There is a widespread view that local democracy in Britain is in deep trouble and that people face a crisis of civic engagement and political participation. This book counterweighs the many negative accounts that seek to dominate the political discourse with talks on political apathy and selfish individualism. It commences with an examination of theoretical debates as to the meaning of local democracy and related concepts. The book looks at the policy agenda around local democracy in the context of the developing nature of central/local relations since 1979. It considers the available evidence on level of political participation and civic engagement by looking at eight themes. These include the state of formal politics, forms of civic engagement, community identity and the emerging world of the internet/world wide web. The book also looks at nine key aspects of the reform of local democracy over the last fifteen years, including local democracy and the New Labour reform agenda; the constitutional position of local government; and double devolution. It focuses on the so-called 'crisis of formal democracy' at the local level. The book ascertains the recent developments beyond the realm of elections, political parties and formal political institutions. It then concentrates on local services and policy attempts to widen public participation in the shaping and delivery of such services. Finally, the book discusses the concept of sustainability and regeneration strategies to build sustainable communities, both physical and social.
Civicengagement and political
There is a widespread view that democracy at the local level in Britain is in
crisis with levels of political participation at an all-time low. Indeed, there is
an increasing ‘anti-politics’ narrative that posits a public alienated from the
political class. The public uproar in 2009 over the ‘excessive’ allowances
claimed by some members of parliament (MPs) has fed into this. However,
the central argument of this chapter, and indeed of the book itself, is that a
deeper and more
Local services, community and
In Chapter 6 the focus is on local services and their impact on strengthening
civicengagement and local communities.
First, there will be a focus on central government policy. There will be an
analysis of some initiatives of the last Labour government as well as an initial
assessment of the emerging policy agenda of the current Conservative/
Liberal Democrat coalition. Local public service reform will also be looked
at in the context of the role of markets and the increasing emphasis on the
The challenge of local democracy,
civicengagement and community:
an agenda for change?
In the early period of the newly elected Labour government after 1997 the
apparent conciliatory tone towards local government was in sharp contrast
to the conflicted nature of central/local relations during the Thatcher and
Major years. Tighter financial restrictions, rate capping, cuts in central
government financial support, increased privatisation of local authority
services and loss of policy autonomy all gave the clear impression of a beleaguered local
Civicengagement and social justice
Public policy in a variety of countries, Ireland included, has recognised the
value of some level of deeper citizen participation in democratic and civic life.
At the same time, civil society organisations have increasingly asserted the
importance of their participation in policy-making processes. It was in this
context that the Irish government clearly stated that ‘There is a need to create
a more participatory democracy where active citizenship is fostered’ defining participation ‘as an exchange between
This chapter examines the level of active citizenship in prison and,
similar to the last chapter, is based on the interviews with 50 prisoners.
Recognising that citizenship encompasses more than just rights and
responsibilities but is intertwined with participation, it considers their
activities prior to imprisonment, the opportunities for participative citizenship behind bars and outlines some reasons for involvement in what
are characterised as citizenship activities inside. The chapter concludes
This is a book about local democracy, about community and civicengagement in Britain. It was conceived as a counterweight to the many negative
accounts that seek to dominate our political discourse with their talk of
political apathy and selfish individualism.
Barack Obama made the point effectively in the American context long
before his successful bid for the Presidency. In an interview given to the
Chicago Reader newspaper on 8 December 1995 he set out his now wellrehearsed argument about the need for change in the way the USA does its
decisions essentially political is ‘their collective character,
affecting and committing those who belong to the group’ (Hague and
Harrop, 1987: 3).
Healy et al. argue that ‘A redefinition of politics and the role of elected
representatives’ is necessary if we are to enhance political and civicengagement (Healey et al., 2005: 42). Indeed this is most certainly true. Whilst we
need to acknowledge the importance of formal political institutions and
political parties, we need to construct a way of doing politics that is about
more than petty squabbles, sound bites and
part of a strategy to broaden civicengagement and to take
forward the so-called ‘empowerment agenda’. It reflected New Labour
concerns about the malaise afflicting (formal) representative democracy, an
issue I discussed in Chapter 4 (Wilson, 1999: 247).
This chapter looks at recent democratic developments beyond the formal
Local democracy beyond the formal realm
realm of elections, political parties and local political institutions. First,
there will be an analysis of three local initiatives beyond the ballot, namely
citizens’ panels, local referenda and
Local democracy at the
This chapter will focus on the so-called ‘crisis of formal democracy’ at the
local level. First, the decline of political parties in terms of membership,
activism, resources and public regard will be considered. The factors in this
decline will be analysed, together with possible solutions for a reinvigorated
local party politics and the key role this might play in boosting civicengagement and democracy.
Second, attention will be given to the perceived problem of declining
electoral turnout at the local level