Not for the faint hearted Councillor: Real choices expose real tensions but ultimately strengthen local decision making and local democracy

Our Neighbourhood Enhancement Programme (NEP) is giving real choices to local communities. But in doing so it has the potential to create tensions between neighbours and across neighbourhoods. The NEP puts Councillors front and centre of arbitrating between them, and puts ‘representation’ on the agenda for everyone.

Councillors’ time is often dominated resolving the problems of individual constituents let down by a system. This is our bread and butter and helps individual constituents as well as showing us where the system needs to change, but it doesn’t engage proactively with our huge electorates or help the system rectify itself.

In Lambeth we are pushing decisions down to street level over public realm, cycling and greening improvements. Improvements are identified, developed and prioritised by community groups with Councillors deciding which get delivered when budgetary constraints or clashes of local opinion do not make it straight forward.

See more at www.lambeth.gov.uk/nep or my blog post at https://jackhopkins.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/resident-decision-making-and-participatory-budgeting-nearly/

Typically most residents accept what is being proposed by the council. Occasionally however an unhappy minority will challenge the Council’s proposals with Councillors having to adopt the role as arbiter between both parties. Usually this is on the side of residents against the organisation they are a member of (the Council) but can struggle to influence.

With the Neighbourhood Enhancement Programme we are seeing community and resident groups going through a process of arbitration internally, collaborating at the design phase to get something which everyone can agree on, or clashing when there are genuine differences of opinion. The process also allows them to learn more about and then to question their unofficial neighbourhood representatives, as well as reflect on the diverse neighbourhoods in which they live but with whom they may not interact.

What happens when some residents want secure cycle shelters at the expense of parking spaces? What about the pedestrianisation of a stretch of road which forces traffic into neighbouring streets? It also raises wider issues about whether people who walk or journey through neighbouring streets should get a say over how they look and feel? Should cyclists get some sort of mandate if they don’t live somewhere? What about school kids who want their walk to school to be safe, pleasant and enjoyable?

Oval consultation page 1

Of course it was ever thus – the vocal minority dominating an agenda, with time, expertise, inclination and experience of how the system works. But with all residents very clearly having a say and the council being transparent about who are the decision makers at various stages, people have become more interested and feel more confident about how much they can influence what goes on.

At a strategic level for Councillors, as well as communities, it puts into real focus questions over the legitimacy of whom the Council engages with and how representative those individuals are? Middle class or sectoral capture which already exist become much plainer as proposals come through from some areas and not others.

These are tensions and stresses which exist already, and sadly we are sometimes guilty of ignoring them because it is often too complicated and difficult to widen the franchise and have rows about things. But ultimately I am convinced that this will strengthen civic infrastructure and decision making. If your local community group is starting to make decisions on your behalf because it has been empowered you are going to begin to make sure that you have your say and that the people on them are not the ‘usual suspects’ who may just want a platform to push their own agendas. And you will be damn certain that your Councillors have considered the points of views of everyone when making decisions which are going to affect your street and neighbourhood.

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Author: jackhopkins

Labour Councillor for Oval ward in London Borough of Lambeth, and Cabinet Member for Jobs and Growth covering economic development, regeneration, planning and entrepreneurship. (formerly Community Safety) Interested in partnerships, training and development, social mobility and Arsenal.

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