Network of Regional Youth Work Units England blog

A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.

In praise of local democracy

Make Your MarkThe referendum on independence for Scotland briefly started a public debate on democratic engagement across the whole of the UK, though it very quickly seems to have degenerated into a squabble about the role of Scottish MPs in the UK Parliament. I hope this opportunity to consider ways of bringing democratic decision making closer to the people, who actually experience the outcomes of those decisions, is not lost in an inter-party argument that has the potential to completely miss the point.

My job covers the South West of England – from the Isles of Scilly along the south coast to Bournemouth, across Salisbury Plain to Swindon, up through the Cotswolds to Tewkesbury and round the Welsh border. It’s a vast area, apparently of a similar size to Austria, with one major city (Bristol) several significant regional centres (Plymouth, Exeter, Bournemouth, Cheltenham & Gloucester), a lot of market towns and vast swathes of countryside and coast.

We bring young people together from across the region through UK Youth Parliament (UKYP) and the regional conventions we run with British Youth Council, and they determine the priorities for campaigns across the region and locally, and vote, through ‘Make Your Mark’ for the priorities to be addressed by UKYP nationally.

A geographical outlook

Organisations for public good in the South West have a long history of working together to develop policy and practice that fits the unique nature of the South West – which is often very different from the metro-centric thinking that underpins Westminster government thinking.

My own organisation, Learning South West, was established in 1947 by the local authorities at the time to ensure there was an appropriate regional supply and spread of further education to meet the needs and demands of the South West population. The notion of learner/parent/patient (delete as required) choice is hardly relevant in areas where there is one local school and a hospital 50 miles away.

There is little point in Further Education institutions establishing similar programmes next door to each other when they know there are only enough students for a single cohort. Resources are better spent developing new opportunities, in places where learners can access them with ease.

This local intelligence is fundamental to implanting effective public policy, and the Scottish debate has shown that there is a real demand in Scotland to bring as much decision making as possible home.

Those same arguments hold for most of the English regions, too, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland. We need to find mechanisms to enable that to happen, to ensure that young people across the UK have the best conditions to flourish and reach their capacity. And we also need to make sure that young people and the rest of our community can have a real say in setting policy direction.

Effective engagement

My own recipe for local and regional engagement? It’s still in the development stages, but some key factors would be:

  • Active democracy is really important – people need to be engaged in deciding on priorities in their areas
  • Parish & Town Councils can do a great job at the very local level, and Parish Councils should be extended into urban areas
  • Simplify the tiers of local government – unitary authorities covering a sensible area (not too big, not too small) make it easier for people to understand how to influence decisions
  • Decentralise as many powers and resources as possible from central government to local authorities – they are better equipped to plan education and other services than Whitehall based civil servants
  • Regional Assemblies with clear powers, made up of elected representatives – either directly elected or drawn from local authorities – should be responsible for strategic planning, economic development and infrastructure support
  • Ensure that Westminster MPs understand and value the concepts and practice of local democracy by setting a condition of standing for Parliament that candidates should have served as a councillor in a local authority for 3 years: that would encourage talented and ambitious politicians to engage with local government, and ensure that they knew what they were talking about when they reached Parliament – a bit like the ‘Teach First’ concept!.
  • Proper political education in schools, colleges and youth projects – and a workforce development programme to ensure that teachers and youth workers understand the political system themselves
  • Votes at 16: Scottish young people have shown they use their votes just as responsibly as everyone else.

Let’s hope that some of these ideas are discussed in the context of the post-referendum planning, so we don’t lose the enthusiasm and political engagement generated, especially among young people, by the debate in Scotland.

Gill Millar – RYWU at Learning South West

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This entry was posted on October 3, 2014 by in Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West and tagged , , , .
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