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July 19, 2007

Give locals control of council cash

Evidence suggests that the government’s plan for every neighbourhood in the country to have control over some council cash can indeed work, argues Peter Hall (Regeneration and Renewal magazine)

Peter Hall

Give locals control of council cash


Sir Peter Hall

Regeneration & Renewal




Porto Alegre, a city in the deep south of Brazil, isn’t an obvious point of pilgrimage for British urban regenerators. If they ever get that far, they’re more likely to head for Curitiba, legendary home of busways, recycling schemes, glass opera houses and open universities in old quarries. But Porto Alegre has long merited a detour. For here, in 1989, it invented an idea that has spread like wildfire through urban Latin America: community budgeting.


Now, however, potential pilgrims will be saved a trip. Last week, communities secretary Hazel Blears announced that Port Alegre will soon be coming to a city near you. As part of Gordon Brown’s long march through the English institutions, ten cities – including Birmingham, Salford, Newcastle and Southampton – will go Brazilian, piloting a revolution in the way local funds are allocated. And that’s just for starters. Within five years, Blears wants every neighbourhood in the country to have control over some council cash.


Clearly, this is a response to the dismal recent record of apathy in local government elections. It fits with Brown’s mission to revive democracy where it’s evidently spluttering. Moreover, by handing control to neighbourhoods it meets the call – voiced by the late Michael Young and other supporters of Charter 88, which Brown has long backed – for effective parish councils with fiscal teeth.


But will it work? The evidence suggests it can. In Port Alegre there are budget councils for each neighbourhood and for the whole city; at both levels, delegates are elected in open assemblies. The initial worry was whether ordinary people, often poor, could cope. No problem: aided by an educational programme, participants have rapidly become sophisticated, playing progressively bigger roles in negotiating objectives and fine-tuning details.


Most interestingly, the system reconciles local and city-wide needs. District (neighbourhood) councils are charged both with formulating local demands and establishing city-wide lists of local demands. Then, through a complex formula allowing for local disparities, these lists are aggregated into the city-wide budget. In parallel, sectoral forums – for instance on education – ensure that particular policy areas aren’t ignored.


The Porto Alegre experiment has been exhaustively analysed by scores of international experts. They agree it has worked, giving the city the best UN quality of life index in Brazil. Bringing it to the UK is a bold step. But there’s every reason to believe that here as there, it should bring about a step change in reviving civic democracy. Let’s hope so.


– Sir Peter Hall is (Bartlett) Professor of Planning and Regeneration, University College London. Email: