I have to admit to a sense of deju vu in reading these documents. In May 2006 I was at the QEII centre for the launch of Helena Kennedy's Power Enquiry report, the result of a far reaching and comprehensive consultation into what even then was clear as a critical democratic deficit in the UK. Amongst the Enquiry's recommendations was that all public bodies must meet a duty of public involvement in their decision and policy making processes. Progress towards this aim since 2006 has been precisely zero.
The Power Enquiry adopted a somewhat wider,
more inclusive and nuanced approach than that advocated here; they
recognised that participatory democracy should augment rather than
replace our existing systems of representative democracy; they valued
highly the people's rights of universal suffrage and the secret ballot
as the ultimate safeguard against anti-democracy and they included
direct democratic processes amongst the extensions and innovations of
democratic practice. Otherwise citizens' juries, participatory budgeting
and the like were all there.
Again, it has been many years
since I was thrilled and excited at the publication of Simon Jenkins'
'Big Bang Localism' and progress towards many of those goals and
recommendations has also been precisely zero. Jenkins recognised that
processes such as participatory budgeting simply did not go far enough
in devolving power from the centre. Yet it's all that has happened,
where it has happened at all. All that has been devolved in the final
(unpopular) rationing decision for a cake the size of which has already
been determined centrally. And even that is limited to funding for the
village scout hut and the like. Meaningful devolution of power means
devolution of tax as well as spend decisions.
We need real
progress, but we must also be incredibidly careful and sensitive to
countenancing no diminution of existing democratic rights. I am wary of
formalising and institutionalising the role of 'experts' to bend and
manipulate public opinion. At its worst it is positively Orwellian.
Rather than inflicting establishment-approved 'experts' on consultative
and participatory groups, far wiser to simply allow such groups at their
own discretion to call upon such balance of expert opinion as they deem
Having conducted several scheme and design
development charettes over my career I know exactly how these things
work, and the potential frustration of citizens who are told by experts
that they can have any colour they like so long as it is black. Every
single charette I chaired would have realised a better outcome without
the architects being present. Every scheme design brief would have been
more tightly focused, more prescriptive and more in tune with local
expectations had it been developed in advance with those citizens.
You have a difficult task and a hard slog ahead. May I offer you my heartfelt goodwill and encouragement.