Headlines: April 3rd, 2007



A report released today questions whether people and organisations are really participating in decision making about their communities. The new booklet, “Localism and local governance”, has been produced by the Economic and Social Research Council. It says those who used to be excluded from the process are being invited to participate but it queries how open new mechanisms actually are.

The report has been produced to coincide with the latest in a series of ‘Engaging Citizens’ seminars organised by the ESRC with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. It draws on presentations to be given at a seminar today by Marilyn Taylor, Professor of Urban Governance and Regeneration, at the University of the West of England and Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Liverpool.They have conducted research which shows that many representatives of voluntary and community organisations still feel on the margins of new governance spaces in spite of changes. Studies in Burnley and Harrogate found only a small minority of people felt they were able to influence local decisions.

Today’s publication queries how open new governance mechanisms are for local involvement and it looks at voluntary and community organisations’ readiness to respond, particularly in populations that are recognised as being hard to reach. It also points out that policymakers have added mechanisms and structures to encourage engagement without considering how they relate to one another or the complexity that this presents to the public.

Professor Taylor says although the developments offer new opportunities for engagement in decision-making and for influencing service provision, they also present challenges for voluntary and community organisations especially those which have had limited involvement in partnerships. “All partners need to recognise the demands on community representatives. They may want to be accountable back to their community but often don’t have the resources or time to do this effectively,” she says.

Doctor Wilks-Heeg and a colleague carried out the in-depth research into local democracy in Burnley and Harrogate and found that more than 30 different organisations, many of them ‘quangos’ without elected community representatives, had some role in governing the towns. “Overall, the elected local authorities control 53 per cent of public spending in Harrogate and, in Burnley, only 40 per cent. However, when it comes to the district councils it’s even lower. Only five per cent of public spending is controlled by each of these two councils, yet we found that the public and media concentrate on ‘the council’, while paying little attention to the much higher spending services,” he said.