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It’s the taking part that counts

After overcoming scepticism and beginning to take root, can participatory budgeting survive cutbacks and become a potent symbol of localism? Clare Goff reports

In 1989 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, conditions similar to those found in Britain today provided the backdrop to the birth of participatory budgeting.

‘There was a fiscal crisis. There was no money for anything,’ remembers Sergio Baierle, one of the founders of the world’s first participatory budgeting (PB) movement.

Deep mistrust of government and severe inequality among the city’s residents created the conditions for Porto Alegre’s local government to hand citizens a greater role in its decision-making processes.

‘The response of the government was not just to accept the situation but to go to the people and get them on board as partners for the solution to the problem,’ Mr Baierle says.

Today the city’s $700m budget for construction and services is spent according to the outcome of PB processes, in which tens of thousands of residents take part, with participant numbers growing each year. The process has brought the issue of local poverty higher up the agenda, made considerable impacts into the lives of citizens as well as renewing trust and revitalising citizen involvement in politics.

It would take another 11 years for PB to reach the UK, but as Britain wades through a deep fiscal crisis, is now the time for devolved decision-making processes to enter the mainstream?
Celebrating ten years of the technique in the UK at the Participatory Budgeting Unit’s annual conference last month, representatives from councils and community organisations across the country extolled the benefits of the process.

‘It’s a wonderful vehicle for change,’ said Chris Parsons of the Eastfield Project in Scarborough. In 2009 residents of the North Yorkshire town voted on how £32,000 should be spent on projects tackling crime and community safety. The process of building community ownership of the programme restored trust between local people and the local authorities after years of being ‘consulted to death’.

‘It’s a mindset,’ she said. ‘Its not about the money but the process, how people are allowed to get involved.’ In some areas where PB pilots have taken place, those getting involved in the process have gone on to become further involved in local democracy, from voting for the first time to joining community groups and campaigns. It has improved cohesion, increased efficiency and services, renewed trust and begun to change the relationship between citizens and the state.

For Ed Cox, director of Institute for Public Policy Research North and author of the original report into participatory budgeting in the UK back in 2000, PB offers a platform to urge for a much greater constitutional settlement between people and local powers.

‘Its not about the money
but the process,
how people are allowed to get involved.’

The localism bill and the unringfencing of (albeit smaller) budgets for councils announced in the comprehensive spending review have brought local democracy into the spotlight. Participatory budgeting fits neatly into the government’s localism, open government and Big Society agendas, but there is a danger that severe spending cuts could derail the technique’s progress.

For, of the 120 local PB projects that have taken place across the UK since 2000, the vast majority could be described as ‘tokenistic’, using small and often ‘discretionary’ budgets to influence decisions around children’s playgrounds, sports facilities and the like.

It is these budgets that are first in line to be squeezed or axed during cost-cutting. PB advocates are pushing for use of the technique to be broadened, arguing that it is during times of financial restraint that local areas can benefit most from the process.

‘It’s clear that if there is limited money it needs to be used well and the best solutions are those designed and owned by local people,’ says Mr Cox.

The UK’s PB Unit, part of charity Church Action on Poverty, is launching a campaign in spring 2011 to promote participatory budgeting among community groups. The campaign will include regional training sessions to build capacity among local groups to help them lobby for a greater say in local spend.

The campaign changes the emphasis of the PB Unit from raising awareness at council level to helping community groups take on the process themselves. Such a shift will allow PB to finally move into the mainstream, says Phil Teece, director of the PB Unit.

‘If the process starts with the community its much better placed to be sustained. It’s no longer at the whim of the budget holder but is an embedded part of the landscape.’

The unit is keen to separate its messages from the cost-cutting agenda, arguing that citizen choice over spend should happen through good times and bad, but it is aligning itself with the government’s broader localism agenda.

This includes plans to publish all public spend over £500, opening up budgets to transparency and creating the perfect opportunity for local community networks to lobby for a say in how mainstream public budgets are spent.

Recent months have also seen the launch of Your Local Budget, an initiative from the Big Society Network. Piloting in ten areas, it aims to complement PB work already taking place and help develop best practice.

With momentum growing, last month’s conference buzzed with ideas for how PB can become the norm rather than the exception.
In some areas social care provision has benefited from citizen involvement; some now suggest the roll-out of individual budgets offers opportunities for the pooling of spend and decision-making.

Linking PB techniques to health and neighbourhood management budgets can help push through wider empowerment, while the Total Place initiative makes it easier for local areas to align local spend alongside participatory processes. Tower Hamlets council is moving towards a Total Neighbourhood approach which could include PB (see below).

As budgets for housing and planning are annihilated, some argue that communities can make a case for a greater say over reduced spend in these areas.

The road to greater participation is likely to be long and rocky, however. Participants at the conference weren’t confident that a revolution was in their midst. One council officer who had run a number of PB projects said: ‘I’m just a small cog in the system,’ while some councillors expressed fear that handing over decision-making to people takes away their own powers.

The PB Unit itself is under threat, with DCLG expected to pull its budget in March. Mr Teece says the unit will continue, but its role is likely to change, focusing on more specific pieces of funded work.

The roll-out of PB has yet to create anarchy in the UK, as one councillor predicted in the early days of its operation. Over the last ten years political will has slowly edged in favour of greater decision-making by local people. But when one-way consultations and online questionnaires still account for much ‘engagement’ there is still a long way to go.

TOWER HAMLETS: TAKING PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING INTO THE MAINSTREAM
Tower Hamlets council in London came to the Participatory Budgeting table late in the day but the council made it clear from the start that it wanted to do things differently.

‘Rather than grant funding we wanted to use mainstream funds,’ says Shazia Hussain, service integration project director at the council. She says that without the leadership of councillors and political will it would not have been possible to launch its PB process with £5m over two years drawn from the central council budget.

The council is now piloting a Neighbourhood Agreement on one boundary estate. Working with resident groups to agree standards and resident input for a number of local services, the agreement will ‘allow the community to get a better idea of how services work and their responsibility in helping run them’, Ms Hussain says.

She is hoping that, if the neighbourhood agreement works, the next stage could include neighbourhood budgets on PB lines, which some are calling a move towards a Total Neighbourhood approach. But Ms Hussain says that a major hurdle in moving towards this next stage is mobilising residents on a large enough scale to take ownership of the process.

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