Contemplating local democracy

My attendance at a particular Dorset Council meeting last week set me thinking about local democracy. The meeting was considering the forthcoming public consultation on our Climate and Ecological Emergency draft Strategy and Action Plan; it was a meeting that I sat through in relative silence and, to be honest, with too little interest. By the end of the meeting my lack of interest (in the consultation, not the strategy and action plan) was disturbing me. It was not that I was against a consultation, just that for some reason I was indifferent to the fine details of it. Why? This is something that I’m still pondering.

One factor is that there’s a generally held scepticism, one held by many of the people I have discussed these consultations with in the past, that basically says: “What’s the point? The questions are designed to give the answers they want, and they will go ahead with what they want to do anyway.” This is certainly a view that I’ve held in the past. But is it fair? Well apparently there is such a thing as the Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation, a piece of Common Law, that suggests it is. This essentially says that “where people have come to expect a process of consultation, for example for local authority budget cuts or healthcare changes, there are grounds for a judicial review should a public consultation not take place because there is a legitimate expectation for it.” In other words, it could be seen simply as a device to prevent a judicial review. However, this piece of common law also requires that the consultation be conducted properly and the process be a fair one. And in defence of this particular consultation there was, at the above meeting, a great deal of discussion about ensuring fairness.

But leaving the legal aspect to one side there are still problems. One is the very limited number of people who respond. Off the top of my head I cannot remember the number of responses needed to make it ‘a good response’, but I think it was in the high single thousands. Out of a total population of something over 400,000 this is a small sample, and can hardly be taken as a representative view of Dorset residents. Another is that the vast majority of residents will have a very limited understanding of the issues involved. This is not meant as a criticism. The proposals being consulted upon have usually been put together by professional council officers with a degree of expertise in the subject area, under the guidance and scrutiny of councillors with an interest in the subject area. All the consultees have available is the summary explanation that accompanies the consultation. Is this sufficient?

One way to resolve this lack of understanding would be through the use of citizens’ assemblies. The idea here is that a number of citizens / residents are chosen (in a similar way, perhaps, to jury service) to make key decisions. Their important feature, however, is that prior to any decision the ‘jurors’ have all the issues properly explained to them by experts – they have the opportunity to ask questions of the experts and to debate key points. This, it is claimed, will make the whole process of public decision making much more democratic. I’m in two minds about this, but I would certainly like to try it out.

Such a move towards citizens’ assemblies would be a move towards a different type of democracy, towards a participative democracy rather than the current representative democracy. Which would best serve the residents of Dorset? This is far from an easy question to answer, and to a large measure requires us to agree what these ‘best interests are’. It is also one that is in part determined by our background politics, with views ranging from promoting individual freedom and wealth creation to the provision of public services and community wellbeing. Personally I think I prefer representative democracies, democracies where people are elected not to represent the views of their ward members (this would be impossible) but, having made their general views clear, to make decisions on their behalf and then to be judged on how well they did at the next election. But would, or should this include consulting residents along the way? Bearing in mind just how difficult it can be to make any consultation meaningful, would it not be better to allow our elected councillors to demonstrate some political leadership and then answer for those decisions at the ballot box? The more I think about this, the more I think that political leadership is in short supply at the moment.

Emergency? What emergency?

I’m the Green Party group lead for Climate issues on Dorset Council, and I’m feeling increasingly frustrated over the Council’s response to its declaration of a climate emergency. At its very first meeting in May 2019, the newly formed council, thanks to pressure from various members of Extinction Rebellion, declared a climate emergency – but it was just that, a declaration with no commitments. At the following meeting in July I, together with Daryl Turner, the ward member for Lyme Regis, tabled more detailed motions calling on the Council to commit to certain actions. Both motions were referred to the newly formed Executive Advisory Panel (EAP) without debate. Never mind, I thought, at least I was to be a member of this EAP so would have plenty of opportunity to debate the issues and influence outcomes. How wrong I was.

From the outset the approach of the EAP, under the direction (dictatorship?) of its chair, has been overly cautious: a climate emergency without a sense of emergency; a process of gathering all ‘the facts’ before making any decisions; of not committing to any action unless ‘we were certain that we can deliver’. This last phrase in particular was repeated many times by the chair, almost as a mantra, as a badge of his professional prudence. The response we actually need to the climate emergency has been compared by many to the response a country needs to make to a declaration of war. Imagine for a moment Winston Churchill speaking to the nation in September 1939 and boasting that we will only respond with measures that he was absolutely certain that the country could manage. No. Neither can I. I’m no fan of Churchill but how ever hard I try I cannot imagine how we would have survived as a nation with such a cautious response.

This EAP has, however, produced a strategy document and action plan. No, I’ll rephrase that: a strategy document and action plan has been produced. Members of the panel had very little say as to the content and structure of these documents. Whilst the officers that wrote them put in a lot of hard work and exhibited a great deal of professionalism, the ‘action plan’ in particular fails as an action plan – primarily because of its lack of targets. Because of the urgency and ambition required, I’m not convinced that these targets should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound) simply because focusing on the achievable and realistic elements implies the caution that I criticised above. But they should certainly be specific, measurable, and timebound. Not only that, but they should also have named people responsible / accountable for their delivery, together with a series of review dates.

But what really rubs salt into my wounds is an agenda item on this coming Thursday’s (15th October) full Council. This calls upon the Council “To note the response of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Executive Advisory Panel (EAP) in the publication of the draft Dorset Council Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy addressing the Climate Change Notices of Motion tabled by Cllr Daryl Turner and Cllr Kelvin Clayton at Dorset Council on 18th July 2019.” This appears to suggest that the EAP has both considered my motion and addressed the points made by it. It hasn’t. Neither motion has been discussed or debated by the EAP, in fact they have hardly been mentioned. It would be easy to interpret this agenda item as a cynical attempt to finally kill off two motions that some have not wanted debated from the start.

Why I will not be wearing a tie at any Dorset Council meeting

Sometimes the smallest of things cause a strange reaction in me. On Thursday I, together with all the members of the Dorset Council Area Planning Committee of which I am a member, received an email from our chairman reminding us that it was “important to preserve and enhance our appearance of competence and professionalism when dealing with the public”. Ok. No particular problem with that. It continued that, to this end, we were encouraged “to be smartly dressed (i.e. with gentlemen in collar and ties), when appearing in person or on-line.” Mmmm. Now I do have a problem with that. But why? Apart from the fact that I hate wearing a tie (I really dislike the feel of them round my neck) and hate the Victorian formality that the phrase ‘gentlemen in collar and ties’ conjures up in me, why has this simple request haunted me for the last few days? Why was my immediate and simple reply of “no way!” insufficient? After all, what could they do if I simply ignored the request?

Part of my problem is that I have an intuitive urge to rebel, particularly at what I consider to be unnecessary rules. When I was in secondary school I was one of only three pupils in my final year not to be made a prefect. This was simply because I had refused to have my shoulder length hair cut. Why should I, I had reasoned. If girls were allowed to have hair of any length, why shouldn’t boys? What’s the difference? (Anyone who currently knows me will appreciate the irony of this!) It’s not that I am in anyway a libertarian. I do not believe that I have an intrinsic right to do whatever I like, and I do believe that, because the wider social good is more important than my own personal good, rules are important. But these rules should serve the wider social good, and if I fail to see the connection I feel at liberty to question them, and sometimes break them. At school I failed to understand the reason why I was expected to have my hair cut. I am now struggling to understand how wearing a tie preserves and enhances my appearance (my appearance, note, not my actual being) of competence and professionalism as a politician.

So how could my wearing a shirt and tie create this appearance? Well the obvious answer is that my wearing them behaves in a similar way a uniform does by signifying membership of a particular group of people – a group that adheres to a particular code of behaviour. In this case the group is possibly ‘respectable public figures’, politicians who, as public servants, adhere to the conventions expected of them. I suppose that in some way, to some people, it signals that the wearer of the ‘uniform’ is playing by the rules, is taking their role seriously, and can be trusted. But is this really how most of the 21st century residents of Dorset read the situation?

A great many people have a very negative view of the traditional politician. And let’s be honest, the picture painted above is a very traditional one. It’s a very conservative (with a smallish ‘c’) one. In an attempt to introduce new ways of working many modern businesses have left these traditions behind and radically relaxed their dress codes. Is not the same expected of at least some politicians? In order to break the myth, held by many, that politicians are ‘all the same’ and ‘in it for themselves’ it is not important to show that we are not all the same? And one way of doing this is by leaving uniforms to the uniformed services. Moreover, I think it important that some politicians are not viewed as ‘part of the establishment’ – not least because many voters, particularly Green Party supporting voters, believe that ‘the establishment’ needs a radical overhaul. So for this reason alone, I will not be wearing a tie at any Dorset Council meeting.