It’s a lot easier to describe the world as it is than to envisage the world as it should be — as participants from across the spectrum of civil society found when we met for the second time in Newcastle, to discuss how we could use local power in the election for a new regional Mayor.
Our first workshop had focussed on the world as it is: a critical exploration of how decision making currently works across Newcastle and the North of Tyne area. This first session was easy and we found and shared similar experiences and frustrations about how little say local people and communities can have in the choices made by politicians.
So, there were high hopes when we came together again to think towards the future and how we wanted the world and local decision making to be.
Imagining tomorrow… when today’s tough
There was both a reluctance from participants in the second workshop to envisage a perfect scenario, because life isn’t like that. Previous attempts to create utopia have failed miserably. The biggest obstacle in the room, however, was the tendency to slip back into describing the world as it already is. Many of us are so bogged down in our current experiences, which weigh heavy on our shoulders. The shrinking of civil society institutions, the perfect storm of financial cuts and austerity yet the increasing demand for our services. The lack of local leadership and the pressure to up our game.
In Newcastle we are sandwiched between devolution in Scotland and the Northern Powerhouse arrangements which seem to stop in Manchester. Decision making and power in Westminster seems very removed from our lived reality, and if you’re reliant on Northern Rail, very physically far away indeed! Rarely do we get the opportunity and time to truly think about what we would like the world to be like. It’s seems so far removed from where we are today, that is seems almost fanciful.
Yet here lies one the greatest barriers to us moving forward. If we don’t know what we are asking for, how will we ever change things? One of the key principles within community organising is moving from problem to solution. Working out our asks is a fundamental step to negotiating and bringing about change. If we always present problems but never solutions, we get what we’ve always got. If we focus just on the problems we fall into moaning do-gooders, who never actually change a thing. We need to be able to articulate the world as it should be.
For us as a group we were thinking about how local decision making should work in the North of England. How our organisations and communities participate. Once we can agree upon that we can begin breaking it down into winnable chunks to achieve it.
Inspiration in the examples
We did share some broad values such as diversity, equality, lack of hierarchy and accountability. But it took much discussion and debate to finally begin painting a picture of the world we want. We drew on current examples that inspired us such as deliberative democracy panels in Northern Ireland or economic changes in Preston. We wanted to draw on the strengths and assets that already exist in our region. We want to stop waiting for someone else to come and sort it all out and lead the way as civil society. We began to recognise the power we have collectively when we come together.
Right at the end of the workshop…we finally agreed three fundamental elements of the world as it should be, in relation to power and local decision making in the North East:
Decision making should take place at the lowest practical level. (Acknowledging that sometimes the most practical local level would need to be the national level! But where practical, as grassroots as possible.)
- Base Community
Decision making should happen at a community level. This may mean local geographical communities – or communities of interest or identity, e.g. LGBT rather than neighbourhood. We recognised that not everyone wants to be involved in decision making within their geographical community, communities of interest are just as important too.
We want autonomy — but the resources to match and enable the autonomy to happen. Too often decision making is devolved while resources are removed, making real local decision making impossible. We need the resources to match the subsidiarity.
While we all shared this vision we had three key questions to further consider. Would anyone be listening? How do we engage with decision makers and power? How do we convince people to change the way they practice? Such a new and different structure would also require training and the development of leaders with new skills across civil society to effectively engage.
But we were getting ahead of ourselves…how we achieve our vision of the world as it should be and move away from the world as it is, is the focus for our third and final workshop. But at least now we do have the beginnings of a shared vision and a basis from which to begin moving forwards.