On 1st May people from civil society institutions across Newcastle came together for the first of three workshops exploring democracy and devolution in the region.
The focus of the workshops is devolution of power through the upcoming mayoral election: how can civil society shift currently imbalanced power relationships so that local communities have more control over the decisions currently made on their behalf?
The mayoral election for the North of Tyne combined authority in 2019 will provide a new opportunity to engage local people in decision-making, and the three workshops intend to explore what local communities want to achieve from this process.
As one participant put it:
“If you could frame the [metro mayor] election around things people really want, it could be a powerful opportunity.”
The aim of this first workshop was to explore how participants interpret existing decision-making structures in the North East, how people view power as it currently is.
“Ideally power should lie in the hands of the people – but it doesn’t”
The workshop began with people sharing images they felt depicted the current situation in the world as it is.
A lot of the images were about the top-down nature of politics, often London-centric and dominated by people who are out of touch with the reality of the world as it is. As one person said, civil society has “a parent-child relationship with government as the daddy we go to for handouts”.
They highlighted the relationship with government as too often dominated by an economic agenda rooted in austerity where every funding and investment decision is made (or more likely rejected) against a scale of profitability.
To reimagine how local communities can have more influence, you need to understand who currently holds power and what prevents communities from having control.
The group was unanimous that local communities had limited power over political decision making – which, as many highlighted, is reflected in the increased disengagement of local people in local politics.
Individuals highlighted that many important local decisions work through formal and highly conventional decision-making processes, where decisions are made on behalf of and not by those directly affected and there’s limited accountability.
(Where) do you belong?
Reflections about the changing nature of local communities came out in the discussions.
In particular, people talked about how individuals’ sense of belonging has been weakened as a result of economic decline locally – the decline of industries that previously bound people together. This has created further disengagement within local, community-level decisions and projects.
Some people also said that communities feel increasingly disengaged in activities going on in their local areas due to economic pressures increasingly dictating their lives, through longer working hours and higher rates of employment for example.
Economic decline within the region was also highlighted as a cause of individuals being unsure which communities they belong to and part of the role of civil society is to highlight the ways in which local people can become more engaged with community-level organisations and institutions. One individual highlighted that in an increasingly digital age, technology presents an opportunity to engage with and build these connections in order to re-align individuals with a sense of belonging to a specific community.
“People often don’t know what community they exist in, how do we connect with people in this more individualised digital age?”
Before challenging the unequal power balances that exist in society, participants highlighted that an important step is to help communities understand the links that already exist between individuals and organisations within civil society and how these links can be used to gain power and control within local decision making.
Should we focus on power at all?
A number of people involved raised concerns over whether power was the right way to engage communities in decision-making. Rather than focussing on shifting the power balance, some argued that the central focus should aim towards unlocking the various creative capabilities and capacities of local communities to drive forward change.
Power, as some highlighted, has for a long time been understood as limited simply to those with wealth that is structurally difficult to challenge. However, simply blaming the lack of power on central government funding and refusing to challenge this notion, as one individual said, is “us abdicating responsibility”. Making the most of the resources that communities already have can provide real potential for constructing creative solutions and ideas.
The student view
As a student in Newcastle, one of the things I highlighted was my own experiences of the disconnect between the student and Newcastle communities and how engaging students within local decision making could provide a powerful opportunity to build stronger relationships with locals. There’s a particular opportunity in areas like Jesmond and Sandyford to challenge the extent of student accommodation construction within central city areas – an issue that was highlighted by many of those at the workshop.
Many students feel, from my own experience, that during their time at University, they become embedded within a ‘student bubble’ that produces a small, single perception of the vast opportunities, resources and also challenges that Newcastle is faced with. Only through engaging students in local communities and decision-making at the academic level can these opportunities and challenges be tackled.
People were generally optimistic about the potential for bringing civil society together. Using this workshop as a starting point, future workshops will explore whether the upcoming election of the metro mayor has the potential to give communities power — how decision making could happen differently and practically how we get there.
13th June 2018