Monday, 30 January 2012

Local democratic participation and parking I sometimes wonder whether, in late medieval cities, there were disputes about where people left their carts. Car parking is a major issue in contemporary neighbourhoods, and inconsiderate parking infuriates people. Maybe some kinds of personality just get sparked by the very idea of public space, and always have done. I’m not known for defending car drivers, but when you have situations where residents cannot get their own cars out of their driveways because others have left their vehicles in the way for long periods of time, you have to ask whether there’s a problem understanding that others have a right of access to public space. A week ago I designed and ran a consultative process for a public meeting about car parking, in a large village on the outskirts of Sheffield. The material I had to work with included a lot of written remarks in open questions from an online survey, many of which suggested solutions and many of which consisted of repeated annoyance at inconsiderate drivers. The process I came up with may have helped move things on. One reason is that most participants apparently were expecting a conventional public meeting in which councillors said something from the front, were shouted at by a few worked-up voices from the rows, and nothing much changed as a consequence. There were no rows (in either pronunciation) – the chairs were set around tables, people had the chance to shape their own agenda (and therefore found it hard to complain if the meeting did not discuss what they wanted discussed); they had the opportunity to augment and comment, in groups, on every live proposition as it was passed round, using pre-formatted sheets which included a street map; and they had the chance to vote, at the end, on preferred options to address the parking problem. There was no disruption. It was local participative democracy in action. What was striking for me was the genuine sense of novelty among the participants, which I’m still absorbing. The sceptical might argue that just because some southerner comes in with an arty-farty creative approach, it doesn’t mean anything will change as a consequence. That remains to be seen. But I sensed from various comments afterwards that some people were grateful for a completely fresh experience of genuinely participative local democracy, which was, well, revelatory to them. That’s change, in itself. The car resembles the traditional meeting as symbolic of communication confusion: it helps us to share some information (like status, power or detachment); in a car you can say ‘we’ve been through’ somewhere much as the conventional meeting ‘goes through’ an agenda. And cars really mess up interaction, and all the unseen benefits that go with interaction.
Is inequality the new exclusion? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, ‘social exclusion’ was, rightly in my view, a major political issue in the UK and the theme under which a good deal of positive social change came about. But I sense that the concept is being replaced in our vocabulary by increasingly assertive discussion about ‘social inequality’. Two recent examples may in time come to illustrate this. Yesterday we had the director general of the Institute of Directors, Simon Walker, unhappy that Sir Fred Goodwin, former boss of RBS, had been stripped of his knighthood: “To do it because … you don’t approve of someone, you think they have done things that are wrong but actually there is no criminality … is inappropriate." So he still doesn’t get it, and shouldn’t be surprised if he is stripped of any credibility he may have had. My dad was a bank manager. He would have been appalled at the crass contortions being attempted by financial services cronies trying to justify their greed at the expense of several million other people. The ramifications of the behaviour of people like Goodwin, who arrogantly remoulded their roles in crude attempts to exclude social responsibility from banking when, as my dad would have observed, it is fundamental and ineluctable, are causing widespread poverty, stress and grief. But today we heard from someone who sounds a little more grown up, the chief executive of Deutsche Bank, who warned of a 'social time-bomb' from wealth and income inequality. Let’s be thankful that this man has shown awareness and a willingness to speak out. Who knows, he could start a trend. And maybe the money from the RBS chairman's declined bonus could go towards copies of The spirit level given to people like Goodwin and Walker and thousands like them, as part of mandatory workshops run by the Equality Trust? It would be good to see them shamed into learning something. Social exclusion as a principle theme of policy emerged from long-standing debates in Europe about poverty in the 1980s, which mattered because they expanded to include other forms of exclusion. Will something similar happen with ‘social inequality’, which is emerging in the context of 'public concern' about relative wealth? Social inequality is not just about wealth, is it? When do we get to the bit about power?

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