A ‘participatory budget’ for London – and other debates about people, power and democracy

by Dave Hill

Len Duvall, the experienced London Assembly Member for Greenwich and Lewisham and leader of the Assembly’s Labour Group, has produced a paper asking Sadiq Khan to introduce a “participatory budget” system. The idea has undoubted merit. It aims to enhance Londoners’ involvement in their city’s political processes by allowing some of them to use a portion of the money at the Mayor’s disposal to fund projects they have themselves designed. Duvall’s case also illuminates important issues about how democratic power is shared and political engagement fostered in a city which can sometimes feel to people living here as though it has run out of control.

Duvall tells us that although there are formal channels through which Londoners can comment on mayoral budget proposals, in 2016 only 12 such responses were received by email, of which just two were from members of the public. He argues that if Mayor Khan took the lead in changing that, a vast pool of creative energy among Londoners could be harnessed, not only to conceive and help deliver specific proposals for improving their city, but also to nourish greater knowledge of how governance decisions work and, hopefully, more trust in them as a result.

But he also emphasises the need for such an exercise to reach beyond those sorts of Londoners who are already confident and adept at responding to consultations, organising pressure groups and making their views known. Any campaign for participatory budgeting would need to include “outreach efforts”, actively seeking the involvement of Londoners who don’t engage with the political and policy-making processes in that way, focussing on communities rather than geographical areas.

This is a good, clear principle addressing large and blurry questions about the best ways to extend power and responsibility to London’s citizens in various scenarios and how best to ensure it serves the common good. The relationship between devolving decision-making and getting good decisions made is not necessarily straightforward.

The debate about balloting housing estate residents over regeneration plans that might result in the demolition of their present homes is a good example. Colin Wiles has argued in their favour for On London, but in the process recognised both reasonable counter arguments, such as that other local people, not least those who have no home at all, might also make a case for being enfranchised by such a process. Also for this website, Daniel Moylan has had a searching look at one London example of the neighbourhood plan initiative, introduced through the Localism Act as a way of putting planning powers in local peoples’ hands.

Another sort of debate about community involvement is already central to the contest between Newham’s current mayor Sir Robin Wales and his challenger Rokhsana Fiaz to become Labour’s mayoral candidate for the borough this year. Sir Robin is described approvingly here as “an old-fashioned, dictatorial, break-eggs, get-things-done city-boss with a long-term vision”, but those very characteristics are being portrayed as faults by those who’d like to see him gone – Fiaz’s pitch majors on her belief that more grassroots consent is required for change, especially for redevelopment. Which approach would yield the better results for Newham in terms of fundamental stuff like employment, community wellbeing and housing supply?

These are big, difficult and important debates, especially in a city where change is happening so rapidly. Len Duvall’s argument for Londoners’ participation in the Mayor’s budget-setting process is a good one in its own terms, and also opens up some of those broader questions about the distribution of power and the health of democracy in a city where both things seem to matter more and more.

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