In January, WBC Leader Clive Jones heralded a ‘new approach’ to the way the Borough Council draws up its strategy and policies. Partnership with ‘interested parties’ will ‘shape the council’s strategy over the coming years’, he told us, announcing a series of meetings with them. These interested parties won’t just advise or be consulted by the Council, they will be ‘involved’, he said, in ‘shaping a vision jointly authored by a range of interested parties’.
Now we might think that it’s our collective decision, as Wokingham Borough voters, on who we elect to run our Council that shapes the Council’s strategy. But no, it’s time to make room for ‘interested parties’, according to the LibDem Council Leader, in Wokingham Today, 26th January.
So who are they? Jones listed them as:- ‘Town and parish councils, voluntary bodies, equalities groups, businesses, faith groups, schools, young people (NB: not ‘old people’ or ‘middle-aged people’) and yes… Reading University. In a follow-up article, he added to the list ‘representatives from the police, fire and health services, the probation service, tenant volunteers, and sport and leisure’. The Borough Council, Jones said, were there as ‘an equal partner with the other bodies'.
What came out of their first meeting? In Wokingham Today 2nd February, Jones spoke of commitment to ‘developing the creative industries’ (a plug for the university’s Shinfield Studios?), ‘technology for the common good’, ‘tackling poverty’, and ‘developing a more inclusive society’.
All very fine, but surely there are questions to be asked about what was going on here:- Who exactly made those commitments? In what legislative framework, if any? What status do commitments made at these meetings actually have? How do they relate to policy decisions adopted by elected councillors?
And were ‘commitments’ made to the basic things we expect the Council to provide? Like keeping the roads in good repair, engaging with the NHS Healthcare authority to provide enough GPs, ensuring adequate refuse collection, etc., etc. No, nothing like that was mentioned in Jones’ Wokingham Today piece. Fair enough, he couldn’t give a full report in a fairly short newspaper contribution. So can we look on the Council’s website to find out what actually took place in these discussions?
Unlike with normal Council meetings, the WBC ‘meetings’ page has nothing relating to the Council’s recent confabs with the so-called interested parties, no agenda, no minutes, no video recording. No mention of it on the ‘latest news’ page either. All rather mysterious. We might have thought that our LibDems’ 2022 election commitment to openness in local government meant something, but not in this case, it seems.
Or can we be a bit more charitable? What WBC might be doing is heeding calls for wider engagement in local government policy-forming. This idea has been around for quite some time. Starting about 20 years ago, an initiative was launched by Whitehall to consider ‘new forms of participatory governance… aimed at strengthening citizen participation and reconnecting citizens to the state’, according to a report to the British government in 2004, called ‘Representation, Community Leadership and Participation: Citizen Involvement in Neighbourhood Renewal and Local Governance.’
The participatory governance idea might sound attractive, but in fact the report highlighted a basic problem with citizen participation, and it affects what the LibDems are trying to do. In a representative democracy, empowering unelected groups so that they can influence policy decisions can clash with the decision-making role of democratically elected councillors. The report quotes an earlier study putting in different words the key questions I bolded earlier in this article:
How is a community to initiate its own projects and articulate its needs without challenging the authority of local government – and who then represents the community? What is a community forum worth if it has no power to command attention: and if it has such power, will it not undermine the rights of elected government?
So I think Clive Jones needs to explain a whole lot better what he is doing in giving the right to unelected groups, selected in quite unclear ways, to jointly ‘shape our borough’s future’, as he puts it. I would even doubt whether he has that right to start with. He and other councillors are elected representatives of local people. Their job involves respecting policy pledges that they made to voters. If that does not happen, the voters must be completely free to shape the borough’s future at the ballot box, the way they want. They - you and I - are the true ‘interested parties’ in a representative democracy. Our votes should decide whose policies will be followed. Our freedom to decide must not be cut back so as to empower an array of lobbyists and interest groups, as the LibDems seem to want.
Elections are the one time local politicians really have to listen to us, because our votes can decide whether they'll still have the job, the day after the ballot. Could that perhaps be a reason to bypass voter democracy, and give the power of influence to ‘interested parties’? Let's hope not.