Power to which people?

The government is promising 'devolution right to the doorstep' as a means of reinvigorating local democracy. A pilot participatory budget making project, whereby people can 'have a direct say' in how their taxes are spent, has been running in Salford. Stephen Kingston questions its democratic credentials

October 3, 2007 · 12 min read

Nearly 170 years ago, more than a quarter of a million people marched to Kersal Moor, in Salford, demanding democracy. One of the biggest of the many demonstrations organised by the Chartist movement in the mid-19th century, this huge rally was the Live Aid of its day, with more than 30 bands playing. But instead of Bob Geldof demanding ‘Give us yer fuckin’ money’, there was Feargus O’Connor demanding ‘Give us the fuckin’ vote’.

After much campaigning and demonstrating, five of the six points of the People’s Charter, adopted on Kersal Moor that day, were eventually won. As well as the right to vote itself, these were: secret ballots, equal electoral districts, no property qualification to stand as an MP and payment for MPs. The exception to this successful record was the demand for annual parliaments, which was seen by the Chartists as crucial to stop the corruption of MPs.

Fast-forward to 2007 and the eyes of the democracy movement are on Salford again – in the person of Salford MP Hazel Blears, secretary of state for communities and local government. Blears – backed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s new-found emphasis on devolving ‘power to the people’ – isn’t offering annual parliaments, but she is using a radical democratic rhetoric. ‘Democracy should be about more than casting a vote every few years,’ she has said. ‘It should be a daily activity, not an abstract theory.’


Blears’ comments were, in part a reaction to the Joseph Rowntree Trust’s independent Power Inquiry in 2006, which basically said that local representative democracy was knackered – that fewer people are voting and thus elected councillors have lost credibility and legitimacy. The new ‘Hazelocracy’ promises ‘devolution right to the doorstep’, where ‘people come together, set priorities and vote on what is going to happen’ and ‘have a direct say’ in how their taxes are spent. The idea, taken from the practice of popular budget making in Latin America, was adapted in 2002 by Church Action on Poverty and Community Pride working with the council to make Salford a pilot project. So is it time for the modern heirs of Chartism to bathe in the warm glow of democracy and declare ‘battle won’?

The answer, of course, is no. For a start, there’s a major difference between the UK and Latin America, where they know a thing or two about dictatorship, death squads, absolute poverty and the imposition of western ‘democracy’. In the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre, inspiration for the original Salford experiment, the right to decide how local public money is spent was demanded by the people and the popular Workers’ Party, which swept to power shortly after the junta was sacked in 1985. The popular budget making there was radical, political and community led. At its height, around 20,000 people participated in deciding where 18 per cent of planned municipal investment was to be spent. And it has had real results in alleviating poverty.

Contrast this with the UK, where the ‘participant friendly’ budgets are puny, and the numbers of people involved are tiny. In Salford, 47 people got involved in the Claremont and Weaste sample project – and that was seen as a major breakthrough. Although popular budget making (PB for short) is being greeted with cautious optimism by community organisations, no one I spoke to in Blears’ Salford constituency was under any illusions that real power was arriving on their ‘doorstep’.

‘I’d like to see it in practice,’ says Graham Cooper, who’s just been elected chair of the East Salford Community Committee. ‘But I think it’s a token gesture – like feeding a dog and patting it on the head just to keep it right.’

His thoughts are echoed by Beryl Patten of the Claremont Community Association, who welcomes the potential of PB but greets it with a massive dose of Salfordian cynicism. ‘One always comes away from the meetings questioning the real importance of our decisions,’ she says. ‘Major issues in the neighbourhood, like Media City [a 200 acre dockland development at Salford Quays], have never been aired in any significant way. We are scratching at the surface. It’s not real empowerment and sooner or later the community will become disaffected.’

Both Patten and Cooper point to the relatively tiny budget that the community actually controls. Salford leads the country in putting money from the mainstream council budget into a PB process but it’s still only around £100,000 per area from the highways kitty and £100,000 to support community and voluntary groups. Each area covers around 30,000 households, so that’s the equivalent of less than £7 apiece.

‘A hundred thousand pounds might seem a lot of money but when you realise it might just resurface a short road or put in a couple of pedestrian crossings it brings it home how minor your involvement and impact can be,’ Patten argues, ‘Cynics would say it’s a way of getting communities to slug it out between themselves and take the heat off the planners.’

‘It’s a very limited amount of money, a drop in the ocean,’ says Graham Cooper. To put it into some sort of perspective, the council agreed to spend £500,000 on a jolly at Salford Quays for the Manchester International Festival, which is five times as much as we get in devolved budget for every voluntary and community group in this area. And I’ve seen public sector departments like schools, leisure and the police apply for money from both these pots for activities that, to me, are mainstream services. At the end of the day the council makes the big decisions.’

Council Control

And that’s the big problem with PB – that the council, rather than the community, is controlling the whole process locally, while government targets and policies are controlling the council on a national level. The government calls it ‘double devolution’, where, in theory, the power bounces down to the council and then bounces off the council to the community. The trouble in Salford is that the community can only make decisions while caged in complicated structures and tamed by procedures.

Before Hazel Blears announced her ‘devolution to the doorstep’, Salford Council was busily reorganising its community committee structure based on a consultation that gave prominence to developers like Countryside Properties and involved more unelected officers and organisations than actual community groups. The resulting new constitution sets out rules whereby the community can decide on the use of delegated budgets only ‘within criteria set by the council’, other funders and the Community Action Plan’. And only councillors and one representative from each ‘properly constituted’ recognised community group’ can vote at meetings. Meanwhile the terms of the constitution are all about ‘conduct’ and ‘behaviour’. Anything that is ‘inconsistent with council policy’ will be refused.

Spending decisions on devolved budgets will also only be valid if ‘supported by the majority of councillors present at the meeting’ because ‘expenditure of public money requires the endorsement of democratically elected members’. These will be the same councillors, however, who are at the centre of the Power Inquiry’s ‘crisis of democracy’, who have little credibility or legitimacy within the community. Wasn’t that supposed to be why PB was set up in the first place?

Star rating

At the Salford Star (www.salfordstar.com), a community-centred magazine that has been not just criticising the council but slating it over affordable housing, demolitions and dodgy dealings, we thought we’d put ‘people power’ to the test. We applied to all of the city’s eight community committees for devolved budget funding. Would the council allow the community to fund a community magazine, run by a local community group, that’s critical of the council? Our application never got anywhere near a community committee.

The council pulled the application without explanation two days before it was due to be looked at by the first community budget panel. Six weeks later we got a letter outlining the council’s agreed new criteria ‘in relation to the spending of devolved budgets on publications’, and informing us that the ‘council directorate’ now decided whether an application ‘complies’. The Salford Star didn’t.

A letter later arrived from the council explaining that the magazine contained language ‘which could be considered to be offensive’ (we had called the council ‘dickheads’ – in context of course) but the main reason for the rejection of its funding application was that ‘we have not found the Salford Star to meet the criteria of taking a balanced approach’. As such, the letter continued, ‘the council is not able to offer funding’. The point is that under the principles of participatory budget making we didn’t apply to the council, we applied to the community. But the community was not allowed to decide. Which makes the whole notion of ‘people power’ look more than a little hollow.

Valerie Ivison is chair of the Claremont and Weaste community committee, which led the Salford PB pilot. She acknowledges that the scheme is a ‘quantum leap’ in consultation and that it’s popular but argues that in order to work properly the biggest problem is effective communication with the uninvolved majority of people. Currently every publication that the council puts out or sponsors is totally uncritical and unquestioning of policy. How can the community make informed, independent choices, even within the limits set, if it hasn’t got its own information and resources?

‘Neighbourhood managers and community workers tread a very difficult path, but to whom are they accountable?’ asks Beryl Patten. ‘It seems to me that they can never be truly independent when they are tied so securely to the Council’s apron strings.’

Missing minutes

In order to empower the community you also need accountability and transparency. But while the council and its regeneration partners are signing up to an array of agreements promising this, the reality is very different. For example, in May the minutes of council leader John Merry’s weekly meetings with his chief executive and various other officers and councillors were removed from the council’s website. These minutes relate to discussions about the most important things going on in the town hall. They have been regularly posted on the web for the past five years and were beginning to be reported in the Salford Star. Just before the minutes were removed, John Merry endorsed six ‘principles in good governance’, which were about ‘transparent decisions’ and ‘making accountability real’.

You could certainly argue that despite Hazel Blears’ assertion that ‘the best local government is good at empowering local people … and they’re not threatened by it’, the very opposite is happening. Real community empowerment in Salford, particularly, could threaten the council’s (and government’s) vision for a new city, where ‘the heart of “Old Salford” adjoining Manchester city centre is an area of huge regeneration potential offering economic, value-for-money investment opportunities’ (Branding for a brighter future in Salford council booklet).

These plans to ‘actively shift perceptions of Salford’ through iconic buildings and ‘wow! factor’ developments are usually at odds with the wishes of the old, the vulnerable, the sick, the poor and the excluded. Why on earth would any council want to give this lot the power to stop such exciting plans? The truth is that no one is giving them anything like the power that their PB counterparts have in Brazil.

While community committees are pontificating over things like zebra crossings and which scout group to support with their £200,000-maximum budgets, £340 million of public money is tied to the Salford Agreement. This is a huge contract running until 2010 between the government and the Salford Strategic Partnership (SSP), a body that draws together almost 30 organisations with all sorts of aims and objectives to make the city better.

The SSP is ‘directed’ by the council and, together with seven councillors, is crammed full of unelected bodies such as the Lowry, the university, the North West Development Agency, Central Salford URC and Salford Council officers. The ‘people power’ input comes from around half a dozen elected representatives from community committees and a couple of representatives from faith and ethnic minority groups. They amount to fewer than a quarter of those who take part in the ‘partnership’. Add to this the new neighbourhood partnership boards, on which two community committee representatives are swamped by ‘senior members of key partner agencies’, councillors and full time officers, and a picture emerges that is the very opposite of ‘devolution to the doorstep’.

Communities of interest

There was one giveaway phrase in the council’s Development of Neighbourhood Management report, which dealt with all this: ‘Our aim is to increase community engagement and to broaden it to include communities of interest in the city.’

‘Communities of interest’ include the developers and other agencies that are busy dividing up the city among themselves for maximum profit. The language is all about ‘service delivery’, ‘co-operation’ and ‘partnership’. Yet hard working volunteers from the community who don’t even get their phone bills paid are being swamped, sidelined and exploited by full time careerists and profit mongers on big salaries, most of whom don’t even live in the area.

There is constant pressure to play the regeneration game under rules and regulations not of the community’s making. As Heather Blakey comments in her independent research for the University of Bradford, Radical innovations or technical fix? Participatory budget making in Bradford: ‘The new participatory space is increasingly a depoliticised space, which “privatises” overtly political voices … The process needs to demonstrate its own potential to a mistrustful and disenfranchised public. It is hard, however to see how it will do this without being explicitly political.’

At the sharp end of participatory budget making, East Salford community committee chair Graham Cooper underlines the point: ‘The idea is that we’re going to have lots of say in lots of respects and when that becomes a reality maybe we’ll see some real changes, but I still think it’s a token gesture.’

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