With voter turnout at record lows, several councils are searching further afield for effective ways to address the democratic deficit. One idea, that comes all the way from Brazil, is participatory budgeting. Its name may not roll off the tongue, but the idea is simple - and bringing a range of benefits to those bold enough to try it.
Under the scheme, community groups meet with officers to discuss local priorities. Then, they are invited to present their proposals in front of a public audience, which decides which projects should be funded. It may sound like giving away the keys of the town hall, but 300 local authorities are using it worldwide.
And people are also more honest about what their proposals will cost, and what they will achieve. The only negative feedback has been people wishing more money was available.
1 Build a strong brand
Encouraging communities to take part in a new scheme is never easy, and the name 'participatory budgeting' certainly will not help.
'It is not the most palatable of terms,' admits Neil Smith, a policy officer at Newcastle City Council, which last year under participatory budgeting gave£60,000 to its cleaner, safer, greener communities programme and its scheme for children and young people.
However, the council thought giving it a strong brand that came from the community would make it more effective. The result was the scheme U-Decide, which was designed by and for Newcastle's local residents.
Involving the community has paid off. In an evaluation of a recent 'decision day,' when residents vote on budget proposals, more than 70% thought U-Decide was good for the neighbourhood. They saw it as a way of getting residents involved in the community and said they would take part in the process again.
What's more, it did not just attract the same old familiar faces; 40% of those residents who attended had not previously taken part in community events.
Mr Smith is convinced of the benefits of participatory budgeting in Newcastle. He says its transparency means myths about how money is spent are avoided. And because voting is done electronically and on-the-spot, it speeds up the process.
The policy officer enthuses: 'It's quicker and having been involved in the decision making, people feel better about themselves and their community.'
2 Do not underestimate community interest
Neither Wrexham CBC nor the Welsh Assembly could be tempted to pilot a participatory budget scheme in north Wales. Instead two local community organisations stepped forward to give it a try.
Coedpoeth Community Council saw it as a way to improve local democracy. 'Most of our own councillors are co-opted, so are they truly representative and making the right decisions?' asks Peter Webber, its chairman.
Community organisation, Together Creating Communities helped the council set it up and ran it in a local junior school.
'We felt it would be a useful part of educating young people about citizenship,' explains Mr Webber. 'It was very interesting - the children came up with the same ideas.'
The main idea to arise was a pedestrian crossing, but the budget could not stretch to it. But the community council is still trying to respond to local opinion by getting one eventually.
There have been other benefits as well, adds Mr Webber. People have started to talk to each another, which has produced other ideas to improve the village. Several local voluntary groups, like Help the Aged, are also planning to use the system, and it is hoped a participatory budget organiser will encourage other communities in the area to follow suit.
3 Give it time to work
The process needs time to become effective, says Dave Logan, the acting operations manager at Sunderland New Deal for Communities - one of the first areas to pilot a participatory budget.
The£54m regeneration programme has used it to distribute£100,000 through its
People's Fund and an additional£50,000 has been allocated for each of the programme's remaining four years.
'At first, people didn't have the experience of sitting on panels and they didn't feel comfortable making decisions that affected their community, but after several rounds of practice, decision making has improved,' he recalls.
Initially, Mr Logan explains, people voted on emotional grounds, backing the projects they liked. But now residents put what he says is 'maturity' into their decisions by looking at need rather than want and voting for projects that benefit the most.
'The process has grown and evolved; it needed that lead-in,' he says.
The Participatory Budget Unit helps schemes get established. It was set up by Church Action on Poverty to help communities trial participatory budgets by giving technical and practical support.
4 Consider different models
Salford City Council has devolved budgets to its local communities since 1999/2000. Every year the council distributes what is now£40,000-£70,000 (£2.50 per head of population) to each of its eight community committees, where councillors and residents decide on priorities in their areas.
Purists may feel the involvement of councillors means it is not a true participatory budget. 'Legally speaking councillors make the decisions,' admits neighbourhood manager Mick Walbank, 'but unless councillors veto them then it is the community committee, which only has one or two councillors, that decides.'
Models do not have to be the same and there are other salient features of the Salford budget. 'The money we allocate is not time-limited, it is not regeneration money and some of it runs from year to year,' adds Mr Walbank. 'This provides community organisations with security and a platform on which to develop.'
As budgets have increased, says Mr Walbank, committees have got more strategic. Instead of leaning towards 'reactive small grant funding' they are more proactive and paying for projects to address crime and disorder, childcare or the environment.
5 get councillors involved
As a new way of allocating money, some councillors may be sceptical of participatory budgets, so its important to get them on board.
'We had to convince people it was a robust process,' says Pam Hardisty, director of neighbourhood renewal at Bradford Vision, the city's local strategic partnership (LSP). Since 2004 it has allocated more than£1m for participatory budget-run projects.
Councillors were worried the budgets did not make financial sense, Ms Hardisty says. 'Everyone is concerned about value for money, especially when resources are tight,' she adds.
To alleviate concerns, councillors were invited to watch the process in action, funding applicants were told they had to work with existing partnerships, and the LSP made sure projects were supported and monitored.
It allows councillors to take a greater role in their wards by influencing the budget available and broadly how it is spent.
'Not all members think participatory budgets are a good idea,' admits Ms Hardisty. But by encouraging people with ideas to come forward, she says, it is re-engaging people in local democracy.
Find out more
Coedpoeth Community Council Peter Webber, chair. Tel: 01978 755 857
Together Creating Communities Chris Pilsbury, organiser. Tel: 01978 262 588
Newcastle City Council Neil Smith, policy officer. Tel: 0191 211 5893
Salford City Council Mick Walbank.
Tel: 0161 789 4008
Sunderland New Deal for communities Dave Logan, acting operations manager. Tel: 0191 568 9311
Participatory Budgeting Unit
Tel: 0161 236 9321 or email:
Bradford Vision Pam Hardisty, director of neighbourhood renewal. Tel: 01274 431 277