Jayne Dowle: Theresa May can’t have it both ways over ‘direct democracy’

The Government must stop paying lip service to local democracy, says Jayne Dowle.
The Government must stop paying lip service to local democracy, says Jayne Dowle.
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DEMOCRACY is one of those ideas which sounds good in principle, but often finds itself let down in the execution. Rarely is this more apparent than in the process we might loosely call “local democracy”. The Prime Minister is a brave woman to tackle it, especially against the backdrop of regional devolution.

Still, she has asked her Minister for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Crouch, to launch the first Civil Society Strategy in 15 years. The idea is that this blueprint will build stronger communities by bringing together businesses, charities and the public sector.

It’s called “direct democracy”. At first glance, it sounds positive. Residents will be offered the opportunity to sit on “citizen juries” offering radical powers to veto or approve plans which affect their communities.

This might mean, for instance, the right to decide about new housing developments or roads, or the chance to vote on the selling off of public assets such as playing fields or swimming pools.

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The Strategy also includes the promise of “online polls” which intend to give residents a direct say in their communities, particularly those living in deprived or remote areas.

Hang on a minute. Don’t we already have local councillors elected to take these kind of decisions on our behalf? That’s the point. Central government clearly doesn’t think that local government is doing its job properly 
so it’s over to us, the people, to do it for them.

Is this an unreasonable response – leave us in peace and get on with doing the jobs our taxes pay for? Bolting on an unruly and unregulated new layer of decision-making is not offering citizens a golden ticket, it’s a recipe for chaos.

Instead of tinkering with the system, why not strengthen the roles and responsibilities of elected members? At the same time, campaign to broaden the recruitment process for new councillors and make the prospect of serving local communities more attractive. And also, why not make those already in power more accountable and responsive to their constituents?

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Talking of accountability, I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but I suspect that any citizens’ jury would be largely dominated by the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade. With some personal experience of sitting on public committees to draw on, I can only say that those with more liberal tendencies or the ability to put together a fairly coherent argument using facts, figures and examples tend to be shouted down or ignored.

And this idea of hooking us all up through online polls? If Westminster needed yet another to way to show how disconnected it is with the rest of the country, this is it. Don’t these silly Ministers realise that people from less-advantaged backgrounds and those living in remote locations tend to be the very same demographic who find themselves with either rubbish internet connections or no internet connection at all?

All such an exercise will do is underline, still further, the differences between the haves and have-nots. That’s not exactly what I would call democracy.

And, in wider terms too, the Government’s vow to put power in the hands of the people does not bear close scrutiny. It can’t have it both ways. It can’t say that it’s giving us control over our own destiny and then pursue a parallel policy of watering down the rights of local councils over major issues such as fracking.

In this case, it’s clear that central Government is riding roughshod over the very real concerns of local and county councillors who, first and foremost, represent the concerns of local residents.

Ditto devolution. Ministers say that they’re in favour, but against One Yorkshire. Surely they must realise the incipient danger of this? What would they do if, one day, every citizens’ jury established in our region turned around and voted in favour of devolution? Would the Government allow it to stand as a collective decision, or ignore it entirely? If the latter was the case, then the very opposite of their intention to strengthen democracy would be achieved.

No wonder the Local Government Association has given a muted response to the Civil Society Strategy, muttering that it would work with Ministers to test ideas. However, a spokesman did say: “Increased community involvement must go hand in hand with further devolution of funding and powers to the local level if the pilots [planned for six areas to be announced] are to be meaningful.”

Cynics might be inclined to point out that the last time a Conservative-led government attempted to prove its altruistic worth, we ended up with David Cameron’s ill-fated attempt to foist the “Big Society” on us. What might have worked for the village fete committee did not play out well across a country savaged by the 2008 financial crisis, with charities already struggling to plug the gaps left by swingeing Westminster cuts to local government funding.

The idea was to support localism and self-sufficiency, but what we really needed was strong leadership. We still do. Paying lip service to local democracy one minute, and then stamping all over it the next, is not the way to go about it.