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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