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As discussion titles go, could there be any more ominous than that containing the phrase: “the deepening crisis of liberal democracy”?
This was the challenge levelled at councils in a group of discussions at the LGC Summit in Manchester last week.
In a ‘must read’ editorial for LGC written prior to the summit, Kensington & Chelsea RBC chief executive Barry Quirk and RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor wrote of the need for local government to “understand and live up to the responsibility and opportunity that lies with local government in these perilous times”.
Council directors were asked to discuss three important questions: 1) how can local government make a difference to our democratic culture; 2) what should it “re-imagine” to defend that culture; and 3) what is working well in terms of civic engagement and empowerment?
The responses were many and varied, a few of which we have condensed below.
Interestingly, almost all of the 10 groups of chiefs and senior directors agreed on the importance of dialogue with communities to drive better civic engagement.
One group mentioned the need to “properly engage with the public in setting the vision for the place”, while another group called for “authentic dialogue, meaningful engagement and smarter use of digital.”
A third suggested councils “humbly enquire” on how they can help with civil activity, while also bringing in “genuine citizen engagement early on” in any decision-making process.
Following on from this concept, another common theme lay in the importance of working with communities - and the need to create events that can foster better functioning societies.
Engagement, it was suggested on more than one occasion, becomes more successful when councils act through existing groups and events, such as fireworks displays, sports clubs, and friends of parks groups, instead of setting up new structures.
“Go where people are, don’t make them come us - see what’s happening in nail bars and barbers,” one response suggested.
Defenders of democracy
When thinking about what the sector has to do, or re-imagine, in order to defend democratic and civic culture, respondents’ views varied from the need to “speak with a consistent, coherent voice” to a (one suspects, mischevious) call to “get rid of all councillors as they are a barrier to democracy”.
Yet despite this variance, there were several calls for councils to become the “defenders” or “advocates” for their place.
The means for how this place could be represented was most contested. One response called for an “elected mayor for every area”, while another suggested greater devolution to parish councils.
Yet perhaps the most radical proposal was the need for local government to “become an equal partner” with central government and “avoid the burden of competing with one another along geographical or sectoral lines”.
On this point, Mr Quirk and Mr Taylor had previously written that councils must be “ever more proactive in collaborating to achieve effectiveness and to deal with the huge leakage and spill-over effects (across their boundaries) of local economic, housing and other policies.”
And if our liberal democracy is to survive the coming ’fourth industrial revolution’ all while in the face of a “deepening crisis”, there was certainly widespread agreement that councils would be best placed to look to their friends to help avert disaster.
By Robert Cusack, reporter