ARTICLES From murky to making it happen: getting local power in the North East

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From murky to making it happen: getting local power in the North East

How to get to the world as it should be?  That was the question we vowed to tackle as we kicked off the third of three Civil Society Futures workshops on local decision making in the North East (check out here what we heard at the first workshop and what happened at the second).

But what if the new authority could enable local people and communities to have more of a say?  This might sound like wishful thinking – but this was the challenge faith groups, activists, journalists, universities, cultural institutions and many others from across civil society came together to tackle.

In previous sessions we had discussed how things are now, with experiences and frustrations flowing freely in equal measure, then the more challenging task of establishing how we want decision making to happen – settling on three core principles:

  • Subsidiarity – decision making should take place at the lowest practical level
  • Resources – we need autonomy but also the resources to match, enabling autonomy to happen
  • Base Community – decision making needs to happen at a community level and that may mean geographical communities or communities of interest

Now the difficult bit: how to get there.


Caution and inspiration

We began this workshop by sharing experiences and examples of local people being meaningfully involved in decision-making. Sara Bryson, Tyne and Wear Citizens Organiser, told the group about a Norwegian town called Porsgrunn where youth participation became real when young people were given voting and budgeting power.

Closer to home, Alistair Cameron from Launchpad talked about Broadacre House — a great example of grassroots power, it’s an empty office building that local organisations had occupied, enabling visitors to access mental health and other support services in an non-institutional environment.  But now the council has taken back the space for commercial use and Alistair warned of the dangers of democratic structures being co-opted for the gain of those in power, in this case property developers.

With both inspiring and cautionary tales in our minds, we set to work on figuring out who, how and where power is held.  Who are the key players? What do we know about them? And where do they currently sit?

Wading through the murky

Very quickly we realised how little public knowledge there is about these things.  What did we know about the individuals entrusted to take decisions on our behalf, beyond the self-written Wikipedia pages and personal websites?  If we wanted more local decision making, which council leaders did we need to influence, or should we be talking to the chief executive or another unelected officer?

Who holds the keys to the resources that could make autonomy possible: is it councils, NHS trusts, quangos or new chains of school academies?  It quickly seemed we had more questions than answers.

However by piecing together chunks of our existing knowledge and doing some fast-paced internet research, some answers began to emerge.

And… action!

After creating a picture of who we needed to influence and their current positions, one group began on an action plan to get support from Mayor of North Tyneside, Norma Redfern, for more local decision making and another group worked on how to persuade Newcastle City Council Leader Nick Forbes to allocate the resources to make it a reality.

How do we move them to where we want them to be?  What networks and connections do we have? What relationships could influence these key players, or could we connect to them through a particular personal interest?  We started to work out answers to all these questions.

Very quickly our time was up: the 90 minutes had raced by, but we finished the session with energy and optimism – and the beginnings of a plan.

Now what?

This was just the start – we’ve now formed a ‘Tyne and Wear Citizens Mayoral Accountability Assembly Action Group’ to take forward the campaign. This is involving both organisations that already have a relationship with Tyne and Wear Citizens, and those that don’t, such as The Sage, The Baltic and Newcastle CVS.  The group will use the countdown to the 2019 mayoral elections to get candidates to support local people and communities having more power over decision-making. The first step is to analyse what powers the new authority will have.

Many of us across civil society often like to talk far more about collaboration and partnership with other organisations than we actually get round to.  While the workshops gave the time and space for connections to happen, I feel it was the process that really mattered: exploring how little public knowledge there was of where power is held, and then learning there were ways which power could be shifted.  This is what excited people to do what we too often don’t – work together.