It looks great on paper to put more power into the hands of local communities away from faceless bureaucrats higher up the political food chain. Most people really welcome the move away from centralised budgets and policy making, devolving decision-making to the lowest possible level, closest to ordinary people.
The big problem is that ordinary people – those communities who have been more or less taken for granted by politicians over the years – aren’t used to being asked directly what they want, much less having the information at their fingertips to make an informed decision.
You put up exhibitions, have a public meeting, send out a questionnaire, organise a leaflet drop to local households – but is that really engaging the whole range of the community?
The suspicion is that the people who respond to such initiatives are the same ones who always respond to every consultation or poll. Being blunt, these are predominantly older people with more time on their hands. They’re probably a bit better off than average. They may come from professional or managerial backgrounds, and so are used to speaking up in public and sounding plausible. Men tend to predominate. (I fit most of those categories by the way). I’m generalising of course, but the view is based on a certain amount of people-watching over the years.
There is a big swathe of the population – particularly the younger generation and the working families on limited means – who are simply by-passed by the traditional communication channels: they are not carefully reading leaflets, checking consultation documents, keeping up with the local press, looking on notice boards.
Meantime, around town, there are rumblings of discontent, feelings of not being listened to, never being told anything. Sometimes those grievances are fair, sometimes not: but the point is, if that’s what people believe, that’s their truth. Living in the dark is fertile territory for conspiracy theories and the gossip-mill. And we all know where that leads.
If this Localism thing is going to work, we have to find other ways to talk. We have to take our message out on the streets, to the school gates, to the informal gatherings and networks. Stop talking and start listening.
All the volunteers working on the Neighbourhood Plan are under no illusions that it’s going to be an uphill struggle to engage everyone in Ledbury, and allow people voice’s from all sides of the community to be heard. Talking housing, land supply and attracting inward investment is not everyone’s idea of rivetting conversation on a weekday evening. Not everyone wants to spend their spare time sitting on committees submitting to all the formal rules of Town Council affairs.
Even so, there has to be a change of mindset on the part of local decision-makers. If we are genuinely to allow the community to speak and participate in strategy, planning and policy development, we have to deliver a more creative, informal, and dynamic means of dialogue. Our challenge is to keep the wheels on the Neighbourhood Planning machine so that it obeys all the rules, but at the same time, give our community engagement the most freedom we can. My view is that we need to allow ourselves the space to do a bit of creative free-wheeling.
Our only destination is a referendum and a planning framework written in the statutory manner.
Leaning in towards our town’s diverse communities of interest - all of them - everything else we can make up as we go along, including how we do our community consultation.