Why I...believe that street elections could boost local democracy

March 31, 2000

On paper, the government is committed to revitalising neighbourhoods in a "community-led" way. But community consultation can end up as nothing more than the local authorities' equivalent of market-testing and focus groups.

We need a real sharing of power between elected councillors and directly elected representatives of local communities. Devolved, street-level democracy, drawing on the insights of people who live in poor, run-down areas, could help to address local needs.

If the community was given real resources this would help overcome the demoralisation that exists in many of the poorest estates or cities. Undoubtedly, a genuine sharing of power would threaten the powers that be in local and national government - but democracy is always uncertain and untidy.

Several conditions need to be met before people are likely to take community involvement seriously. Time and money must be put into the process if it is to involve everyone rather than simply council-annointed cliques. This is why street-based coordinators are a possible way forward.

There has to be a real redistribution of wealth to address the poverty that makes participation almost impossible. There is always a danger that the community is asked to provide answers to a problem that requires a national solution. An increase in benefits would help transform life in poor areas.

Time is also a crucial resource. It is all very well for Tony Blair to bang on about volunteering. The government should back legislation to shorten the working week. Many people are too stressed to be as community-spirited as they would like.

The sharing of power should go to the centre of local government decision-making; the budgetary process must be democratised if community-led revitalisation is to mean anything. Our government is not suggesting anything so radical. I hope this devolution of power is not treated in the same way as devolution in Wales and London - giving power with one hand and seeking to control it with the other.

Real devolution is allowing people to have power and to use it as they decide. Street-level democracy would be a further step in devolving power from the centre.

Hilary Wainwright

Editor of Red Pepper and senior research associate with the International Centre for Labour Studies at Manchester University

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