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Community Assemblies – a revolutionary devolution?

Council Ax | 26.07.2008 14:43 | Analysis | Sheffield

In the dulcet tones of a charging bull, Paul Scriven, leader of Sheffield Council and chief commandant of the local Liberal Democrats, ushered in a new era at Sheffield Council. The big idea is to change Area Panels, the twelve erratic local government love children that are dotted around Sheffield, into seven Community Assemblies.

Each Assembly will operate as a council within a council, contracting out some services to non-profit organisations or local businesses. The whole operation will be directed by a “Community Plan”, featuring service targets and budgets agreed with local people. There are many questions over these Community Plans. Will months of consultation be condensed into high-gloss brochures featuring multi-ethnic flowers and quotes neatly selected to chime with the latest Executive diktat, as community leaders and councillors breathe easy in their tin can thrones? Or will this plan be OUR VOICE, a Local Kampf for local people - a kick up the backside to our ‘representatives’ and the greatest step in devolution since the invention of boil-in-the-bag MPs?

Who knows? Certainly no-one reading the proposal document, full of engagement networks work-streaming performance phases within Community transition roles, but bugger all practical detail.

In reality, we are talking about libraries, flower planting, and parks. These are the services that will first be devolved to the masses, but what exactly are the masses expected to do with them?

The libraries are already knackered: turned into multi-media service gateways, underfunded, understaffed, under the cosh. Today’s children don’t read books, preferring to plug themselves into Gross Bodily Harm IV, picking up tips on how to knife little old ladies from forty paces. Today’s adults cannot read more than four words strung together unless accompanied by an INTERMEDIA SENSESTORM with narration by Phil Jupitus and visuals by Colleen Rooney.

Flower planting is the domain of those bastions of justice, StreetForce – but StreetForce are themselves about to be sold to the private sector under the thirty-year pothole PFI. They will be kept in an underground bunker to be released at night, chained to their yellow vans, paint fading as our memory of them will fade, until they are no more than a rumour, a tale to tell your children - of brighter days and better times. So the transfer of council funds to Ma and Pa private operators or mashed up hippy volunteers in order to plug the gaps will come just in time.

The Council has now committed to not selling off any more parks and will steadily increase the green leaves of Sheffield until the whole City is one big park and inhabitants dwell in underground burrows. Fears that this plan is masterminded by the Wombles in a bid to enslave humankind are said to be “mostly groundless”. Given the previous parks policy was to hock off bits of parkland to finance the upkeep of the rest, the parks dept won’t exactly be rolling in cash.

Never mind that it’s all sinking under the weight of privatisation, legislation, misdirected and insufficient taxation. This Community Plan will give the people, that’s YOU by the way, a say in how the deckchairs will be arranged on the Titanic of public services. Let’s all be REALLY ENTHUSED about telling Librarians how to place their aging books on the shelves; set priorities for the arrangement of park benches so the disaffected can make more aesthetic fire sculptures; and have a sweet circle of daffodils in the middle of four choking lanes of traffic.

BUT, you despairingly cry, WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?

There is Labour: Decide the results of any consultation four months in advance. Send out a questionnaire like: “Regarding bin collections, would you? a) like to have a weekly rubbish bin collection, b) like to have a bin full of plague rats thrown through your window every fortnight, c) shoot yourself”. Announce that the will of the people is with you, burying all negative comment on page 306 of appendix 9.

There is Conservative: Consultation? Don’t be so ridiculous you smelly oik.

There is Green: Devolve power so far that each house has its own parliamentary structure and house of hereditary peers. Animals have an equal vote; so bedbugs end up with a clear majority and outlaw the vacuum cleaner. Democracy will be yours, apart from the mandatory sewage composting in every backyard, with solar roofing a requirement to avoid death by mung bean.

Community Assemblies seems like an interesting first step, but devolution of local government is pointless without a change in national government as well. Devolution could make services more democratic, and make clear the conflict between wanting low taxation and wanting decent services. But devolution could also be a smokescreen - giving assurances of democracy and involvement when all the real power rests comfortably in central government. Given that it is coming from the same structures that it purports to challenge, it is unlikely this devolution will be anything like a democratic revolution. (Council report)

Council Ax
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  1. step up — Yarrow
  2. Lessons from history — Martyn