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Questioning the new opportunities to become involved in local decisionmaking

People and organisations that in the past have been excluded from the process are now being invited to participate in decision-making about their own communities, but a new booklet entitled ‘Localism and local governance’, published today by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), questions whether it is really happening.

It was produced following the fourth in a series of special seminars entitled ‘Engaging Citizens’, organised by the ESRC in collaboration with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

Among a number issues covered by the publication, it queries how open the new governance mechanisms are for local involvement and examines voluntary and community organisations’ readiness to respond, particularly in ‘hard-to-reach’ populations. In addition, it points out that policymakers have added a number of governance mechanisms and structures to encourage engagement – without stopping to consider how they each relate to one another, or the complexity that this presents to the public.

The booklet draws on presentations given at a seminar today by two experts in the field, Marilyn Taylor, Professor of Urban Governance and Regeneration, at the University of the West of England and Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Liverpool. Their research indicates that many representatives from voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) still feel that, despite the changes, they are on the margins of the new governance spaces and, from a study of two specific towns in the north of England, only a small minority of residents feel that they are able to influence local decisions.

Professor Taylor points out that although the developments offer new opportunities for engaging in local decision-making and for influencing public service provision, they also present challenges for voluntary and community organisations that do participate, especially those which have had little involvement in partnerships before.

To illustrate this, she says, "All partners need to recognise the demands on community representatives – they may want to be accountable back to their community but often don’t have the resources or time to do this effectively."

There is also a difficult balance to be struck between the leadership that is required for communities to be effective operators in partnership and the need to spread engagement more widely. She highlights the importance of VCOs maintaining their independent voice if partnerships are to benefit from the distinctive experience that they can bring and for them to realise their potential.

Extensive in-depth research into the state of local democracy in two contrasting northern towns, Burnley and Harrogate, carried out by Doctor Wilks-Heeg and a colleague, revealed that over 30 different organisations, many of them ‘quangos’ with no elected community representatives, have some role in governing the two towns.

He said, "Overall, the elected local authorities control 53 per cent of public spending in Harrogate and, in Burnley, only 40 per cent. However, when it comes to the district councils it’s even lower. Only five per cent of public spending is controlled by each of these two councils, yet we found that the public and media concentrate on ‘the council’, while paying little attention to the much higher spending services."

Amanda Williams | EurekAlert!
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