About This Blog

The public should know all we can about the business of the decision makers that affect our lives, our wallets and our democracy. This is a record of my efforts to try and improve the levels of transparency and accountability within Sheffield City Council and others. To shine a light on how decisions are made and where the money goes. If I can also help others to find their own voice and influence along the way, then that is a bonus.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

11th October 2014. Democracy, What a Good Idea! - Community Engagement in Sheffield.

Today, as part of my work with Sheffield for Democracy, we presented an event about the work we have been doing over the last year or so in order to get feedback on whether we were headed in the right direction for our members and where we might go from here. The event was also open to the public to try and gather some new members for a community group that currently punches way above it's weight in the city for a group with no real resources beyond it's members.

The groups website (click here) will carry a more detailed report on what went off but I just want to cover the highlights of what was discussed and what came up from the members and public. We covered six base subjects, most of which overlap in some way or other but give us the chance to talk specific issues and campaigns.

The first was Community Engagement led by Jonathan Marsden. He outlined the way engagement with Sheffield City Council has changed since the demise of the Community Assemblies and commented on some of the concerns that have arisen about lack of transparency and accountability. There are also concerns that the new arrangements make it more difficult for the public to get involved and there is some evidence of local members of the public having their voice drowned out by the 3rd sector. (Charities and Voluntary Groups) Comments from the audience suggested we need to keep up the pressure on accountability and also stress to Council that the funding available through the old CAs was only a part of why people valued them. There was also the connection to Councillors and the ability to discuss issues in public meetings. How can this be revived?

Next up was me discussing the groups connection and work with Parliament. I outlined our work submitting evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee with respect to two of their inquiries, The 'Local Government Code' as it is known and 'Voter Engagement'. Also on our meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg MP. At this meeting we discussed with him the constitutional concerns about City Regions, Local Devolution and finally the proposed MP recall legislation. Audience comments this time centred around the need for stronger safeguards around the City Regions influence and also potentially the Clinical Commissioning Group around the NHS, the emphasis on possible economic led devolution rather than democratically led devolution and the concern about devolution being City centric.

Our third issue was Hustings, something Sheffield for Democracy has organised for General elections, the European elections and the PCC elections. Afrah Alkheli led on this one, giving a potted history of our previous efforts but mainly wanting suggestions as to what would be best for the 2015 general election. The suggestions from the audience were, that hustings were a good idea and were usually far more interesting than they might at first sound. That the way we organised the Euro hustings should be promoted as a model. They could have potential around highlighting issues at individual events. Some concerns from our side that, as a small and poor group we could not achieve that level of commitment.

Issue four was Scrutiny and led by Alan Kewley. He attempted to outline the labyrinthine structure of Scrutiny Committees within the city council and some of the new bodies for which scrutiny is still an uncertain animal, such as the Police and Crime Commissioner and the City Region bodies. This subject caused some of the most strident comment with one participant suggesting that the whole scrutiny system was dysfunctional. There was a general call for scrutiny to be more independent and concerns over the tensions that arose within the council and the scrutiny function over 'politicisation'. There was also a feeling that the public were usually more engaged and active in scrutiny than the councillors.

Number five on our list was around Ward Boundaries, Local Elections and Local Devolution, it was led by Vicky Seddon, the groups co-ordinator. Vicky outlined the current review of ward boundaries being undertaken by the Boundary Commission and our submissions to the city council about the shape of things to come. She also talked about the All Out Election that would follow and whether this is a good idea for a permanent change. Then she covered in more detail the potential forms of local devolution that appear to be on the table from the main parties. The feedback was that ward boundary issues are fairly impenetrable and will never satisfy everybody. The idea of all out elections was generally well received and comments suggested that although the current system offered a more stable approach that all out elections would probably create a more balanced council politically. It was felt this would be particularly true with Proportional Representation as well. The audiences thoughts on devolution were more uncertain and were generally in favour of a full and frank discussion probably under the auspices of a Constitutional Convention.

The last issue we discussed was the role of the PCC and their scrutiny system, the Police and Crime Panel. Wendy Zealand led on this, as a member of our group but also Regional Co-ordinator for the Neighbourhood Watch. Wendy gave an outline of the relationship between the PCC and the scrutiny arrangements of the Police and Crime Panel. The poorly considered legislation gave no real powers to the scrutiny PCP and as a result they are just an advisory body that can question but not control or remove the PCC. The concerns raised before the elections for PCCs about this excess of power in one role bore disturbing fruit in the case of Rotherham and the PCC. The audience response was to highlight the need to get rid of this unpopular post.

To contact, email nrslack@aol.com

No comments:

Post a Comment