The Sustainable Communities Act

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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 consultation.

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 secured."

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."