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Con-sultation: Opening up democracy in Sheffield

The recent consultation on creating school places in Sheffield was controversial and possibly illegal. There's a feeling that the Council made up their minds a long time ago, but this might be more about how we do democracy than the consultation being a con. There's no doubt that more school places are needed. There's no doubt people across the board want the best education. There's no doubt that money is tight. Beyond that is a storm of argument. In the middle of this storm is the Council, which has to steer a course to a decision. That might be fine if all the arguments about direction were out in the open. The schools decision has seen plenty of discussions that were half, or completely, hidden from public view. There is the conflict between Sheffield Diocese, who want to expand faith-based primary places, and a sceptical Council prepared to pay twice the price for expanding on a primary site it can control. Two new secondary schools are to be built, changing the balance of where pupils go across the city. Headmasters and academy sponsors are lobbying hard to get what they see as the best outcome. One of the schools will share a site with housing, gaining the Council a couple of million pounds, but cutting the space for the new school in half. The Council has navigated to a decision, but steering by stars the rest of us don't see. When councillors come from their closed meetings, or closed email exchanges, or closed conversations in corridors, they confidently vote en masse and mystify the public. To understand why, we can turn to studies of democracy. In his excellent book on how cities solve problems, Xavier Briggs found that people in power liked discussions behind closed doors. The great and the good could talk and bargain without worrying about screaming headlines in the morning papers. At first they had their heels dug in, but as they met each other again and again, trust was built up. Slowly but surely, they came to an agreement. The same process helped secure peace in Northern Ireland, when news of open talks between the Government and the IRA would have generated tabloid outrage. The corridors of power have long been a place for quiet discussions between wise statesmen. But hold on. Is a discussion over school places really like peace talks with armed extremists? Didn't trusting wise old men go out the window with the Suez Crisis, Harold Shipman, the Wizard of Oz? When reasons for decisions are hidden from view, there can be no argument against them. Questions that could make a decision better are never asked, and when the wrong decision is made, we all suffer. Sheffield has a proud history of challenging outdated democracy. The failure over street trees, schools and other issues is a signal for change once again. A senior councillor recently shrugged at an injustice caused by the timing of council meetings, saying, "There's nothing I can do. That's just how the system works". The mocking reply came from the public benches, “It’s your system”. While there are limits, the Council could make changes to improve many of its processes. Discussion can be made public by holding meetings in public, broadcasting them, or publishing minutes wherever possible. Changes could be made to scrutiny boards, allowing the right to reply, or including nominated community representatives. Community observers could act to scrutinise meetings and help out a stretched Council, acting as a channel to the wider public. It’s not just the Council, of course. The government would like to take schools away from local authorities and take parent governors off school boards. Some like the idea of ‘taking the politics out’ of services. But that is no good if the discussion over decisions disappears from public view, lost in private meetings and blacked out paperwork. That is where our democracy fails. We need to exchange the gossip of the elite for the democratic rights of citizens. To make public the reasons for any decision, because those reasons cannot be made public, they are not suitable for a decision that affects the public. We need to commit our representatives to “no discussion about us, without us”. That might take time, but it’s a course well worth steering. Further reading: Xavier Briggs, Democracy As Problem Solving James Bohman, Deliberative Democracy sheffieldfordemocracy.wordpress.com )

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