This month saw two ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ come to an end – the finale of a ground-breaking UK-wide project to engage the public in the devolution debate. And one thing that kept coming up was that citizens want a say over the plans to hand councils more powers.
Residents from Southampton, Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight and surrounding areas took part in first ever ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ on local democracy and devolution deals, running in tandem with one in Sheffield.
In Southampton, citizens strongly endorsed the idea that any new devolved body should cover the Hampshire and the Isle of Wight area, with the integration of health and social care seen as the top priority. In Yorkshire, participants voted for a strong, Yorkshire-wide Assembly, with public involvement in the devolution process.
While participants in Southampton were evenly split on whether they support the devolution proposal currently being negotiated with government, they wanted far greater public involvement in the Hampshire devolution deal being proposed. Most said they wanted to stay involved in the process – something that echoed in Sheffield. Clearly, people think it’s time to ‘democratise devolution’.
How did it work? Over two weekends of discussion and voting, nearly 30 participants were drawn from a broadly representative sample – from the Solent region for Assembly South and South Yorkshire for Assembly North – in response to an invitation by polling company YouGov. They reached their conclusions through a deep process of engagement with the details of different potential devolution arrangements.
‘Assembly South’ was only the second such event in the world to include both citizens and politicians as participants in the process, after the Republic of Ireland, with five local councillors participating alongside the citizens for the four days.
In both Assemblies, the participants were given unique access to national and local experts to aid them in reaching their own conclusions on how their areas should be governed in this new phase of devolution. The project has been closely followed by local councils across the region.
Last weekend saw local politicians and other experts giving evidence to the Assembly, including Cllr Roy Perry, leader of Hampshire County Council, and the project is being backed by Alan Whitehead, MP for Southampton Test, who attended the Assembly on Sunday and called it ‘really important and significant’.
The Assemblies come in response to the sweeping constitutional changes currently facing the UK, a year on from the Scottish referendum and with key questions of devolution, English Votes for English Laws and the EU referendum currently high up the agenda.
At their core, what the Citizens’ Assemblies have shown is that when given a chance to have a say, people jump at the opportunity. They have challenged the myth that people are disengaged from politics – people are more than capable of grappling with complex questions about the way we are governed, and politicians across the UK should sit up and take note.
There is a real potential for a new way of doing things – that instead of devolution being a stitch-up between local and national politicians, we can have engagement from citizens to bring new insights and new ideas into the debate.
For more information visit http://citizensassembly.co.uk.
Josiah Mortimer is communications officer at the Electoral Reform Society