Monday, 4 May 2009

Pipe smokes democracy

Mayor Jules Pipe sounded so convincing when he rubbished democracy improving attempts by Hackney and other councils it hardly seemed worth revisiting the subject. But a quick look at some of the data available suggests he may have been cherry-picking.

At 29 April's full council meeting Pipe said that past efforts to interest Hackney residents in grass-roots budgeting had failed. He also said that this route for improving local democracy could end up costing taxpayers on several fronts as budgets were left unspent and pavements in disrepair led to increased insurance claims.

The mayor said that there was no evidence that past and ongoing experiments in devolved budgeting had led to improved democracy or interest in how the borough was run.

He said it had been tried in 1990: "Five neighbourhoods were given £100,000 and every year we ended up with the money unspent in a number of neighbourhoods." He said that this and other attempts to devolve budget decision making "didn't strengthen democracy in any way whatever."

One of the examples he used to strengthen his argument was Kirkless Council's devolved budget scheme and many of the negative figures he used - £600,000 was unspent in 2007/2008, some wards have £2m back-logs on pavement budgets and projects are often held back by disagreements between different parties in the same wards - were discussed in this Kirklees Council document: Safer Stronger Communities Scrutiny Panel

The final line of the documents findings is: "In the main, the practice of devolving decision-making to wards has been useful and in most cases the full allocation has been spent." Not at all the view of Mayor Pipe.

His negative view of these projects was based mainly on the belief that they didn't create the desired democratic interest.

However the report in the above link appeared to state the opposite - with cross party bickering causing problems, not disinterest. More to the point Kirklees is a Labour/Liberal led council and more likely to face these political disputes than Labour dominated Hackney. Unless Pipe thinks this process might cause rifts between his councillors.

The growth in democratic understanding also seems to be backed by this report from 2006 : "Many councils have established relatively small-scale (generally under £100,000 per area) local project budgets to be allocated by area committees. These have proved popular with councillors and community representatives alike as they represent direct decision making by frontline councillors with their communities. But they can be problematic in that they can detract frontline councillors into time-consuming allocations of small funds rather than working to influence mainstream decision making."

No doubt Mayor Pipe's response was well researched and probably based on more up-to-date information. But judging by the superficial google-searched documents I could find it looks like he's just plucked a few bad bits out to make a point he wanted to make anyway. If so, why?

If these projects don't work, where's the proof? Or is he saying that Kirklees Council can't accept that their project has failed and its leaders are deluding themselves?

Pipe was responding to a question from Conservative leader, Cllr Coggins: "What is the Mayor's attitude to 'ward budgets'? (see for example the arrangements in Brent, Westminster, Eastbourne and other authorities).

Pipe said he wanted to encourage people to understand the council decision making process and that "we are developing our approach to participatory budgeting" but it would depend on those people who want to get involved having a better understanding.

But he said the main hurdle to getting this process underway was a technical one: "We haven't done participatory budgeting sooner because this council sets it budget extremely late, usually the paper work is available in January and it would need to be available around October to be able to go to the public with ideas and gauge their reaction and involve them in the decision making process."

So no plans for grass-roots democracy in Hackney at the moment.

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