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.

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