Cause and effect: action and reaction; folk understand the simplicity of these and form their impressions of situations, almost subliminally, on a quick assessment. We need to see a direct correlation between the actions we take and the resulting outcome. In terms of local democracy, this translates to the effort folk are prepared to put in and the likelihood of making a difference.
Are public bodies paying lip service to consultation? The Tory Government of the mid-nineties appeared to believe that decentralisation simply meant requiring public bodies to let community councils comment on policy changes as part of their process. The upshot was that these community volunteers became deluged by weighty documents in bureaucratic language, on which a response was needed to deadlines that bore no relationship to their meeting cycles. While that Government went in 1997, its legacy remains, except the weighty documents have been replaced by large emails and deadlines have shortened. Community councils haven’t quite got over that.
Folk do have an inbuilt sense of right and wrong, of natural justice; much of the current system doesn’t seem fair.
Public bodies need to accommodate community needs too. Consultation needs to be imaginative and events should use all types of media. Community activists, or their employers, should be reimbursed for loss of wages to allow them to take time off work – some scheme akin to jury service.
Local authorities who fund community bodies, chambers of commerce and other voluntary bodies to help encourage them to become active need some maturity in their approach and shouldn’t feel peeved when these bodies then criticise the same local authorities. That’s what democracy is all about.
Various researchers have offered analyses of the number of electors per democratic body; it’s now well-established that we have the poorest rates in Europe as our obsession with centralisation continues. We need to get the need for change to authorities that are local into the mind set of those we elect, to counter any protectionism that may be lurking in the minds of senior officials and bureaucrats. These small local authorities can collaborate on more strategic issues and share operational resources but democracy can remain local.
It’s clearly not as simplistic as I’ve outlined above but people do need to see a direct link between their efforts, the chance of being heard and the possibility of a result.
People will get behind a cause. If all else fails and community democratic action is enlisted with a fiery cross put round, as happened in the Belford Hospital campaign in Lochaber in 2003 when 2,800 turned out to a public meeting, then public bodies have to listen and there is a result.
Although we have had an alliance with France for 700 years, the French custom of tractors blocking the roads hasn’t quite taken on here; perhaps we no longer have enough tractors….
Ultimately, things get down to hope. If a community has hope, then there can be something to hold on to; to aim for. If their involvement can have a direct visible result, then folk will be engaged.
It’s about opportunity and resources too. I don’t quote Churchill very often but his exhortation to Roosevelt to, “give us the tools and we will finish the job” seems apt here.
1 Sept 2016