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August 22, 2018

New powers for English communities

Some have described it as a last throw of the dice for David Cameron’s ill-fated Big Society while others suggest it plays into the ‘take back control’ slogan of the Leave Campaign.  Whatever the motivation, communities in England are to be given new rights to either veto or approve the decisions of their local councils. Ministers describe it as part of an initiative to reconnect voters with conventional politics and it will be trialled in 6 local authority areas. Ministers are keen to trial different approaches including online polling and citizen juries.


Greg Hurst, Social Affairs Editor, The Times

Residents are to be offered radical powers to veto or approve plans that affect their communities in an attempt by ministers to reconnect with voters who have lost faith in conventional politics.

Decisions to approve housing developments, sell public assets such as community centres and swimming pools, or spend more on fixing potholes could be made using new forms of direct democracy. Ministers are proposing that local authorities use online polls and “citizen juries” to give residents a direct say in their communities, particularly in poor or remote areas.

Local authorities in six areas will take part in a trial over the next 12 months. It is part of a government strategy announced today with the aim of strengthening communities

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said that the issues at stake and the precise decision-making methods would be up to individual authorities, which will submit applications to take part in the trial. Some councils may see it as a threat to their powers. As an indicator of the proposal’s potential, officials pointed to the Irish referendum on abortion laws in May, which was held after a citizens’ assembly of 99 people backed reform.

They also highlighted the role of a citizens’ jury in overturning plans for a nuclear waste dump in South Australia last year.

Such a jury would be a group of people selected at random — in a similar way to those used for criminal trials — to spend several days considering an issue. They would often be led by a facilitator, examining evidence in detail and cross-examining experts before making a recommendation or report.

If the trial is successful, the methods could be incorporated more widely into council decision-making. Ministers could even consider making some funding for local authorities conditional on proving that communities were consulted over how it was spent, a scenario that would heighten existing tensions between central and local government.

Interest in giving communities greater say over decisions has grown since the Brexit referendum in 2016. Many poorer communities backed the Leave campaign, a signal that was interpreted as a disaffection with politics.

Today’s strategy has echoes of Vote Leave’s “take back control” slogan used during the referendum. The strategy says: “Many people feel disenfranchised and disempowered and the government is keen to find new ways to give people back a sense of control over their communities’ future.”

It also cites an inquiry into civil society, chaired by Julia Unwin, former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which found that many poorer communities feel neglected. Ms Unwin said last night: “Across England people have told us that they feel ignored, and that decisions that directly affect their lives are taken without their involvement. A shift in power is needed so that the voice of people in communities is not just heard, but heeded. A much more developed and engaged democracy, including citizens’ juries, is urgently required.”

In a joint foreword, Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, and Tracey Crouch, minister for civil society, said: “To meet the opportunities and threats of the future a new approach is needed that gives greater freedom and responsibility to our communities.”

The Local Government Association gave a muted response, saying that it would work with ministers to test ideas. A spokesman said: “Increased community involvement must go hand in hand with further devolution of funding and powers to the local level if the pilots are to be meaningful.”