This week’s open space in Bradford was a great start to a new kind of NANM-hosted gathering – of which we hope to host more. Firstly a huge thank you is due to @MichaelaHowell2 and her colleauges at Bradford Trident for hosting us.
Secondly, this post is just a snapshot of the discussion, if you were there, or just interested then please do comment or link to your own thoughts.
We chose the title Neighbourhoods and DIY local democracy because we thought it captured both the growth in different forms of local decision-making, and the fact that it is increasing up to communities not just what decisions they take, but how those decisions are taken. We also thought it was a useful place to start a discussion.
And so it was. The message we heard throughout the day was “we just don’t get as many chances these days to properly discuss what we’re doing on these issues with others in similar roles, but we really should”. That was reflected in the discussion – many issues were not new. But again we heard colleagues saying “not having had the chances to discuss this stuff, means we risk forgetting it”. And many issues were new. The scale of devolution really does seem to be accelerating at an unprecedented rate, but not always with a clear plan on the ground. And the contraction of public spending, also unprecedented, means attempts to learn from the past quickly break down.
Using an open space format, one of the first issues discussed was Do communities really want to get involved in decisions, and what kinds of roles do people want to play? This was a good reminder that despite several new opportunities for people to get involved in local decisions (including community budgets, new ‘community rights’, neighbourhood planning, local integrated service pilots) the bigger question is still – ‘how many people are attracted to opportunities to participate in regular decision-making meetings, as opposed to participating in something practical, as-and-when-needed’. And even in terms of practical action (which most people find more attractive than meetings) you need to dig deeper into what people want to give their time to. One participant recounted how hard it was to recruit local residents for a neighbourhood clean-up despite a third of the community saying they wanted to get involved. It turned out that there was more interest in things like befriending, or youth-work, than in environmental clean-ups.
Up next was how to sustain the gains. Times have moved on from sustainability meaning ‘how do we keep funding the project’. This wasn’t about keeping projects going, but about achieving real social impact, and then sustaining that impact. And the consensus which emerged was twofold – first that real benefits are achieved, sustained and able to grow, where group of people with strong bonds and connections between them is able to form and take action. And second that even with a strong group of individuals, there also needs to be real action to help everyone in the community to learn and become educated about how decisions are taken, how democracy works, and how change in their community can happen.
And the last bit of this snapshot comes from one of the final discussions of the day – can you introduce neighbourhood decision-making in a few pockets of a local authority while the rest of the borough stays the same? This is not a new question, but the discussion seemed to have acquired a new level of sophistication. An organic approach means you grow neighbourhood decision-making incrementally, and make no attempt to “roll it out” uniformly. But how much can one empowered neighbourhood achieve if all around it the one-size-fits-all approach remains? Some familiar points were made – about the political risks of one area being seen to get more or less than another. But new issues emerged about such the Pandora’s Box emerging in some places around council’s corporate recharges – should a neighbourhood which ‘goes it alone’ still have to contribute to the massive costs of councils’ corporate ICT, HR, Legal and Finance costs (which are often open about being too big and expensive)?
See you at the next one…