Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Now we're all community councillors!

There's an old quote by somebody or other - possibly G.K. Chesterton - which has it that the essence of democracy is simple. First the people ask for something, and then they get it.

My colleague, ICG Chair Councillor Jon Hardy captured this principle to perfection when seconding my Motion on Community Engagement to Borough Council yesterday. Empowering communities need not entail the pure but impractical concept of the classic Grecian democracy, in which citizens partake in endless referenda about what time the local tavern should cease dispensing alcoholic beverages or how much one should be expected to pay for a tin of beans. Instead, it is simply a case of identifying what it is that people want and then delivering it with the minimum of fuss.

My Motion was quite deliberately basic. It read:

"This Council calls to expand upon the Motion passed on 4th March 2008, which sought to improve Community Engagement and to develop relations with residents’ organisations and civic groups around the Borough.

"This Council now requires that timelines be set in place for the full and final implementation of a radical and robust Community Engagement strategy, which will necessitate the buy-in and full co-operation of all employees of the organisation.

"This Council therefore authorises the Lead Member for Community Engagement to draw up a six-month programme for the incorporation of an unambiguous empowerment strategy into all work undertaken by the local authority, and asserts that the programme will come into operation no later than six months from the passing of this Motion”.

The purpose of the Motion was, self-evidently, to put an end to the dichotomy which exists at present in which the administration expresses its desire to engage in a genuine and meaningful way with our communities, and yet the bureaucracy continues to act as a barrier to such engagement, often treating our residents and their organisations as a problem without which the business of running a local authority would be so much easier, and forever finding reasons why anything remotely inspirational, imaginative or different cannot be done.

Jon emphasised the point quite brilliantly. We want Section 106 money spent on improving the fabric of our communities when they are affected by development - so why is it so difficult to quantify and access? We want clean air for our residents living within sniffing distance of Mogden Sewage Treatment Works - so why are we no further down the line than we were when we assumed power three years ago, with the bureaucracy constantly battling with and fobbing off residents who have the temerity to ask what we are doing to support them? Why does the organisation seem constructed in such a way as to provide built-in, knee-jerk obstacles to more or less everything positive that we aspire to achieve?

What was particularly significant about this Motion - and the importance of this cannot be overstated - was that it received unanimous, cross-party support. When I began the debate on this topic back in March 2008 the Labour Group abstained and my earlier Motion was described by Hounslow Independent Alliance councillor John Connelly as "meaningless" (i.e not about money). This time every hand went up, and I was even taken to task by Andrew Dakers for the Liberal Democrats and Labour's Matt Harmer for not having gone far enough - a bit of politicking, maybe, but a significant indication of the direction in which things are moving.

The London Borough of Hounslow now has six months to do what it has not done up till now, either under this administration or the previous one, and transform itself into an outward-facing, people-focused facilitator of real community participation. The unanimity of the vote means there is no question any more of waiting for a change of administration in the hope that members will revert to bickering about budgets and forget about the more aspirational side of a local authority's work.

The message to the naysayers from last night's vote was that henceforth whoever is in office, the call for a New Way will still be heard.

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