Big Society, we are told, is all about placing power in the hands of citizens – giving ‘ordinary people’ a say over what happens in their communities. Forget the brand (which some suggest is now so toxic that it is being quietly dropped from the Prime Minister’s lexicon), that’s somewhat irrelevant, as there is now a great deal of consensus between Parties over the principle of handing over power to local people. Of course the quid pro quo for devolving this power is that people will be expected to do more for themselves; stepping in to meet local needs that may previously have been provided by the state. For the foreseeable future, these ideas are going nowhere – whether or not they are called Big Society.
As the Prime Minister and his colleagues scrabble around for ideas to bring their ambition to life, you might have expected to hear far more about Participatory Budgeting (PB) than we have done. PB is a proven method for giving citizens real power – taking decisions over how public money is spent. If the government wanted to propel the Big Society discourse to an immediately tangible level, what better way to do so than by giving citizens control of the public purse strings? Despite the obvious links, there has been little championing of PB by Coalition Ministers. Something we now want to change.
The People’s Budget is a new campaign supported by the PB Unit, Church Action on Poverty, New Start http://www.cles.org.uk/newstart/, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Urban Forum. We want to see people up and down the country having a real say over how money is spent in their communities and we think PB is a great way to do this. We are taking the Prime Minister at his word and we’re offering him a fantastic solution to achieve his aims!
Wouldn’t you like to have real control over how money is spent where you live? Participatory Budget is a fantastic antidote to the constant trickle of consultation over policy matters that have little relevance to people’s lives. It’s real, practical and meaningful. It gives people a say without requiring them to take over a service just to have a say over how it’s delivered.
Just a few years ago PB seemed to have come of age. Propelled into the mainstream public policy by the then Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, local authorities across the country ran PB exercises of their own. The government even published a national PB strategy setting out its ambition of PB being used in every local authority in the land by 2012. Whilst central government may have gone sadly quiet on this, we think it’s an aim worth hanging on to! [Why is it that on the rare occasions when government produces something that is ambitious and meaningful it is too quickly forgotten and abandoned? Remember Firm Foundations?]
As local authorities grabble with the incredible pressures of budget cuts and increased demand, what better way to ensure that public money is responsive to local priorities? We have around 14 months till the end of 2012….surely there’s still time to help the government achieve its long forgotten ambition to bring PB to every community in the country?