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Stainless Steel Democracy: The case for moving power to neighbourhoods

Imagine if we, the people of Sheffield, could redesign the constitution of our city from scratch. I know this seems crazy. Who would let us do such a thing? But just imagine.

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Photo by Joao Marcelo Martins on Unsplash.

Sheffield has a population of well over half a million, twice the size of Iceland. Iceland has a President, a Prime Minister, a Parliament, an independent judiciary, 78 municipalities with significantly devolved power, and a written constitution. Why does Sheffield not have the same?

Throughout the ages, cities have had constitutions and it is cities that have given us our most vivid images of what a democracy looks like.

By historical and international standards UK democracy looks pretty rusty. Few of us are involved in our democratic systems and decisions seem to suit the interests of a small group. What passes as political debate is a pantomime organised by the national media and modern-day press barons. Balance, facts or the interests of the majority play little part in what passes for modern politics.

What would a stainless steel democracy look like? Here are some possibilities.

Neighbourhoods would be real and people could meet, debate, decide and act together. By one count, Sheffield has 142 neighbourhoods with an average of about 2,000 households each. Couldn't we try out some real neighbourhood democracy, where everyone can be involved? The argument that only the clever ones, the children of Eton and Oxford, can be trusted with democracy looks pretty dubious these days.

We have so many different ways to connect, to talk, to decide things. Digital technology allows almost all, although not quite everyone, to connect. But there are also lots of other ways people can debate options and decide what needs to be voted on. The Festival of Debate, running online this year until early July, has already demonstrated that there is a real appetite for meaningful, meaty discussion in Sheffield.

What about laws for Sheffield? When the world needs to move away from pollution, carbon emissions and our crazy reliance on war-inciting petroleum, why can't we start taking our own radical actions? We could legislate for green spaces, cycle paths, local green energy, local trading, energy conservation, the end of toxic pesticides. Can we, the people, be trusted to protect the world for our children's sake? We're certainly much less likely to be in the pocket of fossil fuel companies or big business.

What about local taxes? One of the reasons that we remain in our frozen state of passivity is that the UK's tax collection and public spending system is so staggeringly centralised. When local government tries to act independently, to resist austerity or just go its own way, central government can exercise enormous financial power to make it compliant. This is despite that fact that - when you look at the details - it's all a big hoax. Places like Sheffield don't benefit from extra resources. Instead we are losers. We never get a fair slice of the national cake.

Democracies are created by the weak and the powerless in order to challenge their exploitation, but somehow we've forgotten this fact. Some of my friends on the Left even fear that more democracy in Sheffield will harm the worst-off places at the expense of the better-off. This is an important concern, but given how dreadful the current situation is, surely the status quo is no answer.

Interestingly the designers of Athenian democracy took these issues so seriously that they organised systems so that people from different areas and with different levels of wealth had to collaborate. They invented tribes for Athens. Within each they mixed people from different neighbourhoods and then the tribes would take turns in carrying out specific civil duties. In this way people from different backgrounds would meet, compare perspectives and make decisions.

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Amy-Grace Whillans-Welldrake's Closer To Home report examines devolution and neighbourhood democracy in Greater Manchester (credit: Centre for Welfare Reform).

The great weakness of UK democracy could also present us with an important opportunity. Currently we have no neighbourhood democracy, but that also means we can create any system of neighbourhood democracy we like. We are free from the constraints of the past. We can create systems with high levels of participation, a focus on caring for the environment and for each other. We can network and connect neighbourhoods, share out tasks and collaborate. We can tap into the depth of talent in the city to solve our real problems.

None of this can be against the law, because there is no law to break.

The Centre for Welfare Reform has just published a new report, Closer to Home. It examines recent devolution in Manchester and finds an appetite to move power and control much closer to local communities. The report also outlines a range of possible models being used around the world, including just up the road in Barnsley.

This not a fantasy. Many of the changes described can be achieved now. If we begin to take the climate crisis as seriously as the COVID-19 crisis then we will find that local neighbourhood strategies on nature, food, energy, housing and transport can rapidly transform our communities.

Let's not wait for others to tell us what to do. Let's begin the process of change now. Let's start bringing back power to our own neighbourhoods by working together as citizens to tackle the real problems we face today.

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