There has been much debate recently about the difficulties in engaging people with local democratic structures. This perhaps reflects the current national situation: the Electoral Commission have produced a report this week showing that 6 million eligible voters in the UK are not currently registered to vote, a 50% rise in only ten years. Only 56% of 19-to-24 year olds were on the electoral register. During election periods, the Sentinel always encouraged people to vote and included inserts about all the candidates to keep readers informed.
A couple of weeks ago we looked at issues facing community councils, the local democratic structure that links communities to council decision making. It has become increasingly difficult for many community councils to fulfil their remit with a lack of interest from their communities leading to some councils being formed without elections. Community councillors would like more people to be involved in their local community councils and are concerned that local communities do not engage with community council activity or participate enough in local decision making.
The Wester Hailes Representative Council was formed very much as a democratic structure developed to be specific to its community’s situation, built on the experience of previous structures and with two way representation at the heart of it remit. 28 different local groups were represented on the Rep Council. As well as an Executive Committee that met weekly, the Rep divided its work across 4 forums: tenants, communications, social welfare and youth that each followed a particular remit and reported back to the full Rep Council at monthly meetings.
In 1982, not long after its formation, the Rep Council was faced with the news that Wester Hailes was being threatened with a massive cutback in funding with £36,000 being cut from the Urban Aid Grant Allocation to the Community Workshop. They responded by organising a special issue of the Sentinel to let local residents know the full situation and to inform them of the course of action the Rep was proposing to take. You can read this edition by clicking on Sentinel Emergency Issue.
One of the unique features of the Rep Council was its ability to represent 26 neighbourhood councils, grass root level groupings of residents who were constituted and carried out an impressively wide range of community activities as well as raising issues and concerns from their immediate area. In 1998, the Rep Council voted to reduce the number of these councils from 26 to 12. The neighbourhood councils merged to form 12 larger councils. You can read the Sentinel report on the decision by clicking here.
Did this reduce the Rep Council’s ability to work at an extremely localised level, affecting levels of engagement? It is impossible to know what would have happened if this decision had not been taken, and a decreasing interest in being part of community decision making has been an issue faced across the country, not just in Wester Hailes. But wherever the answer to revitalising local democracy lies, there are surely lessons to be gained from considering the experience of Wester Hailes. The effectiveness of the Rep Council, and its structure showed the value of smaller units like neighbourhood councils. These were able to be immediately relevant to their local residents and thus were able to create engagement within a small area that led to interest in wider community decision making.