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Thursday, 23 November 2017

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 they need.

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.

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