Thursday, July 05, 2007

 

Could 'Participatory Budgeting' Revive our Politics?


Could it be that the most diminutive member of the cabinet has come up with its biggest idea for some time? The idea is that local communities should have a direct say in local authority spending. Of course, like almost any idea in the public domain, it belongs not to one person and certainly not to the biker loving Ms Blears. It originates in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the city nominated by the UN with the best quality of life in that country. According to the The Guardian, the idea has 'swept through' the more radical Brazilian cities and has now, apparently, made its way across the Atlantic.

It's foolish to get overexcited over something new but, following my post yesterday on the challenge of transforming public indifference to public life into genuine participation, I wonder if this just might be the way forward? Details of the idea are thin in press reports today, but the essence of it is that a proportion of local spending should be set aside and that local people should vote on those areas where spending is thought to be most appropriate. According to the statement Blears will make today, such decisions will be mediated via local debates, neighbourhood votes and town meetings.

As a start she will announce 10 national pilot projects, to include Birmingham, Merseyside, Lewisham, Bradford, Salford, Sunderland, Newcastle and Southampton. In the case of Sunderland the council will set aside £23m of its budget over the next two years for local residents to decide how the money is spent.

The implications of this approach are potentially immense. Much has been said and written by politicians - not to mention academics- about the need to renew politics and involve voters genuinely in its processes. The problem is these processes are too remote and complex to sustain voter interest- they are bored before the topic is even introduced. Consequently they have ignored local politics, looked down on councillors and avoided voting for them. Giving voters a genuine say in allocating resources though is something hugely different.

Disaffected and apathetic citizens might well be drawn to a process which enables them to direct money where they want it to go, be it roads, anti- social behaviour, leisure services or(my hobby horse) clearing up litter. Or voters might decide even this opportunity is one they wish to spurn. Cynicism born of false dawns and many disappointments leads me to suspend judgement until some feedback comes in from those pilot experiments, but I'm fascinated to see if they work or not.

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