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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Participatory Budgeting- 'no taxation without participation': Green Party welcomes modest step in the right direction for Ards and North Down Borough Council 

My speaking notes from last night's Corporate Committee meeting which passed my Notice of Motion on officers preparing a report on implementing Participatory Budgeting within council.

My notice of motion was passed as follows:   

"Participatory budgeting, the process of including citizens in budgeting is proven to produce better decisions, enhance community-council relations and provide innovative solutions.  It directly involves local people in making decisions on the spending priorities for defined budgets. This means engaging residents and community groups representative of all parts of the community to discuss priorities, making spending proposals, as well as giving local people a role in the scrutiny and monitoring of the process.  Participatory budgeting should be at the heart of Community Planning and another element of the council's engagement strategy and commitment to openness and transparency.  Given the advantages of this approach, I call on officers produce a report on the development of a 'participatory budgeting' process within Community Planning". 

Thank you chair,

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a term that may not be known to many people.  Basically, it is a process in which local citizens decide how to allocate part of council’s budget.  After all it is the peoples’ money that we spend, and we should as a council not be afraid about opening up defined council finances and budgets in a small, managed way to public scrutiny and decision-making. 
Participatory budgeting allows citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritise public spending projects, and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent.
Participatory Budgeting is ‘local people having direct decision- making powers over part of a public budget’.  So it is more than consultation.  It’s a form of participatory democracy and active citizen involvement that can bring fresh perspectives, solve problems and strengthen council-citizen relations.
When it is taken seriously and is based on mutual trust local council and citizen can benefit equally.  Participatory budgeting, viewed as part of a process to strengthen the connections between council and citizen, is I believe an important element of the strong relationships needed if we are to both weather the financial and other pressures we currently and will face in the future, or if we as a new council are to maximise the opportunities for improving the lives of citizens, businesses, families and communities.
We have a new era of local government in Northern Ireland, with additional economic and planning powers to make a real difference to the lives of the citizens who live, work and visit the borough, as well as the opportunities and obligations of Community Planning.  Participatory budgeting can be part of a new social contract between citizens and council, based on openness, transparency, honesty and trust.  
Participatory budgeting generally involves several basic steps: 
1) Community members identify spending priorities and select budget delegates; 
2) Budget delegates develop specific spending proposals, with help from council 
3) Community members vote on which proposals to fund; 
4) Council implements the top proposals.
Some of the benefits of participatory inclu
·      Creative and effective ways of improving essential services. 
·      Sharing responsibility with citizens in a planned way
·      Increasing the quality and quantity of community engagement
·      Increasing trust in politics and in politicians
·      Stimulating dialogue and positive action within communities
·      Encouraging well targeted public investments

In short, participatory budgeting can be cost effective, making our finances go further through working with the community and empowering them to make decisions, as well as helping to revive citizens’ belief in the democratic progress. 

When citizens feel they have a meaningful say in how services operate in their neighbourhood they are more willing to trust democratic processes, support elected members and get involved in local affairs.  

Participatory budgeting can also create greater understanding about difficult decisions that have to be taken, that is opening the books in a responsible manner to the public can lessen the fears, rumours and hearsay that often spreads misinformation within the community when they cannot see or hear what is going on, or why certain decisions were made.

Through the simple act of coming together and making small-scale decisions on community grants for example, participatory budgeting can build capacity for communities to solve their own problems, helping to improve transparency over how limited resources are shared out and engendering a sense of local pride and building relationships between different sections of the community.

More than 1,500 municipalities, councils and local authorities around the world have initiated participatory budgeting.  This means that there are plenty of examples we can learn from and also we will not be starting from scratch.

Help and experience is available from councils in England, Wales and Scotland that have implemented participatory budgeting.  There are UK wide organisations such as the Participatory Budgeting Network that can help.  Participatory budgeting also links into the NI Executive’s aim for more open government and we as a council can work with the newly established NI Open Government Partnership.  

Participatory budgeting is a challenge.  It challenges our long established model of representative democracy with a much more open, direct participatory democracy.  PB raises questions over who should have the right to have a say, especially in the minds of long serving elected members or senior officers. The aim is for the representative and participatory ‘strands’ to complement each other. 

• When resources are tight and people are worried about the withdrawal of cherished services there is an obvious concern that vested interests will try to unfairly influence the opening up of decision-making. There may be questions raised over whether voting processes will be fair. Or how to avoid decision-making events being flooded by people only interested in supporting their friends. A lot has been learnt over how to avoid this situation through using flexible voting mechanisms and appropriate facilitation at meetings. Having visible and engaged elected members at the event can often mean more than a robust system.

• There are reasonable concerns about ‘up-front’ costs to implement a new PB process. When money and staff time is short it can seem a daunting challenge to engage new people. It is precisely at this point that the role of local politicians is crucial in encouraging new ways of working. It’s also important to build on existing engagement and make use of networks and forums that already operate, such as ward panels or neighbourhood partnership boards.

Often it’s as much a case of adding value through seeing the bigger picture and joining up existing work. Also, whilst there may be ‘front-loaded’ costs, in time PB should more than pay for itself through the provision of better-targeted, more responsive services.

• Inclusivity and connecting with seldom heard groups is also cited as a common problem. However experience has shown that PB has significant opportunities in this area. The format of participatory grants as used in Leith is one that appeals to exactly that type of individual or group. Once engaged they can then be drawn into more detailed and strategic conversations.

• There will always be strategic and sensitive issues not immediately amenable to PB funding.

Hundreds of PB initiatives have been run in the UK in all types of communities, by local councils and also in the public engagement work of police authorities, health boards, social housing, town and parish councils and within not-for-profit organisations.

So while participatory budgeting is new within a Northern Ireland context, it is well-established feature of local government innovation in the rest of the UK. 

We have a stated ambition to be the best and most innovative council in Northern Ireland, an ambition which I have heard expressed from the Chief Executive down and from fellow councillors.  I fully support this ambition.  Let us deliver on that ambition by taking this small but important step forward in trying something new, something creative that will deliver practical benefits for both council and local citizens. 

A watchword of the American revolution was ‘no taxation without representation’, articulating the sense of injustice felt by American citizens paying taxes to a parliament in which they did not have representatives.  I believe that the modern day version of this is ‘no taxation without participation’ which participatory budgeting addresses.

Participatory budgeting is a small step forward in the right direction for council - for those wanting to the prudent with finances, and get more value for money, as well as those wanting greater civic engagement and building stronger links with the community.  I would ask colleagues here to support officers writing up a report on how best we could implement this. 

 Thank you Chair

Monday, 23 March 2015

‘Politics as theatre for ugly people?’: electoral democracy and the seven-ring circus of the leaders’ television debate

After months of public wrangling, behind the scenes manoeuvring and electoral calculation (with the odd principled defence of free speech and public service broadcasting) we finally have a line up for the 2015 election debates.

There will be a seven-way debate on April 2 featuring David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood. This will see seven trained political actors each trying to outdo one another. Then, after the performance, we will be treated to a forensic media analysis of winners and losers, further feeding the tendency to portray the election as a horse race.

While having such a large number of participants is common in other countries, such as Denmark or Finland (or indeed in the US primaries), it is completely new territory for the UK. The inclusion of seven leaders shows how party politics is changing and how this election has the potential to end the dominance of the two-party system. It could usher in an era of coalition government as the norm, not the exception. 

**But apart from the schadenfreude and sheer entertainment value of seeing a well-seasoned leader wrong-footed or a decent joke from an unlikely source, does this debate enhance or ill-serve our democratic political system?  While it may tell the viewing public some more about the personalities of the people involved, will such a debate deepen citizens’ political knowledge? Would the latter be better served by two sets of debates – one between the two largest parties and a second between the remaining 5 (or 6 if we include the DUP)?   **

All political debate is a balance of theatre and rational calculation. The ancient Greeks saw politics as based on ideas but also saw debate as relating to the intimate connection between rhetoric, drama, personality and persuasion.

The considerable furore that has surrounded these debate shows just how important personality, image and soundbite are in British electoral politics. A clever pre-prepared one-liner delivered at the opportune time could not only win the debate but lead in the newspaper headlines the next morning.

And of course that’s precisely what all seven leaders will be thinking about between now and April 2. They will be preparing their lines, statistics, rhetorical strategies. They will be planning what to wear, deciding whether to smile and trying to rein in facial tics.

Such televised debates have long been part of the drama of political elections, adding proof, if that were needed of politics being theatre for ugly people.   Whether it’s the well-known and often referenced televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 (where Nixon appeared ill, his 5 o’clock shadow contrasting badly with the shiny, youthful health of Kennedy).  Or the 1987 Finish general election, when the sweater-clad Pekka Haavisto from the Green Party stood out from the sea of other party leaders clad in dark suits and gained positive media coverage and votes as a result. 

The latter raises an interesting prospective for the participants, especially the smaller party leaders. That is, with such a large number of participants there will be the temptation to do, wear or say something that will grab attention in such a crowded context?  While Nigel Farage's USP would put him in pole position to adopt this tactic, and Natalie Bennett's recent media meltdowns have shown her how not to perform, we might also witness Ed Miliband or David Cameron doing something unexpected.  This will be less a 'debate' than 'Britain's got political talent'.  

However, while there is the chance of impressing and winning over undecided voters, this is the exception not the norm.  Televised debates do not generally lead to people changing their minds or voting intentions - rather they serve to reinforce existing perceptions and shore up the 'core vote'. 

Elections are one of the longest and toughest interview processes you can think of, and televised debates are connected to other parts of the interview like a candidate knocking on your door and looking for your vote.  Unlike the face-to-face exchange however, the televised debate is one way and scripted (after all it is a piece of theatre).  While it makes for good political drama (though we should not expect anything approaching Borgen or House of Cards) and can engage voters in the election, it does reinforce a focus on personality not policy.  Voters can be lost not because of their negative assessment of a party's policy proposal, but through its leader stumbling over their words or forgetting their lines.  And politics itself can become a turn off for viewers if participants simply shout and talk past one another. And at that point citizens are not just interviewing candidates for high political office, but reviewers of their dramatic performance. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Green Party in Northern Ireland has reacted with shock and anger to a new Housing Executive report highlighting the scandal of poorly insulated homes.
North Down Green Party Councillor Professor John Barry said: “This is one of the most shocking reports I have read.  
“It documents the shameful reality of thousands of people living in sub-standard housing across Northern Ireland.  
“The report found that only 9% of the houses surveyed were of an adequate thermal standard, which means the vast majority of Housing Executive properties are ‘hard to heat’ homes.  
“This explains why people are in fuel poverty, since they have to spend more and more of their money on trying to heat their home, much of the heat escaping from the house.  
Hard earned income is literally going up in smoke
“It also explains why so many Housing Executive tenants have health problems that are directly related to living in sub-standard housing.  
“This report gives a telling insight into why Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of people living in fuel poverty in the UK. 
“That’s why the Green Party has continually and consistently pushed to move away from expensive, imported fossil fuels towards combination of improved energy efficiency and increased generation from local, renewable energy sources, as the way to tackle fuel poverty.   
“We argued for a ‘Green New Deal’ (GND) back in 2008 as a way of dealing with hard to heat homes.
“If the GND had have been adopted by the Executive we could have reduced fuel poverty and tackled the health-related problems of hard to heat homes while providing employment opportunities in insulating our social housing stock.  
“But we now see the outcomes of the Executive’s decision not to support a Green New Deal program.  
“What is even more shocking is the fact that the Housing Executive has not published any recommendations from the report. 
“Normally with such reports, problems are identified and a series of recommendations made about how to solve them but this report does not have these.
“While the Housing Executive is not to blame for the poor quality of insulation, most of which was done in the 1980s, they have a responsibility and a duty of care for addressing and solving this legacy issue now.  
“As the report states: “The level of poorly insulated homes is extremely concerning and has major social implications in terms of energy costs, health, social and environmental issues. It serves no purpose within this report to try to apportion blame for this phenomenon but to realise the issue is real and present and needs attention for those suffering in certain homes.”
“I call upon the Housing Executive to clarify why the report was published without the recommendations. 
“This report is in line with other reports from the University of Ulster and the insulation industry about the dangerous levels of sub-standard housing in Northern Ireland in terms of thermal efficiency and heat retention.  
“Urgent action is needed now by the Housing Executive and the Department for Social Development to ensure thousands of people are no longer forced to live in sub-standard housing, getting them deeper into fuel poverty and causing ill health.
“This report is a wake-up call to the Housing Executive, the Northern Ireland Executive in general and the new Minister for Social Development.
“Why are so many of our citizens living in sub-standard housing?  
“This is a disgrace in the 21st century and a modern scandal.”
42% of people in Northern Ireland, as compared with 15% in England live in fuel poverty, meaning they spend more than 10% of their income heating their home to an acceptable level.
The report verifies that the sample size of 206 houses is statistically robust to take the sample as a broad indicator of the state of cavity wall insulation across the entire NI Housing Executive stock of 89,000 houses.  The report states: ‘the Project Advisory Group agreed that it (206 houses) still provided a statistically sound sample which would provide a broad indication of the quality of cavity wall insulation in Housing Executive properties.”
For further information contact:
Green Party in Northern Ireland Press Officer Joanna BraniffT: 028 90521141M: 0780 8862141