decided and these are often very complex. Although every citizen in the country might be influenced in some way by the outcome of decisions at national level, their ability to contribute usefully to the debate depends on the subject of the debate. There are of course situations in which public debates need to be held at national level and are very healthy. (They also happen to be our bread and butter! Some current examples are the review of waste strategy being held by Defra and the gender equality duty consultation for the Equal Opportunities Commission.) But the point remains that the key contributors to these debates are a few people who are knowledgeable about the issues and happen to be scattered about the country.

At local level there are relatively few issues that require decisions. (There are still a great many in absolute terms, but less than at national level.) At local level, and the more localised the issues the more this is true, people are not only influenced by the outcomes of decisions but are able to contribute to the debate by the very fact that they have local knowledge. Local people discussing the best site for a new factory know the width of the roads, the history of flooding in the area and the employment rate as well as any experts.

On the whole it seems to make more sense for democratic processes at national level to use elected representatives to make the main decisions for us; participative processes come into their own at local level. At national level there is just too much to be debated to rely primarily on participative democracy. In neighbourhoods it makes much more sense for local people to have a major say in decision-making. The quantity of information is manageable and they can contribute as meaningfully as most local councillors.

Before the development of inexpensive electronic methods of engagement, widespread participative democracy at neighbourhood level was impractical. But that may change with the introduction of the VOICE e-democracy toolkit (http://e-voice.org.uk/) later this year. If participation can be made cost-effective and becomes the norm at local level, we wonder what role there will still be for the Parish Councillor.

 

 
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