Just to bring to your attention this exellent report produced by the Democratic Audit in Febuary of this year:- Power and Participation in Modern Britian. Reproduced below are their comments and conclusions on local/regional democracy.
Comments on local democracy
As we have shown above (see Part 2), ‘local governance’ is scarcely local at all. In the first instance, local authorities are too large to be close to their local populations.
Secondly, they are over-dependent on central government financing which is available subject to central government policy prescriptions and strict financial controls.
Thirdly, powerful quangos at national and regional level determine major policies along with larger local authorities in remote high-level ‘partnerships’ above the heads of smaller authorities; and quangos at all levels determine huge swathes of local priorities and distribute resources accordingly. .
Gordon Brown has committed himself to ‘change’ in Britain’s constitutional arrangements. Nowhere in the state is ‘change’ more essential than at local and regional level. To make a reality of greater participation, especially over major decisions as promised in the governance green paper, we recommend a fundamental reversal of existing policies towards local government and the quango state so that local authorities can be made considerably more autonomous in terms of their policies, revenues and expenditure and protected against constant central government intervention. Otherwise, the government’s proposals will raise people’s expectations too high for existing local authorities to respond to their wishes, except on the margins.
Take participatory budgeting. Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State, has suggested that minor local decisions – for parks, play areas, ASBO policies and the like – would be open to participatory budgeting. Her proposals throw into relief a striking contrast between Britain’s weak and remote local authorities and Porto Alegre, the Brazilian city that pioneered participatory budgeting.
A World Bank Social Development Note states that municipalities in Brazil like Porto Alegre have ‘considerable autonomy over their revenues (raised from local taxes, tariffs and federal transfers) and expenditures’ (1) – and it is this autonomy that makes participatory budgeting there meaningful. The World Bank note and other sources describe a sophisticated annual budgeting cycle with three distinct levels of citizen engagement through popular assemblies at regional and neighbourhood area, regional budget forums and the municipal budget council. Every citizen has the right to be directly involved through electing a representative to the neighbourhood assembly.
Decisions are usually based on needs criteria and direct negotiations between neighbourhood forums that go on to monitor implementation. The budgeting process decided major regional decisions on transportation; education, leisure and culture; health and social welfare; economic development and taxation; and city organisation, as well as neighbourhood decisions. (2)
The proposal for a concordat between central government and the Local Government Association seems to recognise the need for government to give authorities more autonomy. However, the way in which it is framed in the green paper places far more responsibility upon local authorities to satisfy central government than for central government to give formal recognition to local autonomy.
We recommend that as part of its moves towards a written constitution the government hold a public debate about giving local government constitutional protection on the European model and create strong and self confident local authorities according to the criteria of the European Charter for Local Self Government.
We have already emphasised the basic principle that consultative and participatory processes should take place within the structures of representative democracy. Direct democracy ought to be complementary to representative democracy and should not be allowed to replace it.
1 Social Development Notes, Case Study 2 – PortoAlegre, Brazail: Participatory Approaches in Budgeting and Public Expenditure Management, siteresources.worldbank.ng/INTPCENG/1143372-1116506093229/20511036/sdn71.pdf
2 World Bank Social Development Note, opcit; .Chavez Minos, D., ‘Porto Alegre, Brazil: A new sustainable and replicable model of participatoryand democratic governance?, www.tni.org/archives/chavez/portoalegre.pdf ; Smith, G., Democratic Innovations: A Report for POWER, February 2005, www.powerinquiry.org