Power to the people

The People’s Budget is a new campaign to help community groups get a much bigger say on the money decisions of councils and other local statutory organisations.

Some cities in Brazil and Europe have involved thousands of local residents in the direct decisions about how public budgets are allocated. This involvement leads to more effective spending decisions and a whole host of community cohesion benefits. So far the use of Participatory Budgeting in Britain has been relatively small scale, and crucially, on the terms of the local politicians and officers.

The People’s Budget is starting to help community groups across the country make that case that it is our right to have a say in how our taxes are spent. But it is not just about rights, it is also about making more effective decisions by drawing on residents with local grassroots experience.

Ultimately we want to see 1% of council, housing association, school, parish council and town council budgets decided this way. Local people having a local say – sounds a bit like localism to me! And to tap into another bit of the government’s agenda, it brings together and builds Big Society in a cohesive way.

Some power holders may see ‘giving up’ power to residents as a threat. But it is in these times of cuts that citizens should be involved in the hard choices of slicing up a smaller pie. It’s not about shifting responsibility, but about building broader ownership around the running of public services.

In some Brazilian cities Participatory Budgeting has had a transformative effect of distributing investment and services to the places where they are really needed and has thus helped tackle inequality. This is an exciting prospect for Britain that community groups are starting to make the case for.

We are not expecting all local budget holders to jump straight to 1% of the budget – although it is a great vision to work towards. So there are three steps up to that:
1) any Participatory Budgeting;
2) repeating it to establish a cycle;
3) Participatory Budgeting over the whole of the budget area.

Some local statutory bodies have made progress down this road and have learnt a lot. But none have matched the commitment of cities in Brazil and Europe to trust taxpayers to make significant decisions about how taxes are spent.

And to be clear we are not talking about ‘budget simulation’ exercises or other consultation techniques. Often these ‘listening’ exercises do little to counter growing public distrust of the public bodies and local government. This campaign is about building proper ownership and accountability.

If ever there was a way for local authorities to show they were serious about transparency this is it. When hundreds and thousands of local residents are involved in decisions everybody knows about it in the area.

Where Participatory Budgeting has been used extensively it has actually improved electoral turnout and voters trust of local politicians. ‘You’ve trusted me, so I’m going to trust you.’

Why 1%? Well on the one hand it sounds like not much, but local public authorities actually have so many statutory obligations that 1% is a realistic, but ambitious goal. And for some councils, 1% represents a substantial amount of money and decisions that would transform democratic engagement.

Over the next few months Church Action on Poverty will be travelling across the UK, delivering ten workshops that aim to give communities the tools to create their own People’s Budget.

  • The campaign is supported by New Start, Urban Forum, the Participatory Budgeting Unit, Church Action on Poverty and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.
  • Read more about Participatory Budgeting here.


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