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Let the people in

Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society looks at the democratic deficit in devolution

February 27, 2016
7 min read

Across the country, devolution deals are being signed behind closed doors. The responsibility for designing and ensuring delivery of crucial services, including transport, public health and employment programmes, is up for grabs. Yet few people are aware of what this means for them and their locality.

There are currently nearly 40 devolution deals going through. These hand more powers to councils that combine forces and are willing to take on more responsibilities – often in return for extra investment.

Few agreements have had much scrutiny even from councillors, let alone local citizens themselves. Councillors in Cornwall were given just 20 minutes to debate the devolution deal there, while elsewhere they have been almost entirely drawn up by Whitehall civil servants in negotiation with council bosses. This is top-down devolution: a recent New Economics Foundation/University of Sheffield study found that among the many arguments made by local and national government in favour of the current devolution process, ‘democracy’ was substantially lower on the agenda than, for example, both economic growth and ‘effectiveness’ of local government. Economic arguments have vastly outstripped democratic justifications for devolution.

At the Electoral Reform Society, as democracy campaigners, we are concerned about the sustainability of these settlements unless the public are brought in. Without good information and debate, there is a risk that new mayors – a key part of the devo-package in many regions – could suffer from poor understanding about the new role as well as low voter turnout in elections, as with police and crime commissioners in 2012.

The UK is facing sweeping constitutional changes, a year on from the Scottish referendum and with key questions of devolution such as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ and the EU referendum currently high on the agenda. This is a surprisingly constitution-focused parliament.

But ordinary people have been locked out of all these discussions. Public input has been close to zero: the ‘devolution revolution’ is taking place without a say from the people it will actually affect. As the head of the New Local Government Network has said: ‘Devolution without democracy ought to be an oxymoron.’ It is.

Citizen assemblies

It doesn’t have to be this way. The public can – and must – be engaged in the process.

There is a strong case for a ‘constitutional convention’ – some form of UK-wide citizens’ assembly on our democratic future – if we are going to put back together the pieces of our fragmented constitution with any degree of coherence.

In response to the pressing need for greater engagement the Electoral Reform Society and academics from universities across the country organised two ‘citizens’ assemblies’ in England, designed to engage the public in the devolution debate. Residents from the Southampton and Sheffield areas took part in these deliberative events on local democracy and devolution deals in October and November as part of a democratic experiment to see what public engagement in localisation of democratic structures might look like. As a pilot project, it threw up some interesting results.

Council leaders have been under huge pressure to do the deal first and open it up for public scrutiny later – there is little time to engage the public

In both areas (South Yorkshire for ‘Assembly North’ and Solent for ‘Assembly South’) a sample of around 30 participants, selected to be broadly representative of the local populations, came together for two weekends of discussion and voting. They reached their conclusions through a process of deliberative engagement with the details of different potential devolution arrangements, hearing from experts with different views as well as local representatives. Views varied on precisely where power should lie in their area. But everyone wanted a stronger say for citizens over plans to hand councils more powers.

Of course, the assemblies weren’t perfect – they are a first. In a pilot study with relatively small numbers and limited resources it is difficult to achieve a fully representative sample, despite being a good mix of men and women from all parts of their region. In other respects (particularly ethnicity and age) they were less representative, something that will be taken on board for future projects.

The citizens’ conclusions were fascinating. In Southampton, while participants were divided on what kind of governance structure they wanted, they strongly endorsed the idea that any new devolved body should cover the Hampshire and the Isle of Wight area, with the integration of health and social care seen as the top priority. In South Yorkshire, participants voted for a strong Yorkshire and Humber assembly, with more substantial powers to be held in the region than those in the current deal.

What was clear from both assemblies was that citizens wanted far greater public involvement in the devolution deals being proposed. Most not only wanted to stay involved in the process, but felt that other people should have the opportunity they had.

Involving decision makers

Assembly South was only the second such event in the world to include both citizens and politicians as formal participants in the process, after the Republic of Ireland, with five local councillors participating alongside the citizens for the four days.

Encouragingly, local and national politicians were eager to be involved, with the head of Hampshire Council, Roy Perry, attending Assembly South alongside local Labour MP Alan Whitehead. Assembly North’s guests included Sheffield City Council chief executive John Mothersole and Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council leader Sir Steve Houghton.

Involving decision makers in the assembly process might be one way of circumventing one of the main criticisms made of such engagement exercises – that they constitute little more than talking shops, with no real connection to political decision making. But the extent to which local politicians are in a position to respond to assembly recommendations is questionable. Facing large cuts, councils are in a bind without extra funding or a national framework for involving the public in the process. The straitjacket is made tighter by challenging deadlines set by central government on the deals themselves – including negotiation times, when they have to be signed by, and when they must be implemented. Council leaders have been under huge pressure to do the deal first and open it up for public scrutiny later – there is little time to engage the public.

Opportunity knocks

However, the citizens’ assemblies have shown that when given a chance to have a say, people jump at the opportunity. They have challenged the myth that people are disengaged from politics – people are more than capable of grappling with complex questions about the way we are governed, and politicians across the UK should sit up and take note.

Moreover, many participants in the assemblies were apparently transformed by the experience. Some arrived with a self-professed distaste for politics and lack of knowledge about local government. But retention was incredibly high, and many of them described how the process had significantly increased their confidence to talk more about politics and crucially to make sure their voices are heard from now on.

One of the opportunities offered by devolution is the reinvigoration of local democracy as local councils have more scope to experiment with new institutions of democratic participation.

Doing democracy in a more bottom-up, deliberative fashion could start to address the ever-growing gulf between people and formal politics. And where better to start than with the government’s devolution agenda for England, which is all about people’s daily experiences – their job prospects, transport links, local environment and much more besides.

These citizens’ assemblies demonstrated the wealth of new ideas, insights and rigorous scrutiny that any group – given the information, tools and time – can achieve. There is real potential for innovation that brings democracy back into devolution. In order to do this, central government must pursue devolution in a way that engages the public, and allows for local government to do the same. Locally, devolved administrations need to capitalise on the opportunities offered by devolution to open themselves up to meaningful input from citizens.

It’s time to let the people in.

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