Section 4: Do people want more control over decisions that affect their community?
This section describes what people said in response to the DM question:
Would you like your local community or community of interest to have more control over some decisions? If yes, what sorts of issues would those decisions cover?
The clear evidence from the submissions to DM is that people do want to have more control of decisions on issues that matter to them. This is particularly the case for decisions that are seen to directly affect communities, the control of which should be exercised more locally. The vast majority of submissions expressed views that demonstrate a strong desire for a change to the status quo.
There were some responses that described concerns; people who felt that control should not be devolved. For some, this concern was rooted in a worry that the responsibility involved in taking control of decisions was too much to ask of people, and a concern about, or a lack of confidence in, the capacity of communities to hold that responsibility. Some people were worried about how to respond to people’s demands, and being held accountable for meeting them – as reflected in this quote from a community conversation: “We don’t want control of libraries – everyone would want them open all the time.” Others raised concerns about how national standards or equalities would be maintained if power was devolved.
It was clear, however, that what people understood by the term ‘control’ varied. Control was understood in terms of different kinds of participation in decision-making. For some this was about being able to give their views as part of decisions being made, and to have some influence. People wanted their input to lead to what they saw as better decisions that led to practical action that improved their community.
For some while expressing a wish for more control, it prompted them to ask what was meant by control:
“Are we talking about communities making the decisions or just ‘being involved in’ the decision-making? Where does ownership begin and end?”
At the other end, submissions were clear that it was about communities having the power and the resources to make decisions themselves. The different expressions of control in submissions can be described broadly in terms of:
- Influence – having a voice in, and an impact on, decision-making.
- Transparency and accountability – public authorities being transparent about their decisions and communities being able to hold them to account for those decisions.
- Authority – having the authority and resources to take decisions.
The idea of influence described in submission was circumstances that allowed people to make a meaningful contribution to decisions that affected their lives. They contrasted that with any process that they experienced as a ‘tick-box exercise’. People want their voices to make a difference to the decisions that are taken. The following extracts from two submissions illustrates that view:
“We wish our voices to be heard.” (asylum seeking group)
“We want to have a say in local issues and also have the ability to feed into bigger issues.” (women’s group)
What came through very strongly was that people want to have more influence about what happens in their communities. The current approach of consultations does not give people influence; one person noted “Whilst people have taken part … many still are of the opinion that they are not listened to, and this is process rather than progress.”
Transparency and accountability
The theme of transparency and accountability was a very strong one throughout the submissions. People wanted public bodies and elected representatives to communicate honestly and directly. Formal and statutory arrangements for accountability did not seem to translate into the way people experienced public services. There was a sense this should be done as a principle, to demonstrate accountability by public authorities to the communities they served.
But there were also practical reasons given for this accountability. There was understanding that decisions are difficult and that not everyone will be happy, but that communities wanted, and needed, to have information that helped them understand the reasons for any particular decision. These extracts illustrate this perspective:
“Listen to people, explain to locals why things can’t be done.”
“Those at the meeting did not want to have to make all these decisions themselves, but they wanted those in decision-making roles to be more accountable.” (community conversation)
There were submissions from a range of different communities of place and of interest or identity that explicitly supported communities taking direct control of local decisions. This centred on having the authority to take those decisions and the associated resources, and budget, that would allow those decisions to be put into action. The costs of this change were also recognised: that investment in supporting this change, capacity-building and infrastructure to support communities would also be necessary. At the regional events, some felt that communities with authority over certain decisions would be well placed to also exert influence over, and hold to account, existing decision-makers.
“Communities should have more control over decisions and/or services in their local area.” (community conversation)
“We need both ‘purse strings and the rubber stamp’ locally in order to make decisions – i.e., control over budget and the authority to make the final decision.” (community conversation)
“Local Democracy must come with a budget.” (community conversation)
What outcomes would greater community involvement bring?
Some submissions were able to describe a range of outcomes that communities felt would come from greater involvement and the ability to exercise control over decisions. This was also explored specifically as a discussion topic at the regional events. Most participants had a clear sense of what they would like done differently and were able to express the associated benefits.
Outcomes described covered the benefits from being involved (process), and in the impact in communities. The ‘process’ benefits were often described in terms of values that people wanted to see expressed and embodied in the way in which decisions were taken. They also spoke to the impact involvement would have on communities own ‘sense of self’. The benefits described included:
- Increasing the self-confidence of communities and their sense of worth
- Building the resilience of communities; greater connection and less isolation between community members
- Tapping into innovation and creativity in communities to tackle local issues
- Making tailored decisions to meet different needs of communities
- Increased trust in democracy/decision-making. Less cynicism
- Greater transparency in decision-making, better understanding of decisions
- Decisions based on local knowledge and understanding
- More people will get involved. Getting more young people involved.
- New relationship between state and citizen; between communities and public services/government
The substantive impacts included:
- A more democratic and cohesive society
- Less bureaucracy and red tape
- More efficient and effective services which better meet the needs of communities
- Health and well-being of communities
- A broad range of improvements to quality of life
- Getting things done – communities able to act more swiftly, more agile and flexible
- Local economic development
What issues do people want control over?
Across the responses as a whole, communities expressed an appetite and ambition for greater involvement in, or control of, decisions on nearly every policy issue for which public authorities have responsibility. In general, it could be seen that the issues identified largely reflected the lived experience and concerns of the specific community of place and/or community of interest or identity.
For some communities, their responses related to very specific issues and concerns that affected the quality of their daily lives in relation to for example, issues of disadvantage and discrimination, inclusion, negative aspects of their local physical and social environment, the quality of their public housing, their access to and use of specific public services.
For other communities, their responses were more about contributing to decisions that would benefit the wider community, meet community wishes and needs, support the social and physical regeneration of their local area. Some of the issues that were identified more frequently were as follows:
Examples of local issues
Community policing: including strategies, community safety
Education: including placements, how schools are run, engaging parents
Environmental maintenance: including dog fouling, litter, cleanliness, fly-tipping, waste collection and recycling
Health and social care provision
Leisure programmes and community services
Local activities and opportunities for children and young people
Physical environment and regeneration: including housing, derelict buildings, gap sites
Planning and development
Public transport: including availability, scheduling and timetabling, siting of bus stops, bus routes
Roads: including general maintenance and potholes, speed limits, traffic calming, cycling provision, gritting and snow clearance, parking availability and charges
The majority of responses indicate that communities want to see changes to how they are involved in decisions that affect their community. There is not support for the status quo. These changes cover, in summary:
- To be treated better by public authorities – a change in culture and behaviour about involving communities in decisions.
- To be better connected – within communities (pooling knowledge and resources); and with decision-makers.
- To be able to participate in decisions about their community; and, for some, that meant to have control over decisions (with the associated resources/budget).
- For decisions that affect their community to be based on knowledge and experience, which lead to action that improves their lives.