In November, the UK‘s first ever ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ on how its nations should be governed drew to a close. This ground-breaking project was run by universities from across the country together with the Electoral Reform Society, and aimed to give local people what politicians haven’t so far given them – a say on the devolution deals currently being signed.
The ‘Democracy Matters’ project – based on two Assemblies, one in Southampton and one in Sheffield – has offered citizens the chance to debate the power-transfer for the first time. Thus far, many feel they’ve been left out in the cold. A recent poll showed that two-thirds of northerners haven’t even heard of the ‘northern powerhouse’ – a sign of the extent to which the public have been engaged in the discussions.
But what we found is that when you give people a chance to engage, they leap at the opportunity. YouGov picked a broadly representative sample of the local population to come for two full weekends of learning, deliberation and then voting on the areas’ devolution plans. And once they got clued up, they jumped into the debate, voting for a Yorkshire assembly in Sheffield and for a Hampshire-wide elected authority in the Solent.
It’s a stark contrast to the current approach to devolution, with a very clear lack of accountability in deciding on those deals. But there’s also a lack of public information and involvement in debating the proposals themselves in all their aspects – economic, social and democratic. Transparency and democracy simply aren’t on the agenda, and devolution risks becoming a top-down technocratic exercise. Since central government has outsourced responsibility for public involvement, it’s up to local councils to pick up the baton.
There are currently over 30 devolution bids that have been submitted. Sadly only one of them so far – Tees Valley – has the word ‘democracy’ as a core part of its governance proposals. Yet politicians are slowly recognising that if the public don’t get a say, these arrangements are unlikely to last.
It’s not for us or indeed Westminster to decide how local consultation should happen. It should be up to the areas themselves – citizens and politicians – to decide on precise formats. Many councils are in a corner, with tight timescales, stretched resources, and extended powers and investment conditional on adopting mayors – all of which make meaningful public involvement a real challenge.
At the same time, we are witnessing a patchwork of ad-hoc deals – with different places going at different speeds towards devolution. In this context, public involvement is uneven – and sometimes non-existent. But local authorities shouldn’t be deterred by this from letting public in, and being creative with it. Local authorities will reap the rewards if this is done meaningfully. No public involvement at all should not be an option.
The advantage of the Citizens’ Assembly model is that it can bring citizens and elected representatives together, as participants or advocates. In both assemblies, local residents confronted tough questions of responding to an offer of powers and investment on strict condition of accepting an elected mayor – questions often left to the politicians – whilst rigorously examining their representatives’ views.
In fact, devolution can only work in this way – localism needs citizens and politicians to be on board. All local stakeholders need a chance to get to grips with questions of power, resources and local identity to reach consensus.
As we’ve shown in Sheffield and Southampton, the implications for governance with deliberative processes like the Citizens’ Assemblies are significant – and many councils are willing to engage. It’s not just that decisions which have popular support are more likely to last. Decisions informed by local people are more likely to work too – people know about their local areas, they know their situations and what works for them. By working with residents, councils can create a genuinely lasting shift in power in the UK.
Some big questions remain unanswered. How will the new mayors be scrutinised without elected assemblies? Is the current voting system in local elections fit for purpose given the substantial transfer of powers? We need scrutiny and transparency to make sure these deals are the best they can be – hiding them away as ‘sensitive’ or ‘confidential’, as has happened in some cases, is damaging for people’s faith in the process, and can only lead to inferior outcomes.
Deliberating behind closed doors can produce any number of local deals but holds little promise of sustainable decentralisation. It’s time to democratise devolution and let the public in.
Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society