Fyson on ... boosting participation between councils

Fyson on ... boosting participation between councils and the public to achieve local strategy consensus.

The government has just held a consultation on improving local accountability under the populist slogan "communities in control - real people, real power". Central to this endeavour is the establishment of "vibrant local democracy" based on elected councils.

Any hope of recreating a past golden age of local government would be in vain and in fact something rather better than the old patrician civic leadership could be in prospect. Key to the new approach will be enhanced overview and scrutiny committee work, which since 2000 has examined past and future council actions with growing authority and influence.

According to the recent DCLG consultation paper, the system has proved effective in reviewing service outcomes and involving external stakeholders. But it has so far been less effective in reconciling community opinion or providing a forum for debate. These are functions that would potentially allow councillors to champion local opinion better. They are crucial to building consensus on planning issues.

Whether the common perception of participation in planning as merely protest from outside the system can be reconciled with a new inclusiveness led by councillors is bound to be questioned. But there must be a case for putting participation on a more representative basis.

Articulate groups with the loudest voices do not necessarily reflect public opinion. But they can be a legitimate focus for both supportive and dissenting expertise to which councils need access and that should contribute to public discussion, helping to formulate opinion without always claiming to represent it.

Councillors and officers are going to have to be more openly accountable and accessible. The public will respond positively to greater use of opinion surveys, petitions and referenda, free of the intimidating atmosphere of public meetings and appeal hearings.

Overview and scrutiny could yet be the key to revived relations between local authorities and the communities they serve, providing a vital channel for participation programmes in a modern democratic framework. But they will not solve the problem of the perennial mismatch between local concerns and higher governmental strategies implemented through such devices as the infrastructure planning commission.

Even as arrangements are introduced to modulate local activism into a broader consensus, so new mechanisms replacing the mega-inquiry are needed to build agreement about the local impacts of national policy strategies.

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