Your council needs YOU

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Public participation is at the heart of local democracy, says Dave Wilson

Busybodies. People who know best. Those misguided souls who continually turn up at council meetings to tell everyone else what to do, but never put themselves up for election.

Shouting from the side-lines, expecting to be not only heard but obeyed. How dare they? Isn’t that what we elect councillors for?

Why is it accepted that some people should spend their time watching and pressuring our councillors? What gives them the right to speak up, supposedly on our behalf, pursuing their own agenda and promoting their point of view.

That’s not democracy, is it? But of course, it is. In fact, participation is at the heart of a healthy democracy, and while most of the population may be happy to delegate every decision for four years to the people who won the election, others are not.

Without those people who get involved in following the council’s decisions and constantly holding them to account, we would be much worse off.

Protesters at a council meeting

In the past few years alone we have seen people take an active interest in issues such as the Westgate Towers traffic trial, the proposed selling off of Kingsmead Field, the Oval Chalet sale in Whitstable, the cancellation of dozens of rural bus routes, the closure of the Kent and Canterbury Hospital and the potential issuing of licences for fracking.

All these issues and more have been fought over and – usually – won because unelected residents got together to make their views known to councillors.

All this is worth thinking about in a week in which Private Eye reports that one local newspaper group, not in Kent, dismissed a reporter because its council, in a fit of Donald Trump-style pique, objected to the questions they asked. 

Meanwhile, the Guardian claims that “Google and Facebook are strangling the free press to death”.

Keeping the council grounded and trying to prevent it making badly thought through decisions are key roles in our democracy.

We’re lucky in this district to have very highly active and well respected civic groups , including residents’ associations and the Canterbury Society among others.

We have groups who come together to campaign around specific issues. The Mountfield Park development and the installation of huge electricity pylons across the countryside are examples.

And we have a raft of volunteers supporting services like Catching Lives, Citizens Advice and many others.

We also have longstanding groups supporting a common interest, like the inter-faith community. Lobbying, watching what the council is up to, is one key way that these groups, through their representatives, ensure that their expertise is provided when needed and their members interests are looked after.

There are many more ways of serving your community than being elected. Obviously not everyone can be a councillor, either because they don’t have the time, or their employer won’t allow them to, or they have family responsibilities, or just lack the confidence to stand for election.

Some people are quite clear that they have what are dismissively called “single issue” concerns, about their own street, school, park or hobby.

A planning committee meeting taking place in the Guildhall

All of that is legitimate and indeed desirable, because we need the community to be involved closely with the council.

Our elected representatives can’t know everything about every subject and about every nook and cranny of the district, although a small number do act as if omniscience and omnipotence are not attributes solely available to deities.

It’s healthy to have expert contributions and it is essential to hear from residents if decisions are to be taken in their best interests.

So we should welcome the changes being made to make the council’s area members’ panels (AMPs) more open and welcoming.

The removal of some of the stuffy formality of those meetings and the adoption of procedures which allow dialogue between the public and the councillors is essential to effective engagement and representation.

When the new cycle of meetings start in September, the AMPs will be re-named as Forums. Sadly, they won’t have more decision making power, but they will offer more chances for the population to offer their views on local issues to their councillors and discuss key issues with them.

This is a positive step forward. But it’s not the end of the journey to a more democratic council, since the formal committees and full council itself won’t be adopting the changes made to the AMPs.

If the new Forums work, though, it will show that our council is not isolating itself from the voters and can respond to changing expectations of how advice is provided.

It’s not impossible to see that this could in the end lead to changes to open up committees to more external input as well. Since that is where the real decisions get taken, the sooner it happens the better.

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