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Kirklees Council: How to… redesign local democracy

Members of Kirklees youth council

The relationship between councillors and citizens is changing. Here at Kirklees Council we want to keep one step ahead, says Carl Whistlecraft

Kirklees Council has published a landmark report about the future of local democracy: ‘Growing a stronger local democracy, from the ground up‘.

The report is based on a year of evidence-gathering and debate by the Kirklees Democracy Commission, a cross-party group of Kirklees councillors with an independent chair, Dr Andy Mycock from Huddersfield University.

The commission has been investigating what a strong and healthy local democracy should look like in Kirklees – for the next generation, and beyond.

We all want to have a voice in the decisions that affect us, yet fewer people are actively taking part in our local democracy. This means that participation in local elections is falling, and we’re less likely to trust in politicians or feel that they represent our views.

We also need to think again about the way we do democracy at a time when there are big financial challenges, and when advances in digital technologies are creating lots of new opportunities.

The relationship between councillors and citizens is changing. The Democracy Commission is Kirklees Council’s way of making sure that our local democracy doesn’t get out of step.

The timing of the Democracy Commission has also been significant in Kirklees, with concerns about our local democracy being heightened by the devastating murder of Jo Cox, MP for Birstall, the week before the project went live. Many participants have called the commission’s work bold and brave. We think it’s an important time for us to talk about our local democracy.

Kirklees citizens, councillors, youth councillors, MPs, evidence-givers, public sector staff, businesses and many other organisations took part in a report launch event at the end of June. This rich mix of participants has been the Democracy Commission’s greatest strength, and the commissioners are keen to see the practical work develop in the same way. Kirklees citizens, and especially the young citizens of Kirklees, will continue to be at the heart of the work.

The report makes 48 recommendations for improving our local democracy. These include ideas for working with active citizens, making the most of digital technologies and culture, suggestions about councillors, decision-making and elections, and how we can get local voices heard in regional devolution. These recommendations could help shape how both local and national democracy could develop over the next decade.

The Democracy Commission heard evidence from over 1,000 participants, including citizens, community organisations, young people and councillors. A total of 43 expert witnesses gave evidence during a series of public inquiries, and several other councils shared their insights. Citizens have taken part in local democracy roadshow events, shared their views in an e-panel survey, taken part in group discussions and joined the debate online.

Following a council debate about the commission’s findings, we are already working with Kirklees Youth Council to provide an information pack to support our councillors on running a fun, interactive session about local democracy in schools. Other practical projects will include a civic digital literacy pilot, and working with Democracy Club to increase voter awareness and engagement for local elections.

Speaking at the report launch event, independent chair Dr Andy Mycock was clear that ‘this report is just the end of the beginning’. Lead commissioner Cllr Cathy Scott told participants that ‘this will not be a report that just sits on a shelf – it is the beginning of a very exciting journey that redesigns local democracy for the next generation of Kirklees citizens’. We’re keen to hear from anyone who would like to join us on the journey.

 

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