Big Society Blog: Supporting the development of Big Society in new Localism?
Empowering local communities to shape local areas has been a goal of central government for the past decade, for some essential to the success of Big Society, and so it was unsurprising to read about it in the new the Localism Bill. And yet, if not handled carefully some of the Bill’s propositions run the risk of leaving residents feeling powerless – damaging a local authority’s ability to generate energy for Big Society. That said, from our work we have found that there will be ways to mitigate this risk.
The ‘Right to Challenge’ and ‘Right to Buy’ allow the more able and informed in the community to challenge local hegemony on service provision. They highlight the Coalition Government’s desire for an increase in the availability of choice to communities, for people to get more involved, and a definition of empowerment that creates the space for people to work together as a community to improve their lives. Although some service users may find these options difficult to navigate, with appropriate support they do offer communities an alternative to the status quo. Working with community and voluntary sector representatives will allow more marginalised voices to be represented and for community action to be co-ordinated.
As we highlighted in last week's blog, it is the prospect of local referenda that poses the biggest risk for the relationship between local public service providers and local residents. In a recent project for CLG, we discussed the relationship between local authority decision-making and their residents. In the discussion groups the participants concluded that in some cases it is acceptable for a local authority to just get on with the job, as long as the public’s views are taken into account. So a petition and referendum may constitute taking the public’s views into account.
Starting a petition as part of a campaign to stop the closure of a local swimming pool or primary school is fairly straightforward, although obtaining signatures from 5% of the local population may be more challenging. This will then trigger a local referendum on this issue. However, the outcome of the referendum would not be binding – which is understandable as this would completely revolutionise local democracy in England. Yet after the immense effort of organising a petition, and securing a referendum, if a community group is only told “thank you for your views we will take them into account” the process may quickly be dismissed as a waste of time.
This could threaten the fragile reputation of Government in the minds of the community. The last time Ipsos MORI asked the public whether they trust the Government to act in the best interests of the country – only 43% agreed, and the MPs expenses scandal is unlikely to have improved this. Our work with the public on community financial priorities has found that people do appreciate that it is not always possible to give the public what they want even after they've been formally consulted – however the public still need to know why a particular decision has been taken and local government has traditionally been poor at conveying the reasons behind its decision-taking. Yet, this point should not be interpreted simply as a communications issue; it is just as much about how people are involved in the consultation process.
If an issue is important enough for local people to have got it to the stage where a referendum can be held, then it should warrant time spent discussing the issue among chief officers, local councillors and the community. Whether this be through local public meetings, from the top of a battle bus, or through deliberative discussion days, providing a range of fora for local people to express themselves is essential - although from our research we have found that most people want to get involved by taking part in surveys. The Place Survey in 2008 revealed that if the issue was deemed relevant then people want to get more involved. And if an issue has led 5% of the population to sign a petition this suggests that it is relevant.
If local authorities wish to forge good relationships with the local community to enable the success of Big Society it seems sensible to ensure that the community feels that it has the opportunity to get involved in decision-making and feels that it is being taken seriously. We are currently working on a project for Civic Voice looking at how to encourage people to engage more in their communities and in particular be more effectively engaged with the proposed revised planning process. We hope to be able offer more advice to help authorities across the country as we investigate these issues further.