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The jury’s out on citizens' juries

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

“People power: residents given direct say in local government”, splashed The Times.

“Brits set to get… their say on local budgets and planning”, said The Sun.

As far as making headlines in August goes, an idea to get residents to sit on citizens’ juries and discuss key local decisions certainly did the job.

But if you hoped the government’s Civil Society Strategy would contain any great detail about how these juries, to be piloted in six places, would operate and what their remit would be you would have been disappointed. It was noticeable, though, that there was nothing in today’s announcement to suggest citizens’ juries will get to review decisions taken by ministers either. How convenient.

Despite putting a number of questions to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, which co-ordinated the publication of the strategy, about how the juries will work, the best LGC got was a steer that they will “primarily” look at planning applications.

If that’s the case, it will be interesting to see how they work alongside the housing delivery test outlined in the revised National Planning Policy Framework. LGC previously reported how Lord Porter (Con), chair of the Local Government Association, said the new housing delivery test “punishes communities for homes not built by private developers”.

If juries disagree with approved planning applications, where will that leave councils? As Tom McLaren, a Conservative councillor on Brentwood BC, said in a Twitter thread on the topic: “Could Nimby’s hold the whole borough hostage?”

As it happens a real-life citizens’ jury is due to meet tomorrow to decide on the location of a new hospital in Gloucestershire. The BBC reported last week how the jury will vote on a preferred location for the site but its decision will not be binding on authorities.

If a jury’s decision is not binding, what is the point of convening it? It essentially ends up becoming a glorified focus group.

Actually, that was a criticism levelled at Gordon Brown who as prime minister used citizens’ juries to try to engage voters by running potential policies past people before deciding whether to adopt or ditch them. The concept came in for a lot of criticism at the time, not least from the opposition.

A Conservative party spokesman was quoted in a BBC report from September 2007 saying: “We believe that real reform requires more than holding focus groups. We believe it means the genuine return of power to citizens, such as directly elected police commissioners, scrapping unelected regional quangos and freeing local councils from the grip of Whitehall.”

Indeed! If only the Conservatives, having been in power for almost a decade, would free local councils from the grip of Whitehall.

As Cheltenham BC councillor Max Wilkinson (Lib Dem) said on Twitter: “Why is it that the government seems to be willing to consider everything apart from empowering and resourcing existing local councils to have a greater positive impact on their communities?”

Today’s strategy said the government wants to “devolve more power to community groups and parishes”. But rather than transferring powers from central government, it suggests what local authorities could hand over to parish councils and community groups instead.

There’s nothing wrong with this – indeed, it is to be encouraged where appropriate and there are already some good examples of where this is taking place. But it is a bit rich for the government to bang on about how it wants to “give people back a sense of control” as many “feel disenfranchised and disempowered” only to decide that mantra does not apply to Whitehall. 

The government is right though: people do feel removed from the powers-that-be. But giving a small number a say (and potentially one that is not binding) over a few planning applications is hardly going to change that.

As former housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid said in December 2016: “In the EU referendum the British people sent a clear message that they wanted more control over their lives, that they felt disconnected from democracy when governed by a distant elite. That means there’s no point in us taking power back from Brussels only to hoard it in Westminster.

“If we’re serious about re-enfranchising Britain and delivering sustained economic growth in communities right across the country, we have to give real power to the people affected most by decisions on everything from housing to healthcare.”

Unless local areas are given “real power” over all of their affairs they will not be able to bring about the changes their communities want and need. If places are not able to do that then people will continue to feel disenfranchised, disempowered and disconnected. And look where that’s got us.

David Paine, acting news editor

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