Will we really start caring more about the work of the council?

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A planning committee meeting taking place in the Guildhall

On the face of it, Canterbury Council City’s decision to introduce more informal and friendly local committees called forums ought to be welcome.

On Friday, the Canterbury Journal reported that they will move to a new venue and have new ways of doing democracy.

The aim is to increase the amount of residents coming to meetings and interacting with their councillors, thereby raising the level of local participatory democracy.

What could be wrong with that? Well, as I say, nothing on the face of it. But if you actually attend local council meetings as I have done for the last 20 years, you’ll understand something about the people who go to them.

There are on the whole two types of people who attend. Firstly, there is the single issue attendee who is moved solely by one particular thing.

This might as parochial as whether a yellow line is painted outside their home. Once the issue is resolved, the person is never seen in the council chamber again.

The second variety is council obsessive who is wrapped up in the work of his or her local authority to the extent that they attend as many if not more meetings than their own elected representatives.

Now the problem I foresee is that the forums could fail in their efforts to attract fresh faces to the council chamber and we’ll be left with the same people who always attend council meetings.

It’s not that such people have no right to be there or have their say, it’s that their repeated presence does not provide an accurate picture of how parts of the city or district is thinking. That is done via the ballot box on election day and why we have a system of representative democracy where a variety of issues or positions can coalesce behind a single candidate or team of candidates with a manifesto.

Believe me, I’d love to see more people coming to council meetings and taking an interest in local affairs. I just don’t think they will until an issue surfaces which matters to them.

If I’m proved wrong, then good. If not, then the changes the council is making to local democracy will be essentially worthless.

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