Graham Barnes, NDN's Publisher and Damian Brothers, NDN Environmental Editor
attended a meeting in Dorchester, organised by Transition Towns Dorchester and
concerned with the impact of the newly passed Sustainable Communities Act.
Over 300 people attended the evening meeting and it was standing room only
for latecomers. So interest in 'reconnecting' with the democratic process is
alive and well in Dorchester at least.
Listening to the panel members, who included Oliver Letwin MP and the leader of
West Dorset council, it was difficult to criticise the motivation of the various
movers and shakers in this cross-party initiative who have worked for more than
5 years to get the bill drafted and passed. They are clearly well-intentioned
and care about the public's general disaffectation with the political process.
Whether the Act will make any difference to this 'disconnect' between the man on
the Clapham omnibus and the political establishment remains to be seen.
In Letwin's view perhaps the most significant aspect of the Act was its
intention that there be full disclosure of the amounts spent by central
government in a given geographic area and a breakdown of those amounts by
project/ category. In this way the local population would be able to see the
relative spending levels of various activities, and with this new transparency
would be much better placed to express opinions on their priorities.
The apparent attempts by the political establishment (mainly but not exclusively
civil servants) to slow down or stop the Act is presumably a positive, in that
they would hardly bother to try to stop an Act that was no threat to them, but
the watering down and horsetrading necessary to get the Act passed was hinted at
a number of times. And it is not clear whether the final piece of legislation
has any real teeth or whether the 'grinders-down' have effectively emasculated
it. We are left with a feeling that they think democracy is too important to be
given to the people.
An example is in the definition and setting up of the Citizens Panels envisaged
in the Act. This is unspecified. A positive spin on this is that process and
constitution should be agreed locally. But this effectively puts local councils
back in the driving seat.
When setting up Community Partnerships was all the rage, a primary (if often
unstated) objective was to sideline the dysfunctional local authority channel in
the cause of 'getting things done'. Thus council representatives would have a
place in the Partnerships but would not slow down worthy initiatives.
Now we seem to have gone full circle. All Councils will express their full
support for the Act (what else would they say?). But their pivotal role in
setting up and managing Citizens Panels which will be at the very least a
nuisance to them and at worst an exposer of Council shortcomings seems a muddle.
It will be interesting to see the reaction of the existing Community
Partnerships to this new citizen-empowering channel. They may see it as a way in
which councils can slow down Partnership initiatives under the guise of more
The other big question of course is whether there is time for all this. The oil
is running out, the climate's changing and we have a recession starting. No
doubt the stewards on the Titanic were well-intentioned when they worked out a
fairer way of sharing the limited deckchair space, but they would have been
better off avoiding the icebergs.
Sustainable Communities Act 'UserGuide' from UnlockDemocracy/ LocalWorks
Briefing Note for councillors and officers
UPDATE: North Dorset Citizens Panel.
NDDC already has something they call a Citizens Panel and have done for a number
of years. Their Communications Strategy 2008-2010 says:
"3.3 Working with the Citizensí Panel
The Citizensí Panel comprises some 660 names and addresses across the geographic
district and across the socio-demographic spread of residents. It is managed for
the Council by the Market Research Group (MRG) at Bournemouth University. The
current agreement allows for two surveys to be carried out each year: a budget
consultation exercise each winter and one other as required."
Thus its primary role seems to be as a reactive market research/ sounding
board rather than a proactive ideas forum.
MRG's web site says:
"Citizens Panels are representative samples of local residents (between 750 and
2,500), and are used by Local Authorities (and associated agencies) to consult
the local population about the issues affecting them.
This involves both surveys and small-scale qualitative research, and has many
advantages over ad hoc research. As members have signed up to the Panel time and
money is saved in the long term, response rates are generally high, detailed
demographic data is held about respondents, trend and benchmarking data can be
built up over time, and future involvement in community partnerships may be
So there may be a terminology issue with the 'new' Citizens Panels which aim to
do rather more than answering survey questions like 'which is more important -
breathing or eating?'
MRG said (19/1/09) that they have not been approached by NDDC with a view to
adapting the existing Panel for Sustainable Communities Act operation.
Response: Mark Hebditch, Chairman, Three Rivers Partnership
Feb 4th 2009
"I believe that this legislation is genuinely
well-intentioned and aims to make good a perceived 'democratic deficit' in the
operations of local government. However, it could be exploited as a means to
delay local action, 'consultation' often being Councils' chosen way of avoiding
action (and expenditure). As you rightly suggest North Dorset already has in
place a robust structure for consultation and developing Community Strategy and
a further layer of Focus Groups would be unhelpful and superfluous. This is
fully understood by NDDC who will, I believe, attempt to make the best use of
the legislation by using existing mechanisms. The
[Dorset] County Council response, also
makes it clear that it is critical to exploit existing structures which are provenly robust. Unusually, Dorset is ahead of the game and North Dorset is
actually in the vanguard!
Whether, in practice, the promised leverage on Central Government decisions will
have any impact whatsoever remains to be seen. What may be helpful, in the
longer term, is the opportunity to expose the huge inequities in the way
Government funding is devolved to County and Unitary Councils and the increasing
impotence of District, Town and Parishes Councils to get anything much done
beyond their bare statutory responsibilities."