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Would a permanent citizens' forum transform democracy in Sheffield?

One of London's most deprived boroughs has asked a panel of residents to explore local problems and come up with solutions. What could Sheffield learn from this?

Sheffield town hall staircase

Sheffield Town Hall.

Meehowu at Wikimedia Commons.

In July this year, 50 randomly-selected residents in Newham took part in the first meeting of a unique project to improve democratic engagement in one of London's most deprived boroughs.

They were taking part in the UK's first permanent Citizens' Assembly – a rotating panel of residents that will advise Newham Council on issues that are important to them.

Chosen by popular vote among all the borough's residents, the first issue Newham's assembly are looking at is how to create more green spaces in the ex-industrial area of east London.

As with temporary Citizens' Assemblies, which have covered issues ranging from climate breakdown to a UK constitution, participants will hear from a range of experts on the subject before coming up with a set of recommendations to put to the council.

Participants are paid £330 to take part in each session of the assembly, which runs over three weekends and three weekday evenings.

“This is an important step in our plans to continue to encourage and empower residents to work with the council to co-design plans and services, develop ideas and have their voices heard," said Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz in July.

"This Standing Citizens’ Assembly forms a crucial part of our plans to deepen participation and democracy at all levels across the borough, involve people in decisions, and to continue to rebuild trust in the council.

"We are putting Newham on the map as a beacon of participatory democracy in this country."

In Sheffield, our own council are championing a series of Local Area Committees (LACs), which were created in response to a debate on local democracy connecting to the street tree scandal.

Unlike in Newham, the seven LACs – which each represent around 100,000 people – are made up of existing local councillors rather than members of the public.

It's unclear so far how the LACs will differ from traditional council meetings in the Town Hall or how they will devolve power from councillors to communities.

Angela Fell, of the recently-launched Neighbourhood Democracy Movement, has 30 years' experience working on participatory democracy projects on the ground.

She told me that although citizens' assemblies are based on the idea that participants selected at random will reflect the population as a whole, this isn't always the case.

"If you look at the Constitutional Convention in Ireland, members were unpaid," she said. "While the assembly on Democracy in the UK [a project run by UCL] is paid, the time commitment at weekends often excludes people who have to work weekends or who have caring responsibilities.

"They can unintentionally filter out all but those who are already politically engaged, and who have secure enough work and home conditions to enable participation. Class can be an oversight."

Fell believes that, while calls by campaigners for more Citizens' Assemblies at a national level on climate breakdown "can only be a good thing", the tools of participatory democracy have yet to be perfected.

"There’s the worry that permanent Citizens' Assemblies could be adopted at scale by local authorities as the option, rather than as an option within a range of local power sharing approaches."

Anger over the street tree fiasco has led to a surge in interest in more participatory forms of democratic engagement in Sheffield, leading to both the LACs and the It's Our City! movement for a committee-based council.

Another attempt to try out a different model of decision-making is New Constellations, whose launch generated a small amount of backlash as reported in the Sheffield Tribune this week.

All of these projects, to a greater or lesser degree, challenge the hierarchical structure of representative democracy, which many Sheffield residents feel let them down badly over street trees.

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Sheffield's Local Area Committees (LACs) represent as many as 100,000 residents each.

Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash.

This winter, and with a new group of participants, Newham's assembly will explore its second topic. Residents will discuss how to create a '15-minute neighbourhood' in the borough, where all citizens are within walking or cycling distance of essential services.

With the project still in its infancy, it's yet to be seen whether it has the potential to permanently shift power away from the Town Hall and towards local neighbourhoods in an era of ongoing cuts to council budgets.

Fell believes that projects like Newham's – which for all the lofty rhetoric still sit within a more traditional council structure – could act as a stepping stone to something more radical and ambitious.

"From the viewpoint of neighbourhood democracy, and the aim to support the growth of welcoming and inclusive neighbourhoods that decide and act together, perhaps people's assemblies and community assemblies may be the ground out of which truly representative citizen assemblies' can grow?"

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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