Friday, 6 March 2009

Parish pumps and local democracy

This is a picture of Lenton's 'parish pump'. Few who live in Lenton could tell you where it is, yet thousands pass it every day. Admittedly, many will be in cars or on buses, but hundreds will be a few footsteps away and, with a turn of their head, see it quite clearly. Every time I walk by I check to see if it's still there — that someone hasn't come along during the night and taken it away to be sold as scrap metal or, in my mind, even worse, to become an antique curiosity in someone's garden.

For me, the pump is a metaphor for local government and democracy — not that local communities have ever gathered around parish pumps to make local decisions. Then, perhaps they have. At one time they would have been a natural meeting place, where locals met and exchanged gossip, discussed the going rate for labour or local issues. You can imagine these local watering holes becoming places where traders came and local goods were bartered or bought and sold. Perhaps I am being too romantic, but there can be no doubt about the symbolism of the parish pump.

After nearly fifty years of continuous political activism at the grass roots and, for a good few years, at city and regional level as well, I can say with certainty that local people make the best decisions about their local communities. They have more invested in the outcome of any decisions they are able to make than any outsider. Nor are they oblivious to the significance of wider issues and that they have to balance these against their own needs and aspirationss.

The trouble is the present system of city and local governance in Nottingham excludes them from the process. For all the talk of 'citizens' panels' and local involvement, the agenda and the process is controlled by outsiders and 'partners', who have no stake in local communities like Lenton. We are dependent on their good will. City 'boards' like 'One Nottingham' and the 'Greater Nottingham Partnership' have no community members. They do have the powerful and connected from commerce, education and the professional voluntary sector, but not the local communities they purport to serve and seek to improve. In truth they seek to control and make local communities subservient to their agenda. At best they offer a few crumbs.

The alternative is something they fear. It is called local democracy and should begin at the parish pump, so to speak. It's a simple enough concept and idea. Very easy to manage and understandable by all, because it begins among the people and belong to them. Once local communities rediscover this power, they will not lightly surrender it. I have a belief in ordinary people and their ability to make good and wise decisions. I hope we can bring this to Lenton before too long. It won't be easy, there will be a struggle, but I am confident all the arguments are on our side.

A letter in The Guardian, 4 March 2009, from Adrain Greeman, London
It's like Alice through the looking glass now. Private finance, which it turns out is not 'more efficient' than public after all, having brought us the biggest financial meltdown in history, is still deemed to be 'better', and to make sure it does not fail, it will be – er – publicly financed. There will still be a component raised 'privately' from banks which are –er – publicly financed.

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