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Power to the people!

May 8, 2012

Cllr Henri Murison, Newcastle City Council’s Cabinet member for Quality of Life, argues that power should be taken out of town halls and handed over to local communities 

You probably have to be of a certain age or a devotee of 70s sitcoms to recollect the antics of Wolfy ‘Citizen’ Smith.  The hapless frolics of the engaging rebel without a clue were entertaining – but his quest for power and influence were relentlessly fruitless. 

Terraced HousesBack then the idea that the municipal might of Tooting town hall might be trumped by a committed community activist was so outlandish that it was the stuff of comedy scripts. 

We live in more enlightened times. Today the notion of devolution – or giving power to the people – is something that Newcastle City Council wants to make reality.

For too long communities have put up with a ‘we know best’ superiority from their local councils. The ‘get what you’re given culture’ has failed to grasp the fact that local people understand local communities far better than municipal mandarins.  Handing the reins to local people gives them the chance to get to grips with the real issues which affect their quality of life.  

At the root of this approach is the need for a new relationship between the council and the community. Councils need to trust communities to make good decisions which deal with the things that need to happen in their streets and neighbourhoods. But with these rights comes the responsibilities of good citizenship. We want people to get involved to help shape the way their communities develop. And as members of our community we all have a duty to respect our environment and the rights of others. Good citizens do not drop litter or cause nuisance to their neighbours. Our role will be to side with decent citizens and crack down on those whose behaviour falls below the standards the rest of us expect.

Our administration at the City Council has made a start in handing power to the people. We have invested more decisions, responsibility and resources at a ward level, and ensured that funding for vital local assets like community centres is secure. For communities to thrive they need a vibrant hub.

We have recognised that all communities are different and that the needs of some places are greater than others. As a result our ward funding is has been allocated on the basis of need – with those communities with the toughest social challenges getting the biggest share. 

Some might argue that it is ‘not fair’ that some places get more than others because they are ‘needy’. I fundamentally disagree. Fairness is at the heart of everything we do. It seems to me that, given what we know about inequalities in health, wealth and quality of life, it would be deeply unfair not to prioritise help in the places it is needed most. 

Localism without the right values risks leaving behind the most marginalised and disadvantaged. Not all communities have the confidence and capacity to stand up for themselves and make themselves heard. We have to give everyone a voice, not just listen to the most vocal. We’re not all born with sharp elbows and the ability to push our way to the head of the queue. Part of our role is to empower and enable all communities to take control of their own destiny. 

Cynics might argue that this is all about money. They claim that councils facing cuts are pushing more functions onto local people and community groups to relieve themselves of the responsibility. For once the cynics are partly right. It is undeniable that council’s face severe cuts and over the next four years people should be prepared for reductions in the level of service they have come to expect from their council. But given this stark reality it is surely better to give communities a say in how these changes are adapted to local circumstances, rather than to inflict pain universally and with no regard to local intelligence.

And yes, we do believe that communities and citizens are capable of doing more for themselves and to rely on the council less. But this is not just a financial necessity. We believe it can help create stronger, civic minded communities with a bigger stake in their future.

Newcastle’s greatest resource is its people. We are already seeing great examples of devolution in action as volunteers help run partnership libraries, working alongside full time staff to keep open branches which might otherwise have fallen victim to cuts. The ‘Greening Wingrove’ project has seen local people take responsibility for the cleanliness and beautification of their neighbourhood. The council helps and enables, but the community takes the lead.

It’s a bit like John Lewis where staff are given a stake in the business and as a result give more to the organisation and get involved in the way it runs. Putting citizens in the driving seat will fundamentally change the way things are done. Much less centralist control and one size fits all services will be replaced by much improved responsiveness to local concerns and, I hope, a stronger bond of trust between council and community. 

We want people to help us shape the way we put power and influence in their hands, so I would encourage people to get involved in the debate.

Power to the people!

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